She said it to me one morning while she was getting dressed and although I think she was mostly trying to be silly, sticking out her tummy as far as she could, I could hardly let the comment slip. But, what was I supposed to say?
These moments happen far too often in parenting — when your child says something or a situation comes up and you need to think on the fly, providing the perfect bit of information that will satisfy their question or remedy an unexpected problem that could take a turn for the worse if you say the wrong thing. And, as my daughter grows older, I'm finding that more and more of these situations are forming the groundwork that she will use to discover who she is and how she sees herself in the world.
When those words came out of her mouth, at first I giggled a bit and teased her, telling her that she was anything but fat. I reminded her that her bottom is so skinny that it hurts me when she sits on my lap. But then, I wiped the smile off my face, realizing quickly that this was my chance to open up a discussion with her about body image.
When it comes to having daughters, I make a very conscious effort at home not to make comments that degrade my own body image. Although I may chat with my girlfriends, outside of the house, about my weight or about how I haven't seen my coveted "skinny pants" since I threw them on the top shelf of my closet three years ago, I never want my daughters to hear me say that I think I'm fat or that I'm on a diet. How can I expect them to form positive body images if I am projecting my own negative body image at home?
Instead, we try to focus on having healthy bodies — eating well to keep our hearts happy, exercising to keep fit (not to be skinny) and taking care of our bodies so that we do the activities we want to do every day — for them, taking dance class, riding scooters to school and jumping on Mommy and Daddy's bed.
That being said, it's not natural to avoid the subject all together either. My daughters often ask why I spend time every morning putting on makeup or blow-drying my hair and I'm honest with them — I think those things make me look prettier and looking prettier makes me feel better about myself. More often than not, I stumble over my explanations, trying to put an emphasis on how it makes me feel, rather than how it makes me look, even though the reality is that the two go hand in hand.
As with any discussion with children, especially ones that you may not have all of the answers for or that the answers may still be inappropriate for their age, sometimes it's best to let her lead the conversation. Instead of responding with, "No, you aren't fat!" try asking why she thinks that and see what she says. Does she compare her body to other girls her age? Does she mention something specific on her body? Does she relate being fat to the way she eats? Pulling together these responses can let you know where to take the body image conversation from there.
Most importantly, validate how she is feeling. It's OK to have positive and negative feelings about the way our body looks — that's completely natural for both our daughters and ourselves. Try asking her to tell you the things that she loves about her body and relate those things to something real and tangible in her life to start to build the foundation of a positive body image. For example, her long fingers that make stretching for those last keys on the piano a breeze, or her blue eyes that sparkle just like her grandma's.
My daughter and I had a long chat that morning about both of our bodies and the way we felt about them. She talked a lot about how she wished her hair was dark and thick, just like her best friend and I told her about what I was like when I was her age. We didn't solve all of the world's body image problems that morning and I know that these discussions will only become more frequent and more challenging as she grows up, but we did get the conversation started on the right foot and that feels good.
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