I go to the gym with my son on the weekends. We get up early and get in a good workout, then we get an iced coffee and chat on the way home. I love this time with him and the fact that he’s found the gym to be as therapeutic as I have. The gym literally got me through my teenage years, and after watching me exercise while he was growing up, he decided he wanted to start lifting weights when he was 12. It’s helped both his self-esteem and his mind.
But a few weeks ago, I caught myself starting to complain out loud after we got in the car, about the way I look in my leggings. There was a girl at the gym who, to me, had the perfect physique, perfect hair — perfect everything — and I felt less than just standing next to her. At 47, I know it’s not healthy to have these thoughts but I’m human, and I do.
I started talking about my flaws, as I see them: my cellulite, my hair that always seems to get frizzy after sweating no matter how I style it, and the extra skin I have on my lower stomach after giving birth to three kids. Then I realized what I was doing: I was putting myself down in front of my son, something I’d always been cautious to avoid in front of my daughter.
He sat there, staring straight ahead, and didn’t say a word. I’m sure it was confusing since I’ve always corrected my kids when they put down their — or someone else’s! — appearance. Now here I was, going against something I’ve worked really hard to get my kids to understand: putting yourself down and putting so much focus on your looks is harmful.
I tried to rebound from the conversation, but all I could do was admit to having a low day, that I was holding too much importance around how I looked and that that wasn’t healthy. I’m a human being living in the same society everyone else is where appearance, size, and anti-aging products and images are shoved down my throat. I grew up in the ‘80 and ‘90s when we only saw one (tiny) body type represented and it’s been a long journey to stop picking myself apart. I still struggle with it and it’s important to me my kids don’t go down the same road I did.
The first time I put myself down around my daughter in a way she could understand, she was in first grade. I said something about how I felt fat in my jeans, and I needed to change into leggings to be more comfortable. I watched her examine herself in the mirror. The next morning, as I was brushing her hair before school, I watched her suck in her stomach in front of the mirror.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“There is a girl at school who is this skinny!” She said standing sideways holding in her belly with all her strength. “I want to be like that!”
My heart sank. I was responsible for that comment — for her wanting to be skinnier than she was, for her wanting to have the body that belonged to another girl. Me. I did that to her. As someone who struggled with an eating disorder in high school, there was no way I would contribute to the twisted ideals that get forced into young girls’ heads. I vowed never to say anything bad about my appearance in front of my daughter again.
But somewhere along the road, I forgot I needed to do that in front of my sons, too. The thing is, boys struggle with their appearance and body image issues too. If I say I feel ugly, my hair is a frizzy-ass mess, or my skin looks bad, I’m showing them it’s normal to beat yourself up over your looks. I’m teaching them that your appearance holds more value than it should. I make them second guess the way they feel if they are having a bad hair day or they aren’t feeling great about themselves.
By putting myself down or talking about how I don’t like how I look, I am also guilty of contributing to the societal norm that women are supposed to be put together, perfect, and look like they just stepped out of a Snapchat filter at all times. I don’t want my boys to think it’s a woman’s job to look pristine and perfect all the time. Nor do I want them to dismiss it when they do hear a woman complain about her looks. I want them to be supportive like I’ve tried to teach them. If they hear me saying this to myself they will think it’s just something women do and they don’t need to say anything because it’s just how women are.
I know it’s natural for us to say things like, “I’m not looking so hot today,” or “I’m a mess,” or “I look horrible right now, don’t answer the door,” but in doing that, we’ve normalized that women always need to look their best because they are heavily judged on their looks. Well, I’m not comfortable adding to that stigma. Not to my daughter and not to my sons.
We may think our boys aren’t paying attention but they are. They may not let you know in all the obvious ways but they hear you when you talk badly about yourself. They deserve better from their parents and honestly, you deserve better too. Don’t talk bad about yourself, you are pretty freaking amazing.
Katie Bingham-Smith is a full-time freelance writer living in Maine with her three teens and two ducks. When she’s not writing she’s probably spending too much money online and drinking Coke Zero.