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Even Preschoolers Hate Their Bodies

Photograph by Twenty20

I watched my daughter, the girliest of girls, preen in the mirror with lipstick she pilfered from my purse. She smiled at herself and cocked her head just so. She seemed to approve of what she saw. I breathed a sign of relief.

I’m constantly gathering evidence that when she looks in the mirror, she loves what she sees. I want her to see what I see: an adorable, lovable little girl with a sassy streak and who has a smile that lights up a room. I wouldn’t change a thing about her appearance. For now, she seems to feel the same way—though sometimes she’s annoyed that her curly hair won’t lay straight.

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So far, she hasn’t expressed any dissatisfaction with her body, but I’m braced for the day I see the traces of her hostility toward her thighs, breasts or stomach.

I didn’t have the words to articulate how 'icky' I felt inside what felt like a body that was too big. In my mind, my body was a problem that I had to fix all by myself.

I’ve been on guard for signs that she disapproves of her body for years. When I tell other mothers I’m already on the look out for signs that my daughter is headed down the dark road of body hatred, some of them act surprised. “Already? She’s too young for that!”

Unfortunately, that’s not true. A new study of British childcare professionals shows that body image issues are surfacing in kids as young as 3. The study polled childcare workers about children’s attitudes toward their bodies. Of those surveyed, 71 percent believe that “children are becoming anxious about their bodies at a younger age" and 31 percent have heard a child call him- or herself fat.

I knew this was true before I read the study.

By age 4 I disliked my body. By 6, I H-A-T-E-D it. I wanted to be Melissa Zagel. Melissa was uber-thin and had long strawberry blonde hair that was never out of place. Next to her, I felt fat, ugly and ashamed. Why couldn’t I be a slip of a girl—an angel, really—like Melissa? That year kicked off my life-long journey of wishing my body was smaller—always smaller—and burning with envy over every girl who was lucky enough to be thin. It’s a fate I hope to spare my daughter.

And while my daughter has never said anything negative about her body, I know that’s not proof she’s escaping my fate. I never said anything about my self-hatred when I was in grammar school. I didn’t have the words to articulate how “icky” I felt inside what felt like a body that was too big. In my mind, my body was a problem that I had to fix all by myself. I never once asked for help with my overwhelming feelings, and the whole situation finally exploded when I was 13 and began bingeing and purging.

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I’d like to think that it could never happen to my daughter because I’m too smart, aware and vigilant.

But the truth is, I’m not entirely sure what I will do when or if I do hear her express self-hatred about her body. Will I rush her straight to a therapist? Will I get her into a support group? Do those even exist?

Like all mothers, I want the magic words to protect her today and forever. I want my love to create a force field around her so that she is impervious to all the messages in our culture that skinny bodies are the best bodies and fat bodies are bad and wrong. I don’t know how to do that, so for now I watch, listen and hope that she’ll have a better go of it than I did.

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