A few weeks ago while I was reading with my kids, my 5-year-old son scooted close to me and told me I had a very squishy tummy.
I stopped reading.
Okay, I frantically thought, I’m a modern woman. Obviously my tummy is squishy, and I should be okay with this. There’s a life lesson for my son I need to be teaching here. One that conveys healthy body image. Or something. I know I should say something.
But the life lessons weren’t coming to me. All the articles and talks with friends. All those words of wisdom and desire to raise boys who don’t objectify women. They went out the window. I felt I needed to say something to him, but all the possible words felt insincere.
What I did feel was my stomach tighten, as if a deep inhale could reduce the squish. And then I kept reading.
Following this squishy tummy episode, I realized it had been a while since I had taken stock of, and perhaps confronted, some realities about my own body image.
I’m at a point in life where pondering my physical appearance ranks about No. 457 on the list of things to think about. For instance, “Can I wear this pair of jeans a fifth day in a row?” and “There’s no milk or bread in the house. Can I still go one more day without a grocery run?” rank higher than pondering physical appearance. Most days pass without more than a glance in the mirror.
But this moment with my son confirmed the presence of long-lasting insecurities. I had tucked away these insecurities when I became a mother, filed them away somewhere to be sorted out at a later date. It wasn’t that I had been liberated from these negative thoughts, I just put them on hold. And when I unintentionally stumble upon No. 457, the outcome is rarely positive. It’s one that still evokes feelings of inadequacy, criticism, and self-depreciation.
Perhaps you can relate.
So how am I to teach my children about healthy body image when I still struggle?
The answer was sitting right beside me. I wasn’t going to teach my children. My children were going to teach me.
My son had tried to teach me something that day while we were reading. And I missed it. The negative connotation I have with “squish” had resonated so strongly with me that the manner in which it was uttered by my boy was utterly lost.
So let me retell this story, completely this time. Let me put aside any insecurities and knee-jerk reactions. Let me share this as my son intended it.
A few weeks ago, I was reading with my kids. My three kids, five years and younger. The children I have born and given so much of my body and soul to care for. As a page turned of a much-loved story, my oldest son nestled close to me, and with a contented sigh, as if almost unconsciously done, said I had a very squishy tummy.
That moment was not a criticism or tease. That moment for him meant comfort and security. It meant contentment and rest. It meant mother and home. As he felt his little body enveloped by the body that had loved him into existence, he felt happy. He liked the way he could so comfortably nestle into his mommy, and he spoke that feeling into existence.
Sometimes, it’s not children who need lessons from adults on healthy body image. There was nothing he needed to learn from me. Adults need to learn from their children.
Ask children about our bodies and what will we learn?
Children will tell us that bodies are for play and love and exploration.
They will tell us skin is sticky and soft, occasionally boo-booed and in need of a kiss.
Fingers and toes are for feeling cool mud and warm sand.
Legs are to carry us to where we wish to go.
Arms are for reaching, even if what we desire seems beyond our grasp.
Faces are to be used in reckless expression.
And tummies are for food and belly laughs. They are often best squishy, especially when belonging to their mommies.