I remember sitting in a hospital bed four different times with four different children and counting four sets of fingers and toes. I remember cooing over every dimple, freckle, and “jelly roll”. I even remember doing it with the babies of family and friends. And I remember thinking that these tiny little human beings were absolute perfection.
So when do I start telling them that they aren’t so perfect? When do I let them in on the fact that their thighs are too big, their eyebrows too close together? When do I let them in on the fact that they don’t measure up against certain “beauty standards”?
Now, this isn’t some anti-media, anti-Hollywood rant on how A, B, and C are destroying our children’s esteems and giving them an unrealistic standard of beauty before they’re even in grade school. No. I’m taking this straight to you, the parent; the person from whom the child first learns about unconditional love and body image. I’m taking this straight to myself.
See, I never realized that I was destroying my son’s self-esteem and body image. It wasn’t until my son, who is tall and slender, came to me asking if we could exercise because he was getting “fat”. He then proceeded to pinch the tiniest bit of skin from his abdomen and look at it in disgust.
I don’t fat shame. I don’t skinny shame. People are people no matter their shape or size and I don’t judge people over their physique, which is something I’ve done my best to pass on to my children. So where was he getting this idea that he was fat and needed to exercise?
He got it from me talking about myself. He got it from the flippant comments I made throughout the days; comments about needing to lose weight, sighs and grunts and constantly tugging at my jeans; he got it from my cold dismissal of compliments from my husband.
It didn’t take watching television or reading Cosmo for him to feel that he wasn’t living up to some standard of beauty. All he needed was to listen to and watch his own mother. What’s worse is that he looked at the things I hated about myself and wondered if I hated these same things about him. You can’t tell your kid he looks just like you and then proceed to complain about these same attributes in yourself. Kids are far more perceptive than we give them credit for; if everyone tells them they look just like their mom, and mom is always complaining about her eyebrows and hairline, they’ll take it personally.
It’s up to us as parents, close relatives, or anyone who is in regular contact with a kid to establish a positive body image. We can’t call them perfect at birth and then tell them in so many ways that they aren’t so perfect later in life. We can’t make snide comments behind a coy smile that they look just like their daddy, whom they know you hate and think is ugly. *Pointed glance at a particular family member*
Now, I’m not talking about personal hygiene here. I’m not saying don’t give your kid a nudge in the ribs when he/she hasn’t bathed in a few days and is beginning to smell like a locker room. I’m not talking about asking them to wash and brush their hair before you head out to a wedding or something. I’m not talking about teaching them how to dress for occasions and basic grooming etiquette. I’m talking about making them feel less than because of their size or shape. I’m talking about telling them to go eat a hamburger if they’re ‘too” skinny, or handing them a salad at dinner when everyone else gets a steak because you think they’re getting a little extra “baby fat”.
You don’t have to outright tell your child they’re too fat, too skinny, too short or too tall. All it takes is them watching and listening to you from an early age. It takes you making a comment in passing about yourself or someone else. It takes you telling them they look just like their daddy or Aunt Mary with a sneer on your face.
It’s our duty from the very beginning of their existence to teach them that their dignity and beauty are inherent. They can’t be devalued by what they see or hear from other people. Just because Martha doesn’t look like Peggy down the street doesn’t mean she isn’t beautiful or worthy of love and respect. Just because Jim doesn’t have washboard abs like the other guys in the locker room, doesn’t mean he isn’t handsome or worthy of love and respect.
People are people no matter their shape or size…