I watch my four-year-old daughter as she stands in front of my full-length mirror. Donning a newly received hand-me-down dress and leggings, barefoot with messy hair, she twirls. She grabs two fists full of tulle, smiles as wide as her face and quietly speaks: “Wow. I am so beautiful.”
I instantly lose my breath. I’m so proud that I haven’t f*cked her up yet, but so worried that I will. Life has yet to beat the self-love out of her, but I’m sad knowing that will come. And I am jealous. Jealous that she gets to have this pure and wonderful mirror moment. Because after 37 years and four kids, admiring my own reflection feels near impossible. But maybe if I figure out how I got here, I can create a better path for her.
Maybe it was my height? I was always the tallest girl in the class — bottom of the pyramid and back of the class photo. I felt awkward and uncomfortable in my long, tomboy body. Kids always used the term “big” rather than “tall” when describing me, making me feel like I was taking up too much space.
It wasn’t until I started playing basketball for competitive club teams, where my ability to block shots and grab rebounds made me feel strong and confident, that I started to value my height. And then I left my small town shorties and met some tall guys in college, and realized that I could in fact feel feminine and I wasn’t so “big” after all.
So easily I think, I assume my shit stems from my adult experiences with social media and Hollywood. I blame Photoshop, facetune, and the unrealistic expectations scattered throughout my feeds, television, and magazines. But as I sit here reflecting I realize, my issues started so much earlier, with many young life experiences.
Maybe it was high school boys? Like the one who told me he could watch a drive-in movie on my forehead, or the one who said I could give him a blow-job if I put a bag over my head (which would have been a logistical impossibility, you dumb ass). Or maybe it was the one who said my hands were huge, or the one who told all his friends that my face was too long?
All those juvenile comments made for laughs or some macho bullshit burrowed deep into whatever part of my brain is responsible for self-confidence.
Maybe it was my friends? I remember being met with an audible gasp as I sat eating a full cherry-red Lindt chocolate bar in my high school cafeteria. The girl sitting across from me grabbed the bar out of my hand and immediately began shamefully rattling off the caloric content for the entire table to hear. I went on my first “diet” a few weeks after.
Later, in college, two friends developed eating disorders. I watched them count individual pieces of Cracklin’ Oat Bran onto their laps, allowing themselves only four pieces for lunch. After a few months, it started to wear off on me. Watching smart, logical, respectful women in my life judge themselves so critically put my own self love in jeopardy.
Maybe it was the women around me? The women in my family and in our circle made me feel like a superhero. I felt fully supported through every awkward stage, with no criticism of any kind when it came to my physical appearance. But they didn’t afford themselves that same kindness.
I remember the diets, the workout obsessions, and the comments they made about themselves to close friends. It seems impossible now, looking back, to think that their dissatisfaction with their own bodies wouldn’t have an impact on how I viewed my own. If we could both only have seen each other through one another’s eyes.
How am I supposed to combat something so ingrained in our lives? How the hell do I neutralize this beast for my girls?
I think I will lead with truth. I will tell them often how perfect I think they are, while minimizing the importance of their physical appearance. I will monitor the content they absorb through social media as best I can, and have open discussions about the reality behind many of the photos they are looking at. I will encourage them to spend their time on things that make them feel good about themselves — like drop-stepping the shit out of their local rival’s all-star in a Tuesday night pickup game. And I will slash the tires of any high school boy who tells them they aren’t worthy.
I will continue to work on my own shit. I will do my best to find things in my own reflection that bring me joy, and I will share those things out loud. Because, of course, they listen. I will not, however, pretend that I am infinitely happy and accepting of myself all the time, because I fear that those unreal expectations will not serve them. I will share my own struggles, and my opinions on being a woman in this weird century. Maybe then, together, we can pave a path for ourselves that is a little less critical, and a little more forgiving. But damn, it won’t be easy.
Samm Burnham Davidson is an ex-lawyer mom of four who swears a lot. She lives in Beverly, Massachusetts.