Author’s note: This article discusses negative body image.
“You are so lucky,” I remember them saying. “Look how thin you are!”
I have probably recreated their words, over time. But I know I’m not misremembering my total bewilderment, my complete and utter confusion, when older women used to talk to me about my body.
From a very early age, I was skin and bones and big curly hair. Some of my earliest memories are of grown women, relatives or friends of my mother, commenting on my wiry young body. I remember these comments as envious, but at that age I did not understand envy, and I certainly did not understand the value that was being so oddly placed on my thinness. As a child I loved moving, climbing, touching my surroundings, being naked at every opportunity. My body was my body. It was the way it was and the way I experienced it. It was not a point of comparison between me and other people – not yet, anyway.
I know what you’re thinking – oh God, skinny white girl whines about being skinny.
Well, sort of.
Feel free to ignore me. I won’t be offended. It’s pretty obnoxious that I’m writing this, honestly. But if you are talking to young children about their looks, I need to talk to you about it, because we can do such profound harm from so early on.
In a certain sense, I am lucky that in our world, which values women based on their looks and their bodies, I have never had to put in much work to fit the normative standard of a “good body.” I am also lucky that as a cisgender woman, I feel at home in the body I was born into and the gender I was assigned. I am lucky that as a white person, my body is considered by our society to be mine, and that as a young person without physical disabilities I am not the object of other people’s assumptions and society’s limitations. I could go on. The reason I write this in spite of all that privilege is to express that our body standards hurt everyone, even those who seem to fit them. And we need to start breaking down the messages we give to children about their bodies.
I have spent most of my life feeling good about my body (which is not the same as being thin, in case you were quickly establishing a false causation between those two statements). But I have also deeply internalized the messages I was taught as a young girl, so that even with a body that I like and that pretty much meets societal approval, discontent tugs at the edges of my carefully constructed self-esteem. I value my thinness far too highly. I fear that when I have a child, I will feel relief if they are naturally slender. I fear that I will not be able to bite my lip before engaging in body talk with someone impressionable and young who has not yet learned to value themselves based on their body. I refuse to teach someone that false and unfair value system.
Don’t congratulate your child on being thin. Don’t tell your child to lose weight. Let your child be in their body as they want to, and if they decide their body is not exactly what they want, help them find ways to make it more closely suit their desires and needs – not yours. Don’t talk to your child about what you dislike about your own body. Do not make your scars their inheritance.
Teach your child about different ways to treat their bodies well – about long baths and long runs and decadent desserts; about tight hugs and deep touch and giving each other space; about spa days and gym days and days when you barely move from the couch. Teach them about the power of motion, the power of stillness, the power of touch, the power of clear boundaries.
Teach them how their body works. Teach them that their body belongs to no one else but them. Teach them that it is a thing, and it is theirs. It is not their identity, not their worth, not their currency. How to use it and how to treat it is their choice. Celebrate their strength, their power, their exploration of themselves and of the world around them. Remind your child that their body belongs to them even when you do not like the way they use it. Teach them it is sacred just as any other part of them is sacred, and that they should treat it well for no other reason than because it is the receptacle of their beautiful, ineffable, invisible self.