My nine-year-old kicked off her jeans and hurled them across the room. “I’m just fat!”
What? Where did that come from?
“Madison Grace, you are definitely not fat!”
“Then why can’t I fit into those jeans? Emily and Taylor wore them when they were my age.”
“Your body is different from Emily and Taylor’s.”
“Right,” she said, “Because I’m fat.”
I couldn’t decide if I should scold her or hug her. “Stop saying that. You’re body is perfectly fine. You’re strong and healthy. You can do amazing things with that body.”
It’s true. Madison is a gymnast and an active, athletic girl. She loves to climb. She loves doing handstands and back flips and flying around uneven bars. She takes great pleasure in beating the boys in her class at pull-up competitions. But when her older sister’s “slim” jeans didn’t fit, she concluded that she had a problem.
The whole conversation was troubling and sad. Fourth grade girls shouldn’t be worrying about their figures. They shouldn’t be comparing themselves to other girls or some unrealistic physical ideal.
Unfortunately, as the mom of three girls, I’d been through this before. Not long ago Madison’s older sisters had also struggled with negative views of their bodies. Their complaints came from the other end of the spectrum.
“Why do I always have to wear jeans with those stupid adjustable waist bands? My friends wear clothes from the junior department. I’m just too skinny.”Like most moms, I analyzed myself to determine where I’d gone wrong. Had I set a bad example? Had I made negative comments about my own weight or shape? I honestly didn’t think so. I wasn’t one to obsess about weight. I tried to eat healthy, but my girls had also seen me enjoy many guilt-free milkshakes over the years. So why had all three of my girls struggled with body image?
I’m sure there are many factors. I could blame society or social media. I could write it off as “a girl thing.” I could even blame it on sports that require girls and teenagers to wear skimpy leotards and skin-tight spandex. (Don’t get me started.)
I don’t have all the answers, but I have helped three girls walk through some rough spots. These are some things that have helped:
- Listen to her concerns – even though you disagree.
When my first daughter complained about being “too skinny,” my immediate reaction was to shake my head and disagree. After all, I needed to convince her she was wrong! With my third daughter, I try to hold my opinions and let her vent her feelings. I’ll get my chance to express my views. But most importantly, I want her to know if she comes to me I will listen.
- Focus on health and fitness rather than weight.
As much as possible, I try to provide healthy food choices. We also encourage our girls to be active and try different sports. We go for walks. We try to show them it’s more about having fun and being healthy than wearing a particular jean size.
- Talk about media images.
The images are everywhere. I can’t shield my daughters from them, but I can take advantage of teachable moments. While standing in line at the grocery store we can discuss that “perfect” girl on the glossy magazine cover. She needs to understand that no one really looks like that. (Even the girl on the cover doesn’t look like that!) We can talk about how pictures are altered to make girls look flawless.
- Focus more on who she is instead of how she looks.
Every girl likes a compliment – and I do compliment them on their appearance. But I try to praise them more for their strengths, achievements and character qualities. Who they are inside is much more important than how they look on the outside. Their sense of worth shouldn’t come from their appearance.
- Be a positive example.
It’s tough to teach a lesson that I’m still learning. But kids are always watching and listening. I need to be mindful of how I talk about my own appearance. If I make negative comments about my body, she is more likely to be critical of hers. I also need to learn how to graciously accept a compliment. (I’m usually quick to disagree or brush it off.) After all, if someone tells my daughter, “You look just like your mom,” I want her to think that’s a good thing!
The other day Madison made a negative comment about her body. I knew I shouldn’t compare her to someone else, but I’d had enough.
“Let me ask you a question. Do you think Shawn Johnson is fat?”
“Of course not!” Madison adores Shawn Johnson.
“Well, here’s what I think,” I said. “I think your body shape is very similar to Shawn Johnson’s.”
I had her attention, so I kept talking.
“She’s got power, flexibility, grace and guts – and it’s all wrapped up into one impressive package.”
And I think we made progress.
My girls will go through many changes over the next several years. But they don’t have to be a cookie-cutter image of anyone else. Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. I hope they’ll appreciate their healthy bodies and unique shapes. But most of all, I hope they’ll feel beautiful – inside and out.
How about you? Have you experienced this with your daughter? Have you struggled with body image yourself? What tips can you share that might help our daughters have a more healthy body image? Leave your comments. I’d love to hear from you!