At my age, I am blessed most of the time with a peaceful perspective on my body image, grounded firmly in acceptance. I know that no matter what size or gender you are, media and social bombardment universally drive us all to doubt the way we look on a grandly distorted scale.
Since about the age of 6, I’ve always been heavy. It runs in the family. I don’t know if it’s genetic (a.k.a. PCOS) or a product of a few generations of American cuisine. I do know that when I stick to an Eastern European diet of oats, meat and root vegetables and minimal sweets, dairy and gluten, my digestion is the most serene, and I don’t get any bigger.
While being on the heavier side runs in the family, members of my family including myself have tried to run away from being fat, which frankly has never worked. For me, it started fairly early in my childhood, with meal-by-meal haranguing by my parents of everything I ate. With a parent’s perspective, in retrospect I understand now that my parents were frantically in their ignorance of today’s progressive parenting philosophies trying to avoid the same fate they experienced as being heavier than normal from childhood into adulthood (And I’m sure there was an element, current to social pressures before and during my childhood, of ensuring that I would be acceptable marriage-material later in life). However, the net impact on me was years of sneak overeating, bouts of self-starvation and tremendous body-image (and overall) self-doubt. At one point, I was actually told that I would never accomplish anything – a good job, a boyfriend, marriage, nice clothes – if I wasn’t a size 10 or below (BTW – they were wrong.).
Since puberty, I have weighed anywhere from 95 pounds to 240 pounds – a body-image roller-coaster ride, for sure. Bottom line: the haranguing made me completely miserable, and undermined my confidence in everything, not just the way I looked; I ate even more (not less) to comfort myself, and to angrily defy the haranguing from my relatives (who, ironically, were as heavy if not heavier than me, often harboring secret stashes of junk food like Mallomars and Entenmann’s pound cake, which I would always discover and eat in gleeful revenge), and the net result was that it all made me fatter. Since achieving (relative) peaceful acceptance of my physical body, I am now comfortably somewhere in between 95 pounds and 240 pounds, and my weight and size have stayed the same for many years, as evidenced by the age of some of my favorite outfits, which are older than Noah.
As Noah’s mom, I’ve tried to minimize the food and body image stigma as much as possible since the beginning of Noah’s childhood. My husband Joel and I have encouraged Noah to self-manage his own eating, e.g. eating when he’s hungry while setting respectful parenting boundaries, to avoid my own childhood experience of having my own food intake micromanaged. And while no parenting effort is perfect, Noah’s experience has thankfully been better than mine to date. The clues were there when he was a little boy. If you gave him a bag of cookies, he would eat 4 cookies at the most, and give you back the bag. (At the same age, I would eat the whole bag, whether I was hungry or not, because I never knew when the bag would be taken away and/or withheld.) Noah will snack and eat sweets in front of us, and his stash of sweets from various holidays lives in a basket in the living room. Unlike me as a child, it can take months for Noah to eat Halloween or other holiday candy. After a few months, we end up throwing away a significant amount of stale holiday candy.
External body-image forces outside of the safety of our home, however, remain powerful. I mistakenly thought that the combination of our parenting trope and Noah’s gender (naively thinking that boys don’t suffer the body image pressure to perform as much as girls) would make Noah’s path a bit easier than mine. Over a year ago, Noah, who is tall and much thinner than I was at his age, came home lamenting the size of his stomach. I looked at him – I saw no stomach protrusion, and I was confused. “You’re not fat,” I observed, conclusively and factually. Noah loves to disagree. “Our gym teacher told us we should all have six-pack abs, and I don’t have them,” Noah replied. “Your gym teacher is wrong, and I’d be happy to educate him myself,” I replied, fuming to myself about the ignorance of the gym teacher, particularly in light of The Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which prohibits teasing and bullying on the basis of weight in New York state schools.
However, there continue to be gifts of hope, love and gratitude in the parenting journey of my own family. As my usual direct self, I periodically identify myself in front of Noah as “zaftig” or “bigger,” to which he (and his father) indignantly replies: “You’re not fat.” Thank you. I love you, too.
How do you manage your own body image acceptance as a parent, to in turn help your children accept their unique and beautiful bodies? We’d love to hear your stories – please share them with Corey and me here, as well as in the collective social media channels of the extended [email protected] Magazine community:
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