When we started raising our children, I knew I had a lot of body-related baggage that I did not want to pass on to any of them, but particularly to my daughters. I wanted to set a different tone than the harmful environment that I grew up in. Body talk in my childhood home never felt positive to me. It was emotional, troubling, embarrassing, awkward, and honestly, at times, abusive.
I remember thinking my mother was never satisfied with how she looked, and I can remember her tracking her weight every day and writing the number on a piece of notebook paper taped to the inside of her bathroom cabinet. She always seemed “just a few pounds away” from her goal. I hated my own body from such a young age that I was convinced up until very recently that there was something really wrong with me.
I heard my dad say that I would have more dates if I were smaller. I felt forced to exercise as a very young child to try and “slim down.” I felt encouraged to crash diet. I was thanked (literally thanked) by my mother when I was in middle school for fitting into a certain sized dress. I saw painful looks reflected back at me when I tried on bathing suits. Parts of my body were measured, in front of my siblings, and compared with the size of my mother’s body to illustrate how out of proportion and wrong I was.
I want to stop at this point and tell you how each one of those sentences is enough to merit a lot of professional therapy. All of them together seared a message of body shame and disgust so deeply into my heart that it is only through the power of God’s redemption and a lot of hard emotional work that I can look at myself in the mirror and love and accept what I see.
Given all of my history, the process of guiding three little women through the potential mine-field of body talk was something I approached with the utmost brevity and intentionality. I feel it is part of my responsibility as their mother to teach them a loving way to talk about our bodies without creating an environment of shame.
Along the way, as a means of navigating this tricky process, I made three decisions.
The first decision I made was in relation to myself. I knew that no matter what I told my daughters, they were going to learn a great deal about their own relationship with their bodies by watching my relationship with mine.
I do not speak badly about my body in front of them. Ever. I don’t criticize myself out loud in front of them. I do not stare into the mirror and bemoan what I see. I don’t put myself down. I am honest about things, and I wear styles of clothing that are flattering to my particular body shape, but I do not bash or criticize myself.
I do welcome them into my room when I am getting dressed so that they can see my routine of self-care. They help me pick my outfits, they listen to music while I put on makeup, they watch me style my hair. I let them see me treat myself kindly and with a healthy dose of self-respect. Taking care of myself is part of who they know me to be.
The second decision I made was in relation to them. When my children were little (like, really little) I stumbled into using a phrase that unexpectedly yet perfectly set the tone for how I wanted our family to talk about our bodies.
It started when Annie was potty-training.
I wanted to find a way to put into words what I needed her to do. I wanted her to know that no one else but her could hear what her body was telling her. I couldn’t tell when she needed to go potty. Only she could. I was looking for a cue, or a command of sorts, to get her to pay attention and recognize when her bladder was full. “Annie, listen to your body. What it is telling you? Is it telling you it’s time to go potty?” You get the idea.
The phrase “listen to your body” turned into our mantra, and has become one of the guiding principles for how I talk to my daughters about their bodies.
I wanted them to know how to care for their bodies, and to let them know that no one else can do that better than they can. “Listen to your body” is still something we talk about on a regular basis.
I like it because it isn’t emotional. It is a matter-of-fact way to figure out what is going on. What is your body telling you? What do you need? Very black and white.
I also like the phrase because it teaches them to look inside themselves, not to someone else, to know what their body needs. This is a powerful tool, one that I wish I had growing up.
Are you tired? Then give your body rest.
Are you hungry? Then find a healthy snack.
Are you bored? Well, then, you don’t need a snack, you need an activity.
Are you scared? The only thing that will help is to tell me about it.
We have learned that when we give our bodies what they need, our bodies reward us by being healthy and strong. We have learned that when we are thirsty, water tastes so delicious and refreshing. We have learned that even though we don’t want to take a nap, man we feel better when we give our bodies the rest they are asking for.
I have one daughter who is so in tune with when she needs rest that she will come home from school, take a long bath, get into her pajamas, fix a cup of tea, and be reading a book in her bed at 4:30 in the afternoon. I could not be more proud.
I have another daughter who understands the type of food her body needs to feel full and stay energized through the day. A piece of fruit, a fried egg, and a slice of avocado toast are her idea of a delicious lunch.
All three of my girls know when they need something physically. And we are working on learning the difference between emotional needs (which need emotional responses) and physical needs (which need physical responses).
We don’t eat when we are sad. We eat when we are hungry
We don’t sleep when we are afraid. We sleep when we are tired.
We don’t drink when we are bored. We drink when we are thirsty.
It sounds silly, but making these connections (and recognizing the ridiculousness of the wrong connections) has been a huge part of our conversation and training in this area.
The third decision I made was in relation to other people. One of our earliest, non-negotiable, zero-tolerance house rules was “we do not make comments about other people’s bodies.” End of story. We can tell someone their dress is cute, or we like their hair cut, or they look really beautiful, but we do not make comments about bodies.
In all honesty, this decision came from a place of hurt in me. Other people’s comments about my body had so wounded me, that I cut it off before it could ever begin in our home. There is rarely anything positive that comes from commenting on someone’s body. Even positive things (“You look so skinny.” “Your waist is so tiny.” “You are so tall.”) become comparative labels and create identity in places where it should not exist.
This rule has provided a lot of valuable teaching moments and a guiding principal for how I expect them to speak in regards to other people’s bodies. My goal is not to avoid conversations, but to teach the appropriate way to have them. This required a lot of very directive parenting along the way.
I try to take any opportunity to put on display the kind of comments I do want them to make about others. These are the kinds of sentences I say frequently to my daughters:
“I really like that color on you!”
“You’re so strong!”
“Oh that neckline looks so flattering on you!”
“That dress is definitely your kind of dress!”
“What a healthy choice you made.”
“Good job listening to your body.”
“You’re hungry? Oh good! It’s time for dinner. Isn’t it nice to be hungry when it’s time for dinner?”
“Your body is fighting a cold. It needs extra rest and lots of water. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“I’m so proud of you for taking a nap. I know your body appreciated it.”
“Baby, are you sad? Let’s talk about it.”
“Yes, of course you can have an apple for snack. Let me help you slice it.”
Do I get this pattern right every time? Hardly. But I am striving toward a standard of speech that is not comparative or negative when referring to bodies. I strive to lead by example, guiding them through the circumstances we encounter, and reminding them of their position and responsibility as it relates to caring for themselves.
This topic is sure to bring up a lot of thoughts or questions, and I would love to hear yours in the comments below! Let’s continue this conversation…