Raising kids, I assumed body image would come up eventually, but I didn’t expect it so early — at age 9. So when we were driving to see a movie, I asked my 9-year-old why she’d been calling herself fat lately.
My wife, Mel, told me about it a week earlier. She works at our daughter’s school, and one of her co-workers overheard Norah, along with her two friends, talking about how they need to lose weight. Not that the shape of my daughter defines her, but if you were to actually look for her, she could easily be missed. She’s already the shortest in her 3rd grade class, her arms and legs like skinny little ropes. Were she to try and lose weight, I’m not sure where it would come from.
Her view of herself is already skewed, and I worry that it’s going to also impact her overall health and development if she does try and lose weight. And yet, there we were, my young daughter discussing her weight as if it were a concern when what I wanted her to be doing was playing hide and seek, or tag, or discussing how all the boys in her class are gross. You know, regular 9-year-old stuff. But instead she was discussing something new and scary that neither Mel nor I felt prepared to deal with.
Mel first broached the subject with Norah, and when she didn’t get anywhere, she asked me to give it a shot.
It was evening, and we were on a winding wooded road between our small Oregon town and another, just the two of us in the van. I waited for her to respond to my question, and when she didn’t, I started talking. I used words like “beautiful” and “pretty” and “charming” and “intelligent” and “funny” to describe her. I said how far she was from being fat. I told her that the shape of her body doesn’t define her, or anyone for that matter. I tried so hard to describe her from my prospective, as someone who held her at birth, and watched her walk and talk and learn.
I wanted her to see how much I’ve learned about real love and understanding from raising her and how I knew, without a doubt, that she was truly something special in the world. I talked for a while. I had it all planned out in my head before we got in the van, but the moment of, it just came out in a stammering steaming pile of short half sentences — me not sure what to say, but just letting it out, the whole time feeling this pit in my stomach, knowing that I wanted to get this right, but not knowing exactly what right looks like.
I was mid-sentence when she screamed into the passenger window, “I don’t want to talk about it!”
It got quiet except for the sounds of the road.
Up until that moment, I felt confident that, if I told her how I really felt about her, I could fix the way she saw herself. But I must have been wrong, because it didn’t work. This was the most overwhelming moment of my fatherhood. It’s heartbreaking to look at someone who you find to be absolutely 100% beautiful, in all aspects of everything, and have them feel like they’re not. I wanted so badly for her to see herself through my eyes, but I couldn’t, and I knew that, so I dropped it.
By the time we made it to the theater, we were back to normal, talking like the conversation never happened. And when I think about that, I get even more nervous because it makes me feel like she’d already learned how to bury those feelings deep inside, to hide them, and protect them, and I had no idea how to fix that, and I don’t know if I’d ever felt so scared as a father.
I came home, and naturally Mel asked how it went, so I told her. Then I ended with, “ So… not well.” Then we spiraled into our own pasts, and any issues we’ve had with body image, trying to find a connection. I was a short stocky boy who grew into a short stocky man. I mentioned how my brother struggled with anorexia. Mel told me she didn’t have body issues until after children. “I feel like I’m in competition with my younger self. I just can’t get back there.” We ordered some books online that we thought might help. Then Mel said something profound.
“You complement me every day, and it helps. I fight with you about it, but it helps.” She went on to say that whatever’s happening outside of our house that’s making our daughter feel this way about herself is, for the most part, out of our control. “But what we can do right now is try to build her up while she’s here.”
So we made a pact to complement Norah each day on who she is, how we see her, and how much value she brings to us and our house. I honestly can’t tell you if it will work, but I’m hopeful that it will. The world is going to try and bring her down because that’s what the world does, but in our house, we are going to try and build her up because that’s what parents do.