It happens every summer, as I prepare to swap out snow suits for swim things, I appraise the swimsuits I own, appraise my own body, and try not to make judgements about myself and my worth. After arguably the most stressful year I have ever parented through, my body has taken on a considerable amount of weight. I have not had time to move my body as much as I would like. I have indulged in many more bottles of wine than I regularly would, and I have absolutely used food as a comfort tool during some of our most challenging days. I may not have made the healthiest choices this year, because frankly, my mental health was more important, and I did what I needed to do to survive.
My 6-year-old daughter gets a front-row seat to this spectacle every year. As the perceptive, empathetic little being that she is, she can tell when Mama needs a compliment: “You look so pretty in that dress today,” or when I simply need some encouragement, “Mama, join me in the sea!”
I am so lucky to have her, not only because she is a kind and loving soul, but also because she is a mirror to everything I put out into the world. If I want my daughter to love her body as she goes through the difficult teenage years, becomes an adult, and perhaps someday goes through the physical changes that happen if you birth, deliver, and parent a child, I have to lay that foundation now. I cannot expect my daughter to gain skills from me that I do not possess myself. This means that loving my body is more important than ever before, for myself and for her.
What What You Say, More Than What You Eat
With summer quickly approaching, and days at the pool, at the park, and generally out in the sun upon us, I’m not going to let my quarantine weight gain stop me from rocking my swimsuit, wearing all the tank tops, and enjoying the glorious sunshine. This won’t be easy, but with my daughter watching it’s important that I get it right. I spoke with Rachel Cannon, therapist and former director of an eating disorder treatment center in Los Angeles, to get some practical tips and tricks for loving your body even when it’s hard.
“Your kids are watching everything that you’re doing because everything for them is shaping their worldview,” Cannon told me. “If there’s a parent in the home or a caregiver who is really concerned about what we’re eating or says things like, ‘Oh, we don’t eat that,’ or, ‘Sugar is bad for you,’ for example, that’s something that will become really ingrained at a young age, because it’s really at the point that … we’re shaping their worldview.”
There are many things I’m uncertain of as a parent, but I know without a doubt that I do not want my daughter’s worldview to include messages that link her worth, her value, and her morality to her body. I do not want my daughter to grow up with disordered eating habits or destructive views about herself. I know what it’s like to eat only an apple for lunch every day as an already very thin teenager. I never want her to make those same choices. For me, loving my body is about listening to it and providing it with the things it tells me it needs as often as I can. It’s about knowing movement feels good; yoga is grounding as well as physically empowering; there are absolutely delicious things that make my body feel physically terrible; and drinking tons of water is satisfying as well as refreshing.
So how do I balance taking care of my body with loving my body while my daughter watches?
“Diet culture often sends the message that food and exercise is somehow related to your morality and your worth and your value,” Cannon said. “So we have to pick that apart and identify what is the real reason that I’m exercising, or avoiding foods, or eating foods. If this is something that is important to me, how do I want to send the message to my child in a way that is loving, as opposed to this is about feeling bad about yourself or changing the way you look? So much of that is internal work that people have to do.”
It’s really all about the messaging. How do we present our habits to our children? How do we talk to ourselves about our choices, internally as well as externally? If I want my daughter to throw off the shackles of diet culture, to move her body only because it feels good, and to create strength as opposed to thinness, I need to have the same motivations. I cannot tell my daughter that exercise and food choices are about health and listening to our bodies if my internal motivation is to lose 20 pounds or destroy my soft mommy tummy.
“You have to work on it for yourself before you can pass that on to your children,” Cannon said. “You have to really make a conscious effort to do something different if that’s what you want your kids to have, they’re more sponges than anything, they’re doing what they see.”
What If Self-Love Feels Out of Reach?
So how do we do this? I have always been a vocal proponent of loving my body unequivocally. The size and strength of my body has fluctuated as the seasons of life come and go. There have been times loving my body was easier than others. My body is amazing; I cannot lose sight of that. It has created, carried, birthed, nourished and been the safe space for three beautiful children. My youngest son loves nothing more than to bury his face in my breasts and rub my soft, squishy tummy. These aspects of my body that create self-doubt when I put on certain pieces of clothing are my best attributes if you were to ask my toddler.
When loving my body feels insurmountable, what can I do to at least feel at peace in my body?
“I think for most people what they’re actually trying to do is look for body neutrality,” Cannon said. “Can you be neutral about your body? Can you have body acceptance? Can you have body appreciation?”
This outlook helps to neutralize the subject. I can appreciate the amazing things my body has done. I can accept the way it looks and feels now — without having to shout from the rooftops what a stunning, hot bod I have. (Which I do by the way, even when I don’t realize it.) This can feel like a much more authentic and honest outlook. I don’t have to lie to myself, I can simply appreciate my body for all it has done for me and my kids.
Still, when you feel like your body has failed you, whether after a traumatic birth, when breastfeeding doesn’t work out, or perhaps your postpartum body is simply entirely unrecognizable to you, even body appreciation can be challenging. Cannon had some excellent guidance on where to start if you’re feeling totally alienated from your body.
“One of the things you can do to make small shifts towards body-image work is creating affirmations: writing out three body-neutral or body-appreciative statements on a Post-it note and putting it on your mirror. Putting something on the refrigerator that reminds you that you need to eat appropriately.”
Often as mothers, all of our energy, time and effort is spent loving our families, our children, our partners. It leaves us with very little energy for self-love. At its core, loving our body is about self-love. Much like loving our bodies, if we want our children to love themselves, we must first know how to love ourselves.
Caring for Yourself Again
As a therapist Cannon has had plenty of experience with this. “So much of postpartum therapy is trying to find a way for somebody to do self-care again and to take care of themselves and find those things about themselves that make them feel good,” she told me. “It’s not going to happen perfectly every time. You’re not going to always feel like you’ve taken care of yourself or done a great job of it but putting forth the effort is a great way to start.”
Self-love and self-care do not have to be expensive or all encompassing. How can you spend 10 minutes before bed doing something to recharge or bring yourself joy? Is there one thing you can do today that is just for you?
Be cognizant of the claims of the wellness or self-care industry. You don’t need to change your body, or buy any product, to make yourself and your body lovable. You are lovable just as you are.
When I put on my swimsuit for the first time this summer, I hope to look in the mirror and feel love and appreciation for a body that has filled my lungs with air when I needed to breathe, digested my food when I needed energy, kept me healthy in a year when health was absolutely not a given. My body does so much for me every day, and if I struggle to love the way it looks, I can at least take comfort in all that it does.
These gorgeous photos show moms who love their postpartum bodies.
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