Body image demon rears its ugly head too soon…

I knew this day was coming — I just didn’t expect it so soon.  Not puberty or boys or demands for a cell phone.

It started with a snow coat.  Ellie’s been fussing about wearing hers all winter, saying it was too big and bulky, preferring her lighter weight fleece, which I’d given in to letting her wear on those days when snow was not actually falling from the sky.  Ray didn’t agree with me — the fleece is not warm enough, he’d say — but I didn’t need another before-school battle.  She was happy in the coat, and happy is good at 7:30 a.m.

Today, though, that favorite fleece was in the laundry, waiting to be washed after a warm day in the snow-melty mud. 

“Ellie, I’m sorry, you have to wear your snow coat.”

“Noooo!  I hate that coat!”

“I know, honey, but it’s just today,” I explained.  “You’ll just have to put it on.”

“Fine!  I’m not going to school!” She stomped into my office, bawling.

“Tell me why,” I said. 

Her eyes were little pools of despair.  “Because it makes me look fat.”

Enter knife in heart.  Fat??  “Sweetie, you’re not fat.”

Those little pools spilled over.  “Yes, I am.”

The knife twisted, splitting me in two, and I hugged her almost-six-year-old body, a bundle of energy and perfection.  How could she think she was fat?

Of my four children, Ellie is the only one who inherited my body type.  The other three are like their dad — long and lean, stretching into next week and suffering too-short pants because they grow so quickly and their waists are so small.  Like me, Ellie is sturdier, not quite as stretchy, although she is on the taller side for her age.  But she carries that adorable baby pudge here and there, like most kids her age who haven’t yet sprouted out of their preschool physique.

Seriously?

But, fat?  Not a bit.  And yet, here she was, still in kindergarten and already hating her body.  The ironic thing is because of my own body issues, I’ve always tried to be very careful about how I encourage my daughters to love themselves.  I never wanted them to see me make a big deal about weight or shape.  The world around them will do that in time, I thought, and very consciously have always took any chance I could to praise the uniqueness of their bodies.  I don’t know what happened.  Has my own lingering unhappiness with my short, thick-waisted self been more obvious than I thought, despite never saying so out loud?

It was sometime in elementary school when I decided I was fat.  After all, my two best friends were beanpoles, the kind of kids whose parents made them drink milkshakes and eat ice cream just to avoid sinking into starvation.  I never required such interventions.  I was athletic, competitive, having learned well from my two brothers the joy of sports and being strong.  I was no delicate flower who needed extra calories to keep my energy up.  And, looking back, I see that I was not heavy.  I was average.  But at some point, average became too big.  Thin and delicate were ideal.  When puberty hit early, and I had a set of womanly boobs by 7th grade, it was over.  Let the obssession with clothing sizes and numbers on a scale begin.  It took a lot of years for me to get over that, and even today the dissatisfaction lingers.

But I’ve tried my best to not pass this on to my girls.  I want to lose weight and exercise and eat well because it is healthy — my message.  I am quick to embrace my body as it is, when I can.  I say these things out loud when context demands it, casually.  I try to show it in my behavior.   I keep my negative thoughts to myself.  Or so I believe.  I could be wrong.

Ellie is a very smart little girl.  She can see the differences among people, especially those closest to her.  She can see the way older kids carry around her little sister as if she were a doll, and how they do not carry her.  She hears people comment on how thin Mitzi is, how tall, how hard it must be to administer her insulin shots with so little extra flesh to use.  She sees enough TV and movies to know what is considered ideal by the world around her, a world which is getting bigger every day as she ventures out into it. 

I have three daughters, and I knew this day was coming — unhappiness with their looks, their bodies.  Because, honestly, it’s a part of growing up, the wanting to be the same as everyone else, to be agile and comfortable in your skin but also to fit in, to not be so different.  Everyone struggles with this at some point, to different degrees.  Figuring out that life is not about looks and conformity is part of what we work through during our teen years. 

Not kindergarten.

And, of course, it’s incredibly ironic that this revelation should occur during March, Women’s History Month, when we should be celebrating women — their accomplishments, bravery, strength — and perhaps taking one step closer to being a society in which what you weigh does not define who you are (coming soon, my rant about reality TV, relating to this issue).

While we waited for the bus, I crouched down and looked hard into my daughter’s gorgeous, long-lashed blue eyes (yes, she is that beautiful), and told her firmly, “You are not fat.  You are perfect, just the right size.  I love your body, every inch of it.  Don’t ever change a single part.”

I wiped her cheeks because she’d still been crying, and a smile burst across her face, a bright, dazzling sun of joy.  And she hugged me ferociously (yes, she is that kind of hugger), and said, “I love you.”

For today, I hope that’s enough.

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8 thoughts on “Body image demon rears its ugly head too soon…

  1. i don’t know what to say…..i’m sure that this is a problem that has been going on forever…. when i was a young girl, it was the opposite….we we judged ourselves by the 36-24-36 rule…. voluptuous was in…..when grandma was a girl, it was the flat flapper look….. oh, ellie….. i wish she could only see how perfectly beautiful she really is…… i wish that for girls everywhere, not just ours….xo

    • Thank you Marina! Sending positive messages to our daughters about their strengths and individual beauty is so important for all of us to do.

  2. My twenty-three year old daugther still struggles with her body image because she is one of those bean poles. I used to be and now I struggle with too much weight gain. I don’t remember when I first thought about body image. I know that I was picked on for being too skinny and my daugther was too. I hate to think of a child as young as your daugther struggling with body image issues. Someone must have teased at her school.

    I like some of the tips that stacy and clinton give on TLC’s What Not To Wear. The tips of illusion.

    Maybe you could find movies with movie stars who are glamerous but not skinny. And here is where I should give some examples but I can’t think of any! Oh how about old versions of The Facts of Life. The beauty in that was not thin at all.

    At least now that you are aware of this situation you can be extra thoughtful when purchashing clothes for her.

  3. Great blog Jen> Sad to say Ellie’s reaction breaks my heart. She is just a normal little girl who somehow has caught the “image bug” way too early. It won’t last.

    But the image problem is a national tragedy. With all the meadia directed to the charie sheens, linday lohans, paris hiltons, american idol and the countless 15 minute stars.

    Building self esteem is hard to do for all of us. But with help from family and friends and realistic expecations one can do it. It’s progress not perfection and I have to remember to acknowldge a work in progress and remember that no one is perfect/

  4. I wanted to weep as I read this, because it should not start this early. the ugliness of the sadness shouldn’t sneak into innocence. but i know it does, because it did for me, and sadly for my 3 girls. Why are my sons the beanpoles, I rail. But they are. My children are beautiful, and I tell them every day. I just hate that they know what they consider “the truth”.

    I ❤ your blog. TY.

  5. I just loved your article “blog” about “body image” I am surprised no one picked it up to be printed in the New York Times.
    Great Work Jen. as always. patricia

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