My Daughter and Body Image

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.

Hannah takes a self-portrait

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!

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  1. bless!

    we have issues about being smaller than the norm – Wee Guy was bullied about it in kindergarten (!) and continues to be very prickly about his shorter stature. he bristles if adult incorrectly guess which grade he’s in. i have to be very solid when i call him my little man, and the nickname – the Wee Guy? well i hope he’ll be chuckling about it in 15 years time when he’s taller than me.
    body image is tricky, and it seems trickier in this day and age with the media image bombardment. i feel it too – everything is youth, youth, youth so it’s difficult to deal maturely with wrinkles, a less than dewy complexion, and the “lack of lithe” body i currently inhabit.
    we just try to emphasise the individual and the power of being yourself.
    pomomama’s last post … midlife monday: afloat in a boatMy Profile

  2. I have a son so I feel a little luckier than some of my daughter – having friends, but I want Kale to grow to be the kind of guy that doesn’t buy into what society tells him *others* should look like. We’ve been kind of suggesting that there is marketing to make people feel bad about themselves the few times he has seen anti aging commercials and I’ve also been careful not to say things that disparage myself lest he take them out of context.

    • It’s a good point – we need to model a positive body image for our kids. We can’t spend all of our time talking about how much we hate our thighs without our little ones picking up that message.

  3. God, I’ve been thinking about this a lot these day. My seven-year-old also loves her body and I love watching her embrace the attitude all women should retain into their old age. But underlying my love is a deep fear of how and when that will turn. Last year, in grade one, she asked me if she was fat and I thought: this is it. It’s over. But it went away and despite my repeating over and over how she is perfect just the way she is, I know what’s coming and I worry about how I will handle it. Thanks for your post!
    Cori’s last post … Awkward: How One Word Ruined a Magic Moment with my DaughterMy Profile

  4. I haven’t really broached this subject with my kids. I complement them on a variety of things…though I know you have expressed concern about raising kids too hooked on praise. Honestly, I’m not sure this is something that we as parents can control. At some point our voice is not as important as the outside world. I think the best we can do is raise them up (figuratively) as best we can and hope that’s it’s enough to keep them above all the junk that is going to be thrown at them to try and bring them down.
    Marilyn @ A Lot of Loves’s last post … The Good Health ProjectMy Profile

    • I guess what it comes down to for me on the praise front is that if I just tell Hannah that she’s pretty or something along those lines, I’m reinforcing the message that appearance is important. I try instead to talk about the things she enjoys doing, and the things she’s good at. Like, say, the way her reading is advancing.

      On the other hand, though, sometimes she really wants a compliment. She says, “Mom, do you think I’m pretty?” and no attempts at redirecting the question work. So then I say, “You’re my child, and you’re always pretty to me.” Will it work? I don’t know. But I’m doing my best to emphasize that it’s not about what she looks like, it’s about who she is.

  5. Eve has had moments of worry about whether she’s fat, which struck me to the heart, but they’ve been fleeting. In general she seems very happy with herself. I’ve been very careful not to say anything about my own weight around her, but I do have issues with my weight and it might be naive to think I’ve managed to keep it from her completely. She’s more athletic than I was at the same age, with no insecurities about her ability, so I’m hoping that continues to give her confidence.
    allison’s last post … I can’t blog right now…My Profile

  6. I am determined to change my own body image before my daughter hits her tween years. I want to look in the mirror and love the sagginess, softness, and changes that have occurred because of aging and motherhood. I firmly believe her best hope is having a mother who models a healthy body image by fully LOVING what I’ve been given and not looking to change it.

    (Note that I am a healthy weight so I don’t have to consider weight loss for health reasons, which is different from weight loss in attempt to look like my 20-something self.)
    Nicole’s last post … 5 iPhone Apps for Busy MomsMy Profile

    • I think you’re probably right – it’s about actually changing our own attitude, not about what we say. That’s hard, but once again the best way to parent is to take care of ourselves first. I like to think there’s a message in there about authenticity.

  7. Lots of time ahead to give it a read, but I’ll suggest Reviving Ophelia, Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. I don’t know if Mary Pipher has updated the work, but I found it very enlightening.

    More than anything, if your daughter feels she can talk about anything with you, and I mean anything, then that really helps lots. More knowledge always surpasses less, so communication and candidness will take you all a long way.

    Best wishes!
    nelle’s last post … the eradication of emma longstreet, part oneMy Profile

  8. Both my kids are taller than the norm, and it both cases it gets pointed out a great deal.

    My daughter is now 13 and I am not exactly sure when her body image changed. I’d say around age 12 her nose became too wide and her thighs too fat. Ofcourse neither of these things is true, but try and convince her of that. I miss the days when I could tell her she looked beautiful and she would respond with an “I know”.

    My son is 9 and he often speaks happily about how tall he is. He is just dying to know how old he will be when he is finally taller than me. He does not seem to notice how thin he legs are and he doesn’t seem to notice when kids are much heavier than him. I wish he could hold on to that forever.

  9. The Charleston step is called “monkey knees.” I love the idea of Hannah dancing it!

  10. My seven-year-old also loves her body and I love watching her embrace the attitude all women should retain into their old age. But underlying my love is a deep fear of how and when that will turn. Last year, in grade one, she asked me if she was fat and I thought: this is it. It’s over.
    Kate’s last post … Better Job, More JobsMy Profile

  11. My girl is far too young for this. But I’ve noticed that when my boys lose a tennis match, quite often they’ll compare the size of their leg and arm muscles to their opponent’s – why do they never compare the size of their school mates’ brains to their own?
    Francesca’s last post … instant crochet blanketMy Profile

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