When It Came to Body Image, My Parents Got It Right

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
When It Came to Body Image, My Parents Got It Right
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

I used to think my mom was the actual worst because I was certain she was stricter than my peers’ parents. For example, I wasn’t allowed to attend slumber parties, and I couldn’t date until I was nearly sixteen. Looking back, I realize that my parents’ rules weren’t set to piss me off or humiliate me. Rather, my parents were trying to protect me, shielding me from situations I wasn’t ready for or that could compromise my well-being and safety.

Another rule I thought was ridiculous at the time was that my mom refused to pay for popular teen magazine subscriptions. I had to wait for my friends to wear out their copies and then hopefully remember to bring them to school so I could sneak a peek at recess. Toxic female body images and messages permeated 1980s and 1990s magazines targeting girls. Basically, what I deemed essential to my tween and teen existence was what my mom considered to be unhealthy. She wasn’t going to have her children obsessing over their bodies, trying to measure up to an impossible standard.

My parents weren’t having it. I can’t recall a single time my mom used the word “diet.” I had managed to read about cellulite, the Thigh Master, and low-fat meal plans in her Good Housekeeping magazine. Ironic, I know. However, the women in the images seemed so old to me, and their struggles were irrelevant.

My mom called herself a homemaker, and she put a balanced meal on the dinner table every night. There was a protein (sometimes meatloaf, which I dreaded), one or two vegetables, and homemade sourdough bread. We rarely ate out, because it was pricey for a family of five and not at all healthy. That word stuck with me: healthy. This isn’t to say we never ate out. We got our personal pan pizzas as rewards for reading enough books at school and sometimes we’d get ice cream after school on Fridays.

We didn’t have cable television, either. I was jealous of my friends who told me all about MTV, but because we resided in the country, we didn’t have the same amenity options. MTV wasn’t even on the table. Even if we had eventually gained access, my parents said that cable was “trash” and instead let us rent VHS tapes from a store in town. Movies had to be approved in advance.

In summer, my siblings and I were ordered to go outside to play every day, often until the sun was setting. We rode bikes, rolled down a hill, and swam. We ate lunch and snacks on a picnic table outside. I would grumble, more than my siblings, because I wanted to be inside with my nose in a book. However, I’d always end up finding a new adventure, like chasing the dog or playing in our treehouse. My parents valued activity and imagination. Free play was always encouraged. What wasn’t in our routine? Spending hours poring over images of flawless, feminine perfection.

As an adult, I roll my eyes at trending diet plans and exercise trends. I believe in balance, being realistic, and enjoying life. The number on the scale doesn’t determine my joy. I’ve had my fair share of health battles, and my belief is that how I feel is what’s most important, not the grams of carbs I’ve consumed. I dress for comfort, not attention. I don’t buy anti-wrinkle creams like some other women my age, because frankly, I just don’t care.

Because I grew up in a culture that didn’t invite in toxic messages about dieting, weight, and body type, I am able to pass these same values on to my own kids. We use the word “healthy” all of the time. We make healthy food choices, move our bodies in ways that feel good, and we also value rest, which includes sleep and caring for our mental health. These, I feel, are what matters.

My kids are allowed to wear whatever clothing they want, within reason. We want them to be comfortable and confident. One of my tweens is a leggings and t-shirt fan, while another prefers basketball clothing. One loves jeans, one hates jeans. Whatever floats their boat is what we get.

We include our kids in grocery shopping, meal prep, and cleanup. One of my tweens loves to bake and is learning to navigate a recipe solo and then proudly present her creation to the family. The big kids make their own school lunches.

I am thankful that body positivity is much more prevalent now. We see all types of body shapes and sizes in advertisements and television shows. I think diet culture is just as loud as ever before, but the noise of it is drowned out by the clapback of women refusing to give in.

Like my mom, I’m careful about the media that my kids watch and the books they read, and the few magazines we get are sports and science centric. We have a rule in our house that we don’t make comments about other people’s bodies, either. Words like “strong” are common in our conversations, but fat and skinny aren’t in our vocabulary. Labeling someone by their body type is unkind and petty.

I’m thankful that I grew up in a family that didn’t jump on any sugar-free or low-fat bandwagons, never obsessed over the scale, and didn’t place value on measurements or calories. Yes, I wasn’t always happy with my parents’ choice to keep whatever was trending out of our home, but in the long run, it taught me to appreciate my body. In turn, I’m able to teach my four children the same.

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