b : a human being : person
Do you have any issues with your body? With the way it looks? The way you think others perceive it? If you're a woman and you're reading this blog, perhaps the question should be "What issues do you have with your body?" Because do any of us really make it to adulthood with no body image issues?
I certainly have body image issues, but I've worked hard to see my body's strengths and purpose in recent years. I've found that exercise offers me great opportunities to speak kindly to myself instead of critically. I've worked towards accepting the things I dislike about my body and focusing on the things I like rather than the things I dislike. Perhaps most important of all: I rarely verbalize my criticisms of my body. This last strategy, at least, seems to be working.
Last summer, I took the girls to the pool a day or two before J and I departed for a week in Tobago. All of my favorite swimsuits were already packed for the Caribbean, so the one I donned in the dressing room was a bottom of the drawer kind of suit. When I put it on, A and B said, "That's a cute suit. I like it!" "Do you?" I asked doubtfully. "I think it makes my stomach look big." B looked at me in surprise, "You mean moms worry about that sort of stuff?" I figured I'd already been transparent enough about this issue, so I merely affirmed that yes, moms do worry about that sort of stuff. But in my head, I was thinking, "I must have done something right if this child is 9 years old and she's never heard me talk this way about my body before."
I may be doing some things right, but you can be sure I am getting things wrong as well. Because the same daughter who at 9 was amazed that I worry about how I look in a swimsuit is now insecure about her own body and worries about how she looks in just about any article of clothing. So what's the best approach? Dismiss her fears? Tell her that she's beautiful? Play up her physical assets? Remind her that she's so much more than just her body? Encourage her to do something about her body if she doesn't like it? Help her remember portion control when she's eating a meal she likes? Compare her to others who are less attractive?
I've tried all of these (except the last one - I was joking about that!) to varying degrees, but I don't know the best way to handle this particular parenting issue. Even A, who is older but more confident in her dancer's body, worries that her legs are too big. I've tried reminding her that those legs are the thing that help her spin, leap and move the way she wants to. Weak and thin legs do not make a good dancer.
Should I try being more open about my own body image insecurities or will that only feed the idea that they should dislike their own bodies? Can I ever hope to counter all of the media images that bombard them every day? Does that bombardment mean I shouldn't even try to help them deal with the disparity between what the world tells them they should look like and the reality of what they do look like?
I know some of what the textbook approach to this is: girls who play team sports are sexually active at a later age and have better body images. Yet only one of my daughters shows the slightest inclination to play a team sport. And my gut instinct is that any advantages provided by playing would be completely negated by the fact that they would be participating against their will. Maybe they'll find the right niche eventually. In the meantime, we ferry B to and from basketball, which she is willing, if not excited, to do. Will running up and down the court eventually help her to enjoy the feel of the floor squeaking beneath her feet? I'm not sure.
As with many parenting issues, I struggle to know how much parental intervention and assistance is the right amount when it comes to how my daughters view their bodies. Invariably, I err on the side of inaction. Not out of laziness, but out of a kind of first-do-no-harm mentality. This means I try to model healthy eating and let them see that I exercise, but I don't eliminate sugar from their diets or push them to increase their activity levels. I err on the side of letting them have ownership of their bodies, in the hopes that eventually, they will see how very beautiful they are.