The one word my kids will never hear me say

Jun 17, 2016 at 9:35 a.m. ET
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The other night I was lifting weights when my little girl sidled up to me and struggled to pick up one of my dumbbells using both of her tiny arms. "Teach me your exercises, Mama," she demanded. "So I can be strong, like you."

I've given birth to two babies and am hard at work reclaiming a body that no longer feels like mine, but she doesn't see that when she looks at me. She sees someone strong and healthy, someone radiant and fierce. My daughter sees a woman who loves herself unconditionally and has never had so much as a single thought to the contrary. Knowing that makes everything inside of me swell with pride.

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My children may not realize it, but I've actually harbored many ugly thoughts about myself. Like a lot of people my age, I grew up watching the women around me choke down diet pills and obsess about their weight. I saw the "ideal body" shrink down more and more until it became praise-worthy not for what parts it possessed but for its ability to not take up space. I heard the message that fat was ugly and bad, and I bought into it hook, line and sinker.

It wasn't until I was 25, a still-swollen new mom and in therapy for making myself throw up after meals, that someone finally challenged my way of thinking. My therapist broke down my belief that fat was a four-letter word and forced me to adopt a healthier attitude about bodies in general. With time, I stopped focusing on my flaws and worrying about whether or not horizontal stripes made me "look big." I stopped needing to classify people by their size and shape and learned to just accept them for who they are.

Now, fat is a word my kids have almost never heard me say.

It's not exactly banned from my vocabulary, but using it as a means of criticizing myself or others is something that's simply intolerable in my world. When my kids and I talk about bodies, we talk about keeping them healthy and strong. We talk about how it feels to move them, how we should feed them and all the amazing things that they can do.

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Of course, being accepting of all body types doesn't mean my kids stop noticing how people look. My kids know that I have a squishy tummy while some other people don't. They notice the various shapes and sizes around them, and they're curious about the way other people look. The difference is that, so far, they're unafraid of it. They aren't standing in judgment of these other bodies or of their own. They know each of us looks different, and that it's OK because there's no wrong way to be.

I can't protect my kids from the inevitable cultural influences I know they're going to face. They will come to see certain traits as more attractive than others and they will decide what they like about themselves and what they don't. I'll do my best to hold them together when they feel the urge to pick themselves apart, but in the meantime I'm laying the foundation for self-acceptance the best way I know how.

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Teaching kids to view fat as something negative only sets them up for a lifetime of self-esteem battles. Either they occupy more space and feel constantly ashamed of how they look, or they're thin but must live in continual fear of becoming larger and less valuable as a result. In both instances, they're learning from the earliest possible age that there is a right way and a wrong way to look, that heavier people are failures and that the sole purpose of diet and exercise is to actively avoid becoming fat.

I refuse to diminish my children by teaching them that someone's value or self-worth has anything to do with the size of his jeans. I will show them how to feed their bodies, how to move them, how to treat them and how to love them, but I won't do it using scare tactics or by demonstrating that certain kinds of bodies are less than ideal.

I won't teach my kids to use the word "fat" as a weapon against other people or against themselves.