There are certain phrases that come from the mouths of our babes that stop us dead in our tracks. Phrases such as …
“Uh oh …”
“Mom, I’m sorry, I …”
“I can’t hold it.”
“Shhh … she’s coming.”
Late last week we added a new one to the list.
I am a sad, snooze button-slapping sloth. My intent is always to work out in the mornings, but because of my aforementioned condition, I typically have to cram it into the evenings, right between stuffing dinner in my face and washing a child’s butt.
On one seemingly uneventful evening, I was in the basement, 10 minutes into 80-Day Obsession’s Booty Grind when the chicks came down. JoJo, my oldest, set up a ninja obstacle course and was pushing her sisters to “Jump higher!” “Run faster!” and “Do it like this!” They were running around in their sports bras (hand-me-downs from a work friend’s daughter and their latest obsession) and giggling and burning off energy and radiating innocence.
After about 20 minutes, my middle daughter, Spike, came running over, panting, and put her hands on her hips.
“Look how much weight I lost,” she declared.
I set my weights down and spun around, propelled by the sobering gravity of the statement spilling out of my 7-year-old’s lips.
“Whoa! I mean, I think you look really strong,” I said, grasping desperately for a solid, child psychologist-endorsed rebound. “And that’s what I like to see.”
She raised her eyebrows, looked over at her biceps, shrugged and went back to the course, pleased by the exchange. That made one of us.
With every squat, every leg lift that followed, I felt myself sinking deeper and deeper into a sinkhole of shame. I finished my workout and went up to tell my husband we were big, fat failures who could not use the words “big,” “fat,” or “failure” anymore.
“We have to stop talking about our weight,” I announced. He barely turned from the dishes. “I mean it. Spike just told me she’d lost weight, and I don’t like it. We gotta get it together. Only stuff about being strong, from now on. No more rubbing our bellies, or complaining about how much we ate, or any of that.” He nodded in the agreeable way he does when I make such profound proclamations out of nowhere.
Body image is a struggle handed down from the women before us, who put their eggs in the basket of Jane Fonda, Weight Watchers, Slim-Fast and Oprah. Women who inherited the same battle from the generation that came before them. A generation that sought resolution through grapefruit, diet pills, and belt massagers. It is a conflict as old as humankind – the epic tussle between vanity, health and self-acceptance.
Thinking back on my childhood, I can fondly recall my own mother’s affinity for peanut M&Ms. At night, after dinner was cleared and the children had scattered, my mom would sit down on the floor next to her bed and watch L.A. Law with a bag of the multicolored candies in her lap and make me scratch her back. At the time, I thought nothing of her evening ritual. It was endearing and just something she did, like dying her hair or snapping her fingers when she danced.
But in my house, when I reach up into the cabinet for my after-dinner treat of two pieces of 72% cocoa chocolate, I see my daughters watching. Sometimes they’ll even say, “Watch the sugar, mama.” And they’re not saying that because they’re judgmental turds. They’re saying that because I’ve unintentionally conditioned them to do that. I, along with a million forms of media and mixed messages, have formed their thoughts and placed phrases in their minds by vocalizing my own food shortfalls over and over again, in conversations that I thought were benign or far enough away from little impressionable ears.
And now, despite all my best intentions, the thing I always feared is happening. It’s being held up to my face in the form of one innocent little statement: “Look how much weight I lost.”
I thought I was following the protocol for bringing up healthy, well-adjusted girls. To their faces, it’s always about nourishing our bodies, getting stronger, treating ourselves well. But it hasn’t been enough. The fabricated shortcomings of our mothers and our mothers’ mothers are infiltrating my adorable chicks and I so desperately want to stop it.
I was talking about Spike’s declaration with a friend at work and she mentioned that even her oldest son, who is 6, has been talking about his “belly” and comparing himself to the other little guys in his grade. He’s 6!
Where did it all get so screwed up?
Maybe time has skewed things, but I don’t remember worrying about my body until middle school, around the time the dreaded locker room came into play and sixth graders with C-cups started ruining everything. I had a short pixie haircut above my ears, braces, freckles and a chest as flat as an Indiana cornfield. That was when I started comparing myself. We all remember when we started comparing ourselves.
That same friend told me about a project her class did in first grade. They were doing something with pumpkins and the teacher had the students step on a scale, first holding a pumpkin, and then without it, in order to get the weight of the squash. “I still remember pretending to be sick so I wouldn’t have to weigh myself in front of my class,” she shared. “And I wasn’t even that much bigger than the other kids.”
We all carry some of the responsibility, I suppose. For my part, I’ve been known to rub my food baby after a meal or let out a regretful groan after going for the second cinnamon roll or saying stupid shit like, “Oh, I shouldn’t,” when offered a slice of an amazing homemade pastry. I think I’m counterbalancing it by screen grabbing inspirational quotes on Instagram like, “Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do. Not a punishment for what you ate.” I think my perception is off.
How do we break the cycle? How do we convince the next generation that as long as they are using their bodies and treating them well and they feel capable in their bodies and they feel at home in their bodies, that they are doing exactly what they need to be doing? How do we make them feel proud and not embarrassed, motivated and not defeated, informed and not passive?
Caring for yourself is a massive responsibility. It’s composed of a thousand decisions in a day and, as any mind-body guru will tell you, the body keeps score. There has to be a shift away from succumbing to the suffocating complexities of the weight loss noise and toward the beauty of caring for this precious gift we were given – this phenomenal space we get to occupy on this planet.
I’m not saying I have the roadmap to get us there. But, thanks to six little words and the mirror only a child can hold up to you, I feel like I’m waking up to the urgency of the issue at our children’s’ feet. The shift has to start somewhere. Let’s lean in a positive direction.