I watch my daughter Hannah. She’s almost seven years old (!!!), and her father is showing her a dance move. It’s from the Charleston, where you put your hands on your knees and cross and uncross them as you move your knees in and out, in and out. I realize this sounds totally unclear, but it’s the motion depicted in this photo.
In spite of the January chill, Hannah is wearing a short skirt and a T-shirt. As she tries to master the finer points of a dance that’s as old as her great grandmother, she gets a look of intense concentration on her face. Watching her legs and hands and knees, I’m struck by her intense thin-ness. Her little baby rolls are long gone, and in their place is this girl who’s all knees and elbows. Her physique right now is like many other seven-year-olds – thin lines and sharp corners, which never really stop moving, not even when she’s asleep. She’s not big, but she packs a lot of energy in her small frame.
Hannah was skinny when she was born, too. Even skinnier than most newborns, in fact, because as a preemie she didn’t have the time to pack on the body fat that full-term babies do. As a wee babe her smallness conveyed fragility. Now it conveys something else entirely. I can see her muscles working as she dances with her father, and in my eyes she is mighty. She owns her power, and fully inhabits her body, stretching it as far as it can go. Maybe that’s why she’s so skinny – all that stretching did it. As she reaches higher, her body draws in on itself like an elastic band.
Right now, today, Hannah still loves her body. She tells me about her strength and her speed. She talks about how her belly gets bigger after she eats a big meal, and she tells me that she can fit into her brother’s pants because she’s a “skinny mini”. She describes her body’s bigness and smallness without any trace of malice towards her physical self. She sticks out her gut and says, “Look how fat I can make myself!” and laughs. She doesn’t have any self-esteem issues, and she hasn’t yet learned the lesson of female adolescence that says you should only ever make yourself skinnier, never the other way around.
How long can this last? I don’t know, and truthfully, I don’t really want to know. I love the way that Hannah revels in her body, and all that it can do. I love the way that she brags when her weight on the bathroom scale goes up. I love that she can play around with ideas like big and small, fat and thin, tall and short, and never once cast herself in a negative light. I don’t want this to end, but it’s not in my control.
A 1986 study from the University of California found that 80% of fourth grade girls were on a diet. Given our current preoccupation with childhood obesity and the increasing media bombardment not just from TV but from computers and smart phones and tablets, there’s no reason to think this number has changed. We haven’t become much more enlightened and accepting in the past 25 years. I know that it’s only a matter of time before Hannah will come face-to-face with some of the issues around body image and self-esteem that every girl encounters. I will do my best to help her through, but I’m not even really sure how. How do I help my daughter come out with as few scars as possible?
Today, this is all still in the future. Today, I watch my little girl learn to dance from her father. I watch her smile and move her legs in time to music only she can hear. And I send a silent request to God and the Universe and anyone who’s listening that she won’t forget the truth that she knows today: her body is strong, and perfect, and hers. Skinny (or not-so-skinny) legs and all.
How do you talk to your kids about body image? If you have any resources to suggest, I’m all ears!