There are so many things I’ve taught my daughter: how to get dressed, how to chew her food so she doesn’t choke and how to tie her shoes. I love the part of our relationship where I give her tools or information for her to navigate the world and become more independent. There are some things, however, that I can’t teach her. I can’t teach her to conjugate verbs in French or to make something on a loom. I also can’t teach her much about positive body image.
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Do I tell her that she’s beautiful? All the time. Do I avoid exposing her to destructive messages about women’s bodies that are everywhere in our culture? Absolutely. But do I possess the tools or the special insider knowledge about what it’s like to love my body so unconditionally that I can teach that to her? Unfortunately, no.
I wish I did. I wish I never had negative feelings about my body. I’d give anything to be too busy or self-actualized to notice my poochy stomach or my robust thighs. I don’t voice those complaints out loud in front of my daughter, but come on. We all know we don’t have to say something for our kids to pick it up.
It’s taken me a few years to accept that I am limited in what I can offer my daughter in terms of a healthy relationship with body image. With that acceptance came some sadness that I am still struggling to unlearn that my body is supposed to be impossibly lean, my stomach is supposed to be flat and my breasts are supposed to be perky.
She’s never denied herself dessert or a second helping because of shame about her body.
I’ve looked around for role models in my real life—people who celebrate their bodies exactly as they are. Most of my friends have ready criticisms for parts of their bodies—breasts that are too small, butts that are too big, hair that is too frizzy. I wondered if the notion of healthy body image was just a myth or an aspiration.
Then I realized there was one person right under my nose who has never uttered a single derogatory thing about her body.
She prances around half-naked after dinner, rubbing her tummy and showing me where all her food went. “It’s so big, mama,” she says, as if her distended belly is a trophy. She’s never poked her thighs through her jeans as if to punish them for being too big. She’s never denied herself dessert or a second helping because of shame about her body. Between her and me, she’s the one with the better relationship to her body.
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She’s the teacher.
So I let her lead me. I still keep my mouth shut about my perceived corporeal flaws around her, but I also emulate the spirit of freedom she has around her body, which looks an awful lot like self-love. And that’s something I want to keep learning for the rest of my life.