Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Body Image and Little Girls

I've been debating with myself about writing this post for a long time, mostly because these are very much my personal thoughts and opinions, but for some reason I feel compelled to share them even though another part of me really wants to keep them private.  Nothing quite like exposing your greatest vulnerabilities to the world to make yourself want to run and hide.

I've struggled with my body image most of my life and my weight has been an issue since early adolescence.  My perception of myself has always been poor.  I never felt like I looked like my peers.  In high school I was sure that I was the fattest girl around, couldn't understand how anyone could like me, and it only got worse as I got older and of course, continued to pack on more pounds.  I tried all kinds of diets; from calorie restriction, to Atkins, to Weight Watchers, and probably half a dozen others.  I would lose some weight, lose momentum, and gain it all back, plus a few more for good measure.

In the past year and a half I finally started to figure it out.  I gave up on dieting and just started living better.  I made some simple changes to what we ate, adding more veggies and mostly eliminating processed food.  I remember one day Tyson walked out of the bathroom and said "I've lost 20 pounds, I don't know how that happened," and all that I could think of was "I know how it happened."  I had been trying to improve my overall health and so I cooked differently and he just happened to benefit from it without knowing it.  The change didn't happen quite so quickly and easily for me, but still, over time I managed to drop some significant weight.

I knew that I needed to do more than just eat better so at first I started walking, and then took up running.  It was miserable at first, I hated every second of it, but after a little while it became easier and before I knew it I was hooked.  I started a couch to 5k program at the beginning on October 2011, ran my first 10k in April and then a half marathon in July.  Somehow, just as I was about to turn 30, I found myself in the best shape of my life and 15 pounds lighter than I was as a junior in high school.  I was wearing jeans and shirts in sizes that I had never purchased before in my life.  I should have been on top of the world, right?
I wasn't.  I would look in the mirror and still see ever flaw, every fault, I could hardly see a difference.  In fact, I found new ones to add to the list of imperfections.  I had worked so hard, but I still hated what I saw in the mirror every day and was ashamed of my body and all of its imperfections.  Nothing looked like it should and I was very depressed.  Honestly, getting pregnant hasn't helped.  I had worked so hard to get smaller that gaining weight again, having my belly rounded, is positively painful for me right now.  I know that my issues can't be fixed overnight, it is going to take some time to get past, but more than ever before I have come to realize that I need to do all that I can to raise my daughters to have healthy and positive body images.  I can't wait for me to pull it all together for myself first, I have to do something about it now before I have a 4 year-old that says "I look fat in this."  Who knows, maybe by adjusting things for my girls I can help myself.

I've seen this image all over Pinterest, pinned as inspiration with captions like "Don't give up on your dreams."  It really bothers me.  No matter how hard that rhino works, he will never be a unicorn.  I will never look like a fitness model, no matter how hard I work, I just don't have the genes for that, and that has to be okay.  I will be fit, healthy, and active and that HAS TO BE good enough.  I want my girls to be the best versions of themselves without comparing themselves to anyone else on this planet.  Tear down those posters, get rid of that "thinspiration" and just do your best for yourself.  (This is totally my pep talk to myself here)
Everything has just gotten crazier since I was a kid and I worry about my girls growing up in a world that focuses so much on appearance and size.  What can I POSSIBLY do to protect them, to teach them that their value has nothing to do with their bodies and appearance and that they don't have to look like some airbrushed movie star to be beautiful?
I've started out by making some rules for myself as their mother.  My first rule deals with body image verbiage.   There are words that are not uttered in this house, not even when I am all by myself.  I will not use the words FAT and UGLY, but also THIN and SKINNY.  I think that "fat" and "ugly" are fairly easy to understand.  If my children never hear me call myself fat or ugly they won't be as likely to use those words to describe themselves.  I might feel like I look fat or ugly that day, but I refuse to ever let myself vocalize it because I won't teach my girls that this is okay.  You might wonder why I won't use "skinny" or "thin" either.  That is because I refuse to glorify being skinny or thin.  We do not endeavor to be skinny or thin in this house, we endeavor to be healthy and fit.  Skinny and thin describe appearance, healthy and fit describe lifestyles and states of being.  Do you see the difference?  In my opinion saying someone is skinny, especially as a compliment, is the same as saying someone is fat as an insult.  It is teaching my children to make a value judgement about someone based on their size.

The next rule has to do with physical activity.  In this home we move.  I love to run, my girls see me go for runs several times a week.  They see me take this time out of our busy lives to go and do something that is good for me both mentally and physically.  Tyson has brought the girls to see me run a couple of races and they get very excited as I am on my way back, running to the finish line.  Lily has started asking to go running with me.  My running club set up a Kids Race this last fall and the kids all had a blast.  I'm not going to lecture my kids about exercise, I'm teaching them by example, and it is working.  For me running is fun and my girls know that and amazingly enough are picking up on it.  We play, run, and dance together.  We move and movement is fun.
It was a cold day, but Lily did great in her first race!
The last rule has to deal with food.  We eat healthy food most of the time, but cookies and goodies are still produced in this house.  I don't believe in cutting everything out, labeling some food as "good" and other food as "bad".  Rather we talk about how sometimes we get treats, but they aren't what help us grow to be healthy and strong and have the energy to play.  I make balanced meals and sometimes we get goodies, but there is no food that is good or bad.  We all know that when something is forbidden we almost always want it more.  When you are on a carb-free diet all that you want in the world is a thick slice of fluffy white bread.  I have tried cutting sweets out for myself, because I have the biggest sweet tooth, and I find that I can hold off for a while, but eventually I cave and eat a big bag of candy.  No good.  So I allow myself to have sweets, but not every day and not a lot at a time, just enough to keep me satisfied and keep the cravings away.  Healthy nutritious food comprises 80-90% of our family diet with some room left for goodies and other yummy things like butter and creamy sauces that maybe aren't quite so healthy.  This works for our family.

Also, my children are not forced to finish their dinner.  If they don't eat much or anything at lunch or dinner I set the plate aside and offer it to them again later when they come back and say that they are hungry.  I want my children to learn to listen to their bodies and know when they are hungry and when they are not.  If they are not hungry, I won't force them to eat.  I believe that this will help them to build a healthy relationship with food.

I know that I can't totally protect my girls from the superficiality of this world, but hopefully I can safeguard them a little bit and not pass my body image issues onto them.


  1. I loved reading this blog and I feel that I have changed my life in similar ways. I am happy with my body (well, like 90%) and I am even more grateful that I know that I am healthy. Thank you for sharing your intimate thoughts. I find that I love those blogs the most and they are the ones that people remember. I remember our high school days and I didn't ever sense that you felt like that. Although you may battle with those negative thoughts that Satan tries to bring you down with, Heavenly Father knows that fun and energetic person you are and wants you to be. Keep up the good positive attitude. I love seeing you complete races and seeing your healthy posts on facebook. Well done, Jenn, and thank you for sharing.
    Christina Yearsley Miller

  2. Thank you so much for this post! I, too, have had a similar journey as you. I have always been overweight. The problem kept compounding with every failed weight loss attempt. Finally, I saw a picture and could not believe it was me. I started eating better (again nothing cut out just a healthier lifestyle for the whole family) and exercising. It took 2 years to get off 50 pounds but it has been gone for over a year now. I still look in the mirror and pick out all of the negatives. I truly don't see the results that others see. I try very hard to never criticize myself in front of them. I am terrified that I will also pass my image negativity down to my daughter. You are a wonderful inspiration!
    Shanna Strouse

  3. This is a wonderful post! You are doing this right, my daughter is 11 and luckily for me she is active and wants to play sports. She runs, she play softball, she actually reminds me to eat healthy sometimes when I don't want to! You would be surprised at the 3rd and 4th grade girls that talk about calories and their weight and don't eat their lunch at school. Keep up the good work!

  4. Loved this post! Being fit and healthy is so much more important than the size! You feel it in your body! Thin does not equal healthy (a rude awakening in college when my metabolism slowed down and I realized I couldn't eat Ramen and drink Tampico anymore. Just typing that grosses me out). :) You are a wonderful inspiration to your girls and I love that you've picked up my favorite sport! It's seriously addictive!!! I love seeing little kids run in some of my races! It makes me feel we (America) are getting somewhere with teaching kids good habits.

  5. Jenn this is amazing. I'm prouder than ever to consider you my big sister. Your girls are wonderful & I'm so excited to meet your new little boy when he comes. I was so stoked when I saw you tell Dave you'll walk with him 8 months pregnant. You're the best & I'm grateful you were willing to expose your vulnerabilities this way. Love you!!!