I had some of the normal awkward phases with my body during puberty and I was always pretty self-conscious about being underweight, but it wasn't until I got really sick that I began my first real struggles with body image. There are lots of reasons for that . . . the vulnerability that comes with being so sick, the very real physical damage that often comes with deep illness, and exhaustion. It is hard to be reasonable about the shape your body is in, when you are so worn down. By the time I first wrote about this topic, in late October, I was already well into my healing journey and I was starting to feel strong enough to work out the body image thing. Since then I've resolved lots of internal questions for myself and I've gained an incredible amount of confidence as I've healed and discovered a new passion (Paleo/AIP, of course). Here's what I learned from that journey that I am actively working on with my daughter:
1) Love your imperfect body. Our daughter's need us to show them that we value our bodies. Obviously, I haven't been ideal at every turn showing how to love an imperfect body. My daughter has heard me make many disparaging remarks about my low weight and watched me cry over acne breakouts. However, she has also seen me fight with dogged determination to care for my body. I have modeled complete willingness to totally change my lifestyle, in order to heal my body. She knows that I value the health of my body above everything. I am teaching her that it has worth, even if it is sick or doesn't look perfect.
2) Actively teach her about body care. "Body care" is a term, that to me, covers alot of ground. As I have learned more about real nutrition, I have taught my daughter that information, so that she understands what powers her body. As I have learned to prepare food for maximum nutrition, I have begun showing her around the kitchen too, so that she understands how to do this for herself. We also eat together twice a day, almost every day. I want her to see me eating nutritious food, so that it seems routine, not an odd exception. I've also helped her adopt other self-care techniques as I've adopted them. I taught her how to oil cleanse her face, instead of strip it with harsh chemicals. She sometimes sits and chats with me while I take a detoxing bath. I explain to her what each ingredient in the bath does for my body ("epsom salts helps with this," "lavendar oil helps with this"). Now she runs her own detox baths when she is feeling stressed or achy.
3) Show her what real bodies look like. Speaking of her chatting with me while I soak . . . our daughter's need to know what real women's bodies look like, so that we can actively counter the make-believe, over-sexualized images in the media. Naturally, I don't flaunt around in public (teaching appropriate modesty also matters), but in private I work to impart a message that a natural female body is nothing to be ashamed of . . . it comes with hips and razor-nicked legs and moles and even the scars of motherhood itself. She also has other strong female role models with other kinds of bodies to help her understand the variations of healthy, feminine beauty, like aunts, some of my close friends, and grandmothers. She knows what bodies older and younger than mine look like in reality, which I think is a positive way to counteract the media ideal. The only beautiful female body is NOT 21, tan, plucked, and airbrushed. I want her to know that our bodies have use and value outside of the "sex focus."
4) Talk about societal ideas on beauty. And speaking of the media stereotype of a beautiful woman . . . our daughter's need us to help them learn how to question that stereotype. My daughter is 12, so this is a more and more frequent topic in our home. Does my daughter still love some of the typical teen stars? Does she still want to imitate some of their looks? Of course. She is trying to discover new things and stretch outside certain limits, but I think the important step is to take time often to challenge the images. She definitely already understands that a well-fed, nourished body is more beautiful, because she points it out to me when we see a star that is plainly suffering for the limelight.
5) Tell her she is beautiful. Duh, right? Actually, though, I think it is worthwhile to mention this one. I realized over the course of this year, that I needed to hear other messages about my body, not just the ones about how illness had or had not affected it. I think most of us do a good job these days praising our daughter's on all the important non-physical traits. We tell them they are smart, funny, good athletes or great singers, capable, and strong. And all of that matters. We need to say it, but as I have written before, every person wants to be seen as healthy and attractive. Telling our daughter's that we see their outside beauty, is an important way to affirm a positive inside image.
As a mother, one of my greatest hopes is that I will be able to provide my daughter with a deeply rooted positive body image. I know, from personal experience, that many things may come along to shake that image, but if the roots are deep enough, I know she will be able to recover.
Happy Mother's Day Moms! Here's to your bodies, that have already performed miracles (tiny miracles that grow into full-blown human beings)!