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Raising Children to Love Their Bodies (When We Don’t Love Ours)

Celia and I messing around in the gym. Photo by Tim Aguero.

Celia and I messing around in the gym. Photo by Tim Aguero.

I am terrified of flying. I am the crazy lady who delayed a flight from New York to Spain while I had a panic attack that I really believed to be a heart attack. My infant daughter was in my arms, and as horrified as I was that I was inconveniencing everyone else, it was having her in my arms that made me realize how big a problem this was.

Not the delay (which we probably made up in flight,) but my fear. Specifically, that if I didn’t get it under control, I was going to pass it on to her, and the last thing I wanted to do was burden her with my irrational fear of flying. What am I supposed to say, “the world is your oyster, kid, but whatever you do, don’t explore it?”

I called my doctor when we got back from Spain, and from that day on, until very recently, I took a little happy pill before getting on an airplane. I faked it for her sake. (And mine, once I realized how much less sucky flying is when you’re not in a state of panic for hours on end.)

In some, not so small way, that has been a guiding principle of how I have parented. “Don’t make your kid carry your baggage.”

It’s not fancy, but it’s great advice.

While taking Xanax to get on an airplane proved a fairly simple solution, they’re not all that easy. Try being a woman, and raising girls with strong and empowered body-image. (I doubt it’s any different for boys, I just happen to have 3 daughters, so I’m writing from personal experience here.)

I’ve always been blessed with a body that conforms to the utterly arbitrary social standards of the day. I was also blessed with a mother who loved her body and whose feminist sensibilities allowed me to blossom without any pressure to be anything other than who I am.

And I still, largely, hated my body. My boobs weren’t big enough.  My stomach was too poochy. My thighs touched. MY NOSE WAS HUGE. My…..  whatever, there was a list that I carried in my soul until fairly recently. I just wasn’t good enough.

Then I had a daughter, coming of age. It only takes one instance of your toddler saying, “goddamnit” when they drop something to remind you that they are sponges. Their world view and sense of self is defined by how you interact with the world around you.

People worry about their kid getting in to Harvard, while never noticing the body-shaming that they do in their own home. A single, “oh god, I look so fat in this,” is a brick in the walls of self-doubt that entomb our children as they grow up.

If you are a parent, it doesn’t matter how you feel about your body, you have to not burden your children with your body-image baggage. There are things that you can do, starting today, to make sure that your children learn to love their bodies, even if you don’t love yours yet. (But, as a bonus, if you commit to these things, you will love your body more, I promise.)

1. NEVER, EVER, CRTICIZE ANOTHER PERSON’S BODY. (At least not out loud.) Not a celebrity, not someone on the bus, not even a cartoon character. The moment that you set a standard that people can be judged for their body shape, you create a world in which your child knows that they can be judged, validly, by their body shape.

There is no such thing as “wink, wink, not you, baby, only other people….” when it comes to parenting. It’s black and white. Either people – all people, even your precious snowflake – are judged as worthy based on their body, or they aren’t.

Never. Not one snide remark about someone else’s body.

2. NEVER, EVER, WISH YOU HAD SOMEONE ELSE’S BODY. (At least not out loud.) But wait, saying that you wish you looked like Susie Celebrity is a compliment, right? No, it isn’t, it’s a value-judgment in disguise. Against you. And what you are saying then is, “I’m not good enough as I am, I wish I was something else.” Guess what that means? That means your kid will learn to look at themselves as not good enough also.

By all means, compliment the wide variety of beauty around us. Just not “instead” of us. I got in the habit of pointing out all kinds of beauty to our girls. Not “more” beautiful than me, just “also beautiful.” We pointed out afros and freckles and bright red hair and long legs and….  you name it. Rather than focusing on one ideal of beauty, I actively pointed out a bajillion beautiful qualities that people had.

That seemingly simple act can help children see that beauty comes in many forms. Including them.

3. COMPLIMENT CAREFULLY, AND OFTEN. (And not about their looks.) Okay, sometimes it’s okay to say “you’re so cute I want to eat you up,” but let’s think about how we compliment our children. “You’re so pretty” and “you’re so handsome” are placing value and praise on what kids look like. They are congratulating them on achieving a standard goal of appearance. Even if you don’t mean it that way.

If you want to compliment their appearance, compliment the outfit they put together. “What fantastic colors!” Compliment their hair style. Hey, I even complimented the fact that my daughter actually brushed her hair. But even when complimenting their appearance, it should be a reflection of their autonomy and agency, of things they chose and did. (Being tall, for instance, is not something that they have control over.)

But beyond that, let’s take the focus away from looks as much as we can. Let’s compliment our children on decisions that they make to be kind, or curious, or determined, or creative. Let’s really reward the human qualities in them that actually feed their souls and development as humans.

4. TALK ABOUT WHAT BODIES CAN DO. This is so important, and is actually one of the things that I talk about most in my work as a CrossFit Trainer. The job of your body isn’t to look a certain arbitrary way that Madison Avenue has decreed desirable. (And, being cute enough to attract a “hot” partner is also not your body’s primary job.) It is to DO things. Things that make you happy.  Help your children figure out what they enjoy doing with their bodies, and create fitness routines that support those goals.

As you are out being active with them, you can and should literally say things like, “doesn’t it feel good to run like that?” and “you look like you’re having fun out there,” and “what else do you think your body can do?”

And while you’re at it, talk about what bodies can’t do. And how they’re all different. Just like when you discussed that beauty comes in lots of shapes and sizes, so too does strength. Talk about how runners maybe aren’t so great at lifting heavy things. How it’s possible that a snowboarder might not even know how to swim! Help them explore lots of different kinds of sports until something “clicks” and you can tell they’re having FUN!

Talk about what muscles do. Talk about crazy adventures you can have. Your body is the best toy you will ever have, encourage them to treat it well and think of all the fun things they can do with it. (Yes, ALL the fun things.)

5. TEACH THEM THAT PLEASURE IS GOOD. (Actually, that it’s the goal.) From a very young age, teach your children how to talk about how their body is feeling. And how their “heart” is feeling. Teach them to identify joy. And teach them how to draw boundaries to keep out things that make them feel bad.

Teach them that they are in charge of their own body, and that they always have the right to decide what happens with their body. This starts with simple things like never making them kiss crazy Aunt Edna who smells like moth balls, if they don’t want to. Ask them if, instead, they’d like to High-Five, or blow a kiss, or just wave.

Listen to them if they tell you they hate playing soccer, but tell them they need to find something else to do with their body for exercise. Because, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, our bodies stop working if we don’t use them. And that feels bad.

But that ultimately, their body should make them happy. It should be able to do things that are fun. Their body should empower them to do anything they want, that makes them happy. And they need to be strong, healthy and thoughtful enough to do it safely. It’s not about what you look like, it’s about what you can do.

6. WALK AROUND NAKED. (If you can, or will, for a while anyway.) Look, every family is different here, and we ALL need to respect that. But for as long as you are comfortable, normalize the naked body. It is not  a sexual thing unless you’re using it to have sex (and your children should not be a part of that, obviously.) They need to know that their body is a normal human body, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. As soon as they exhibit modesty and don’t want to be seen naked, that’s GREAT. You tell them “thanks for telling me that, I will give you privacy.”

We both walked around naked until our daughter was, I dunno, 6 or so maybe. (I don’t remember.) I still walk around naked all the time, I don’t actually know how my daughter feels about it, and I kinda don’t care. If she walks in while I’m getting dressed, that’s the price of admission. (I have never seen her naked, as is her right. She tells me she wants privacy, she gets it.) But I believe that normalizing my adult body around her has made her more comfortable with her own. She knows how to avoid seeing it, if that’s an issue.

I made damned good and sure that she had a role model that was happy in her body, comfortable with her body, used her body and showed unconditional respect not only for her own body, but the bodies of everyone around her.

Even when I didn’t feel “it” at all.

Look, I’m human. I have a lot of body baggage. But most of that baggage has been returned to sender. I’m old enough to know that I don’t need to carry it around anymore, because although I am strong as hell now, I want to use my strength to do things, not carry around baggage filled with messages that harm everyone.

When those thoughts pop into my head, even if I can’t dismiss them outright, I DO NOT SAY IT OUTLOUD. Ever. Never. (Except last week, when I accidentally did.)

The bonus is that if you do all of these things, for your kids, it will absolutely change the way you feel about your own body too. I promise. The more you focus on seeing and saying positive things about bodies, the more your inner dialog will change. It’s the physics of the human psyche.

Fake it ’til you make it, as it were. For them.

Besides, I need all that strength to watch my daughters swim in Lake Washington, which, unbeknownst to them, is filled with giant man-eating fish-monsters waiting to gobble up people who are too foolish to fear them.

(Ya, I don’t do water either. Mostly because Xanax and water seems like a bad idea.)


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