As a mom, your heart swells with pride the day you witness your baby girl’s first steps. But what happens when you notice that your daughter has begun to follow in your body shaming footsteps and the legacy of your weight watching ways is colliding with her reality?
Ten years ago I sat helplessly by as I watched my beautiful 10 year old daughter, Cara go through an “I hate my fat body” melt-down in Target’s dressing room. That’s when I knew the legacy of my body shame had rubbed off on her.
I was only 10 years old when I was put on my first diet. Discussions about the size of my thighs, calorie counting and weekly weigh-ins became part of my normal routine. The shame and guilt of living under so much scrutiny and control made my hunger burn.
As a result of feeling so trapped and afraid of being caught cheating on my diet, I became painfully resourceful in pursuing my food pleasure by eating in bathrooms, planning tip-toe night binges, hiding candy in my clothes, eating out of the garbage, stealing to finance my after school snacking, raiding the kitchen cabinets of the families for whom I babysat. –All that desperation to eat everything I was told I couldn’t have.
As I gained more weight, I felt less lovable. I swore my body was the problem.
As an adult I came to grips with the fact that the shame and contempt I felt toward myself for overeating had nothing to do with the size of my thighs. It came from a deep sadness and a hunger for love. Like so many women I thought I could fix myself and earn my father’s approval, if only I could lose weight.
In her book, Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness, author Margo Maine, Ph.D., explains that the role of fathers plays an important role in their daughter’s ability to be confident. In talking about dealing with the challenge of having a father who is either absent or emotionally unavailable, she says, “A lot of women struggle with feeling a yearning to please their dad who never quite gives them the appreciation they so desperately need. For many women this translates to depression, anxiety and a preoccupation feeling their bodies are the cause of their problems. She goes on to explain how this is not cause for blame, but rather to increase awareness and to teach men the skills to be more nurturing of their daughters.
Some experts say that diets reinforce a negative self-image. My experience was that during my 34 years of dieting, I thought of myself as a big fat pig with no self-control around food. Because I had so little self-respect, I was always putting myself down, minimizing my accomplishments and seeking validation outside of myself. I had become my own worst enemy.
When my son, PT (Paul Thomas) gained weight at 9 years old, I repeated my parents’ fat phobic mistakes, thinking that PT’s size reflected shamefully on me. In a recent heart-to-heart chat, he confided in me that during those years he felt that I treated him like a problem that needed to be fixed. He explained that my obsession with his weight made him feel like an object and he thought that he wasn’t important and didn’t deserve to be loved until he was thinner.
I’ve learned a lot from the mistakes I made with my son. When my daughter faced her crisis, it led me on a journey to discover the value of self-acceptance. I had no idea that it was the key to being more confident. Here’s my tips on how to raise body confident kids:
Take responsibility as their role model: Your thoughts are so powerful. Kids will pick up on your vibes and unconsciously develop the same habits as you. If you struggle with body and food issues, your child will too. To break the cycle and transform their body loathing to body loving you’ve got to start by first accepting and being more compassionate with your own body.
Get help –Seek out the wisdom of those who embrace self-acceptance. Coaches, friends, family and other people who treat themselves lovingly and respectfully. The website www.haes.org (Health At Every Size) is a vast resource of practitioners and professionals arranged by geographic area.
Be honest about your own struggles – Tell your child about your history with food and weight issues. Suggest that you partner with each other to discover ways to be healthier in body, mind and spirit.
Demonstrate your love – Your child’s overeating is being driven by emotions that overwhelm them. Show them how to become their own nurturer by first nurturing them. Shut down and move out of range of all distractions and spend quality time talking with your child. Create a safe, loving, non-judgmental space to talk. Sit down together and look into their eyes, ask them questions, watch their face and be present with how they feel and what they’re saying. If sitting still is an issue, choose an activity that feels right to you. Validate them by having more heart to hearts, giving more cuddles, hugs and kisses, enjoying more handholding and high fives, Show and tell your child they are lovable and that they can trust you. For older kids, it’s often easier to have this kind of talk while driving or some other equally neutral type of environment.
Initiate an Open Door Policy with Food – A dear friend and therapist encouraged me to stop dieting and learn a process called intuitive eating. By taking this gentle permission-based approach to food and learning how to eat in response to my body’s natural hunger, I discovered a sense of freedom and reverence for myself that changed my life.
Teach self-mastery –Here are some typical concerned-parent actions that you must avoid in order to nurture your child’s positive self-image. Don’t use food as a reward. Don’t pressure kids to get on the scale. Don’t drag them to any Mommy and Me weigh-in meetings or children’s nutrition programs. No tracking what they eat in food journals. These actions all reinforce a negative self-image that screams to your child, “you can’t control yourself.”
Let Them Test Their Own Limits –Resist the urge to make faces or jokes when your child wants peanut butter cups for dinner and popcorn for breakfast. Our bodies are naturally wired to eat for health. If you have any unresolved judgments around certain foods, it will fuel your child’s desire to eat them. When I stopped judging Cara’s cravings for chocolate, her choices completely shifted, moving toward a varied combination of foods.
Lastly, if you focus on loving your child and treating yourself more lovingly and gently, they will notice you becoming more at peace with yourself. That will give them permission to feel more relaxed with their body. By showing them that you can feel good about your imperfect self, you give your child permission to love themselves too. And who doesn’t want that?