I am sorry that I am fat. I hate myself. I know that you probably don’t love me. I should run away. I wish you didn’t have to have such a fat daughter. -Mandy
I wrote those words when I was 7. I didn’t run away. I continued to deal with weight issues and my own sense of worth, up until today. It’s hard to know sometimes where the weight issues end and the mental ones begin.
I wish I could go back in time and hug that little girl. I wish I could sit with her and talk about how we could address these issues. I obviously can’t, but I can hug my two daughters who are 7 and 5 years old. I can try to head off low self-esteem with them.
The hard truth is that although I did go on to make some unhealthy choices and become obese (and then lose the weight, and then gain, and lose again), at that moment of the letter I was not fat. I didn’t become “fat” until after I already had started labeling myself.
Now I have an opportunity as a mother to make sure that I give my daughters the tools to protect themselves from the path I went down. The path towards mental anguish, self-hatred and doubt. I worry about their physical health, but my experience suggests that taking care of ourselves mentally is directly related. So, I will focus on keeping their minds happy and healthy. Here’s how I plan to do it.
1. Show Them How It’s Done. Model self-acceptance and self-esteem. You can’t tell your daughters that they are perfect the way they are and then turn to your reflection and pick apart your flaws. I’m not sure if you are aware, but about 50% of the time people are telling your daughter that she looks so much like her mom (the other 50% it’s her dad’s relatives). If her mom is in the mirror listing what ugliness she sees in herself, and she is being told she is the likeness of her mother, what is that little girl left to put together but that she also should be ashamed of her looks? We need to be vigilant with this. This is a big one and it will shape her first ideas of herself. Not only that, it shapes your view of yourself. If you can’t look at yourself in the mirror and point out things you like, look at it as neutral. Don’t attribute good or bad things to your face and body. It is just there. Eventually after cutting out the negative chatter, hopefully, you will start to feel better and make a mental change. If not, at least that little girl will know the part of her that is her mother is still beautiful.
2. The Family That Watches TV Together, Learns To Love Themselves Together. Media has many messages about what we should strive for in our looks. Try to speak up if you see there is an underrepresented group on the show you are watching. If there are stereotypes, see if you can discuss them and see what is being “sold” through the media. Are there positive messages? Is that curvier friend in the show just as likable and pretty?
3. There Is No “Insecure” In Team. Girls that get involved in team sports early are shown to have a higher self-esteem. Their body images are better off and as a bonus, they are less likely to do drugs. If your child’s personality allows it, this is a great way to develop friendships and build confidence as well. Unfortunately, not all of our children are the team sports type. That’s okay. Not all of these will work for your particular child. The goal is to have enough options to make some of them work for you.
4. For Every Compliment Given About Appearrance, Give Two Others. It’s really easy to give a compliment to someone based on looks. The goal is to move focus away from how she looks and towards what she does. Dr. Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist, school consultant and creator of the “Full of Ourselves” social-emotional program for girls, suggsts that for every one compliment you give on appearance you give two compliments on non-appearance things. Don’t just do it for your daughters, let’s try to do it for all the women in our lives. We deserve it.
5. Praise the Effort. The outcome in many situations will be secondary to the effort your kids put in. You want them to try new things. If you only support them when they successfully perform at the new unfamiliar things, then they will start to be reluctant to move towards new experiences.
6. Raise Them Up. Try your best to not talk negatively about other women around your kids. Avoid the easy put downs that have been around forever. Name calling never ends well.
7. Confidence Vs. Conceited. Confidence in women or girls is too often confused with being conceited. Again Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD puts it best when she says “Girls need to know that claiming their strengths doesn’t mean they’re stuck up.” Teach our daughters that they can do anything.
8. Listen To Them, But Don’t Jump In To Fix. Sometimes you just want to talk a situation out, without having someone solve it for you. Same goes for your daughters. Let your daughters talk it out and work it through with you. Offer your insight and your hand to hold. Then let them march into managing the problem like the bosses that they are. The more they handle the better they will be at remaining calm and leading their future.
When my seven-year old daughter told her little sister that she was prettier than her, I immediately launched into how they are both so incredibly beautiful. I now wish I hadn’t. But when I watched my daughter look down at her rounded belly (because she was pushing it out) and say “I have a big belly, though”, it knocked the wind out of me. It hurt enough that I decided to sit down to research how to make this better. How to avoid leading my daughters down the path I took.
Knowledge is the first step. Every part of me went into making my daughters. My body and soul. The times that hurt, the times that made me scared, and the numerous times I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. They made those girls and I will stop being mad about my mama pooch and my cellulite. I will confidentially take action to address those issues. Because those girls are me, and we all deserve to know that we are so much more than an appearance.