I recently had someone email me asking me for advice after her 13-year-old daughter complained about being fat while trying on clothes in her closet.
I fortunately have not had to face this yet with my own daughters. I’ve had children shove stuffed animals up their shirts and arch their backs and say things like, “Look at my big belly.” (Then they “give birth” and giggle when the furry friend drops out quite unexpectedly.) Also, my oldest once did remark her face was fat as she was puffing out her cheeks while looking in the mirror. When she said this, I remember flinching as an avalanche of feelings from my own body angst-ridden past cam crashing down inside of me. I was about to launch into a lengthy sermon about respecting your body and looks and appreciating all body types. However, fortunately before I had a chance to she breathed the air out and giggled, and I realized “fat” didn’t have any negative connotation for her yet. There was no shame. She was just being silly, giving her face a puffer fish look.
But more recently one of my daughters commented on how pretty one of her sisters was. I agreed, but the next thing she said tugged at my heart. “I’m not very pretty though,” she said. She didn’t say this sadly; it was just like it was a matter of fact. This did encourage us to have a conversation about what it really means to be “pretty” and also just about feelings because when our daughters or anyone we know disparages her body or her appearance, we have to separate the facts from the feelings.
And this is precisely what I told the mother of the child who had recently commented that she was fat.
Allow me to explain. I’m sure most parents’ knee-jerk reaction to a child saying she’s fat or doesn’t like her body or looks is to dispute the facts.
“That’s not true! You’re beautiful.”
“You’re not fat.”
“You’re perfect the way you are.”
I used to hear statements like this from my own caring parents and I wanted to believe them, but I didn’t. My parents said I wasn’t overweight even when I was so when I grew too thin and they still insisted I was thin, they lost some credibility. That’s what you said I wasn’t even close to being thin. I’m not blaming them. I know they saw me as beautiful no matter what the scale said or no matter how loudly some vicious boy oinked at me when I walked by, but their affirming statements didn’t offer me affirmation. Sometimes they might make me have fleeting feelings of happiness. Maybe I’m not so bad after all. But often they made me a little sad or even angry because it felt like they didn’t understand me or what I was going through.
See, I don’t think it’s about the facts when one of our beloved daughters says she hates her body, feels fat, and/or thinks she’s ugly. The fact is they may be at a perfectly healthy weight. They’re surely beautiful to us. These are facts, but our girls aren’t looking to debate the facts. They’re looking for a validation of their feelings.
Let me illustrate with a scenario many moms have probably found themselves in. After a bad day, we vent to our husbands and say something like, “I’m tired of being a mom.”
Let’s consider the husband’s possible responses:
- Maybe he says, “No, you’re not. You’re a great mom and you love being a mom.” These are probably factual statements, and maybe they even make us feel a little better. But maybe not. We may feel angry or just mildly annoyed that he doesn’t see how exhausted and overwhelmed we are or that he’s not giving us permission to express how down we feel. We don’t want to hear the facts right now – that we probably are a good mother and that we often do enjoy motherhood. We don’t want him to replace our statement with his own. Right now we just want our feelings acknowledged.
- In turn, consider him saying something like this, “I’m so sorry you feel that way. What’s going on? Tell me about your day. Then let me help with dinner.”
In all likelihood, response number two will make us feel better because our feelings are being validated.
Now what will feel even better is if he not only validates our feelings and gives us permission to have a crappy day and allow us to admit that sometimes we don’t feel like being a mom is if later on – not the same day we express our parenting angst – but maybe later that week without bringing up our meltdown is if he tells us how grateful he is for all we do as a family, mentions what a great mom we are, or says how lucky our children are to have us as a mom.
This isn’t a perfect analogy, but this scenario helps illustrate how we have to handle our girls’ body barbs. Of course, we want to tell them, “You are not fat! You are so beautiful.” And this may even be a temporary balm to our children. Maybe they will believe us for a bit, but because we didn’t validate or address the feelings beneath the surface, they are likely to occur again.
Even if a child is overweight there’s more to them “feeling fat.” There’s a sense of hopelessness or perhaps an ache of inadequacy. When I used to complain about my body, which I did both when I was Dachau-thin as well as chubby, what I was really saying is, “I don’t feel lovable.”
Now I personally had other, big issues to contribute to these feelings of self angst, namely a compulsion to be perfect and in control while growing up in a family touched by addiction. So I know not every young girl’s situation will mirror my own. Certainly, the culture we live in often perpetuates an unrealistically thin image and can contribute to making our girls feel not thin enough or pretty enough. But there is always something deeper going on, too, when a woman of any age berates her body or equates her worth to her appearance or the number on her clothing tags. Women as well as some men frequently use their weight and body image as a vehicle for expressing other things. A tween or teen can have some pretty big feelings to navigate, control, and understand. When she feels at a loss, when she feels lonely or confused or unpopular or like she’s stuck on the social margins or is stupid or too smart or frustrated or whatever, she might complain about being fat.
So how can we help these beautiful, young women in our lives? A mother knows her own daughter far better than I do, but I’d start by acknowledging her feelings. The negative statement she makes about her body or her looks is not really a statement of fact. It’s a statement of feelings. Think about when you’re less than thrilled with what you see in the mirror. I know my “ugly days” tend to arrive when I feel exhausted or hurt or when my kids are driving me crazy and I realize that even a stellar control freak such as I am has absolutely no control over their behavior or whims or bowel movements. Or maybe I feel “not good enough” as a wife or a mom or a homeschooler. It’s not about how fat I am or the zit on my nose. It’s about my heart and what’s going on in the inside.
So first acknowledge the feelings. Next, try to gently dig deeper to see what is fueling the statements she’s saying.
Also, resist the urge to get all rational on her by saying things like, “Well, you’re growing. That’s why your clothes are feeling tighter.” This is a good, true, and, yes, logical message, but it’s the wrong message for your child at that moment. What she needs more than anything is to feel understood.
What I think I’d do with one of my girls if they said something similar is to first say something like the wise husband says. “I’m sorry you are feeling this way.”
I might also try to discern if anyone else or any situation contributed to their feelings, especially if these feelings are something new (this is the digging deeper component). “Do you feel this way? Or did someone else make you feel like this?”
Ask about how you can help. “How can I help?” Maybe she is afraid to ask for some new clothes even though her jeans are feeling snug and a little uncomfortable. Ask her about what makes her feel beautiful. Don’t at the moment tell her she’s a beautiful child of God or point out her many talents, but do make a note to marble in positive affirmations like this more often. Take her shopping and help her to pick out fashionable clothes she feels lovely in (so much easier said than done with the immodest trash that ends up on hangers these days).
I would also try to remind her that it’s hard to feel gross when she’s doing something she is passionate about. Help her to cultivate a talent or passion and to pursue it with fervor.
And then I would pray. You can do everything “right” and she may still wrestle with feeling fat (i.e., feelings of worthlessness). Don’t we all? But that’s because of just how lovely we are and how much power we have to transform the world with our goodness and yes, our beauty! Our culture is constantly telling young girls and women of all ages,
“You’re not good enough the way you are.”
“Wear this to get noticed.”
“Slap on this skin cream to erase the signs of aging.”
“Date this boy to be accepted into the cool crowd.”
“Be a super woman and you might just have it all.”
“Start roaring if you want to be heard. Forget the namby-pamby girly stuff.”
“Lose some weight if you want to look pretty.”
“Bring sexy back.”
Meanwhile, the language of God is a beautiful love song. We are the crown of creation. We are good enough because of Him. He loves what He created. We are like St. Gianna Molla said – a monstrance through which the world should see God. We have to believe in our own beauty, give it value, and share it with others. We don’t have to do it all or be everything to everyone. We simply have to accept God’s love as well as the love of others and then share this love with everyone we encounter. We have to help our girls tap into their God-given strength and to know and trust their dignity. We have to encourage them to see their bodies, not as objects that are in need of a makeover, but as instruments to bring love, beauty, and goodness into the world. We have to show them that being sexy and beautiful do not mean the same thing and that we don’t have to have a gaggle of guys notice us to feel worthwhile. Once we understand our innate beauty and goodness and believe in it, we can’t help but attract others. A daunting task indeed. But we must fight for our daughter’s dignity and beauty – no matter her clothing size or what she sees in the mirror. While we’re at it, let’s fight for our own dignity and beauty as well.
So today I was part of a virtual discussion for HuffPost Live about fat-shaming during pregnancy and the recent hateful headlines about the pregnant Kim Kardashian. Whenever I have live interviews whether via the Internet or on the radio, I worry a child might interrupt, but my dad distracted the kids and enjoyed their company. Too bad my needy dog started going crazy because I put her in the backyard after hearing her bark at every passing pedestrian or squirrel outside of our window. She’s still hyperventilating, and she’s on Prozac. Really. Then my Internet went down not once but three times. I tried to join the conversation when I could, but I missed parts of it, and it all felt a little disjointed. It was yet another humbling experience where I find myself frustrated that I can’t do more, and I have to just let things go.
From what I was able to hear, the conversation focused largely on the fact that pregnancy is something to be celebrated and that women should not feel shame or see it as a time for body-bashing. Some people don’t care that Kim Kardashian is being scrutinized. I don’t know all that much about her and don’t follow reality television, but I don’t care whether you’re a public figure or not. No one deserves that kind of vitriol. In an Internet meme, Kim is shown in a black and white dressed juxtaposed with an orca whale. That’s just wrong.
But seeing that kind of “news” story, while it makes me sick, isn’t likely to force me to collapse into a heap of self-doubt (or turn down that chocolate egg my daughter just offered me). I’m a big girl. I’ve recovered from an eating disorder. I have tough days, body image blues, but for the most part I’ve arrived at a healthy place. I’ve also carried four babies to full-term. I’ve dealt with all the “joys” of pregnancy – the hemorrhoids, the weight gain, the varicose veins. I’ve had my share of struggles given my past eating disorders, but pregnancy and especially labor have also helped me like nothing else to see my body more as an instrument than an object that needs to be tweaked and fixed.
So I can handle the media’s hate and fat-shaming of pregnant women. I don’t like it, and I still feel sorry for the women whose pregnant forms are constantly examined and talked about. I know it’s part of the deal as a public figure, but it seems women celebrities can’t win. If Kim wasn’t gaining enough weight, they’d be attacking her for jeopardizing her baby’s health and being more concerned with her status as a sex symbol.
Still, what bothers me more than how these kinds of headlines impact me personally or the celebrities they showcase is what kind of messages are being delivered to my daughters and all young girls (and young boys, too). We can monitor our children’s media diets, but we can’t keep their wandering eyes from noticing the word “FAT” next to a pregnant woman who still looks lovely while we’re checking out at the grocery store.
We can tell pregnant women to focus on health during pregnancy and to celebrate those miraculous nine months, and many will. Some won’t though. Some will struggle with their changing body and their postpartum mushiness. We’ll see those headlines either of the supermodel who lost her baby weight a mere eight weeks after giving birth or the ones pointing fingers at the “fat” preggo celeb. Yes, big girls like me sometimes find it difficult to resist the siren song of beauty and thinness frequently portrayed in media. How can we expect our young children, then, to not turn to the mirror for affirmation?
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” they ask, and they’re not playing pretend. Our children are exposed to air-brushed and sexualized images of beautiful people everywhere—from billboards to magazines in the pediatrician’s office. And now they’re being exposed to pregnant women being called whales.
“Diet Secrets of the Stars,” “Lose Ten Pounds in a Week,” “Miracle Wrinkle Cream Erases Crow’s-Feet.” The headlines rotate, but the theme remains the same: If you lose those last five, ten, fifteen, or twenty-plus pounds, embrace a starlet’s measurements and beauty routine, stop aging in its tracks, and don’t gain much weight during pregnancy, you’ll be happier. You’ll be better.
And so the brainwashing begins young. The mirror becomes distorted. By the time we reach adulthood and often much earlier, we no longer see our bodies for what they can do but only for how they look.
That’s the problem here. It’s not about your opinion of Kim or how you personally feel during pregnancy or how much weight you gain. It’s about the young girls in our lives equating their worth with how sexy they are or how much they weigh.
The young, impressionable girls in our lives don’t know Kim snaked her way into the spotlight with a sex tape (I hope). They won’t read between the lines or connect the imaginary dots that people are just eager to shame Kim for anything. Kim might not be every woman; HuffPost Live was criticized for suggesting this with the title of our discussion. But she does represent something to our daughters. She’s a pretty woman who is being called fat – when she’s pregnant. The young women in our lives, no matter whether they know who the reality star is or not, will likely see a pretty woman who is pregnant and is being lambasted for gaining too much weight. Is her worth only tied to her sex appeal or the number on the scale? Is this how we measure a woman’s value? Is the only path to receiving positive feedback to be beautiful and thin?
The author of the blog post that spurred the HuffPost Live discussion wrote: “When will we acknowledge that all of us, even Kim Kardashian, deserve to spend our lives thinking less about how we look and more about what we can do — and that the former definitely gets in the way of the latter?”
I’d take it a step further. Not only do we need to stop seeing women as a number on a scale or an object, but we need to pay more attention to the person the woman is – not what her figure looks like or her professional accolades. We are human beings – not human bodies or human doings. We are more than the sum of our body parts or our career. There’s an incredible amount of pressure being piled on our girls to do it all – and at the same time, too! – all while maintaining their girlish figures.
The hyper-focus on Kim and other pregnant celebrities’ changing bodies isn’t only denigrating to all women, but it’s also a subtle way of undermining motherhood and suggesting pregnancy and being a mom is more of a burden than a blessing. This is another message our girls are going to pick up on: That being a mother robs you of a lot of things – including your attractiveness and figure.
Being a mom – whether you work outside of the home or not (we all work) – is undervalued in society. Sure, we give motherhood plenty of lip service – how it’s the most important job in the world – yet, the role of mothers is often reduced to a string of tedious, mindless tasks like laundry, diaper changes, chauffeuring children, and serving meals. There’s the whole mommy brain cliche, too. Women, particularly those who stay home to care for young children, don’t partake in stimulating conversations. Their brains turn to mush from all those Barney songs. While everyone else is out in the world making things happen, they’re stuck at home leading dull lives devoid of intellectual stimulation.
Now headlines calling women who were once the media’s delicious eye-candy are suggesting something else: Motherhood and attractiveness are mutually exclusive. As soon as you pee on a stick and get that positive pregnancy test, get ready to say good-bye to your life, identity, and your body as you know it. Motherhood brings little soul-sucking, fat-adding beasties into your life who will hijack your flat abs and change you into a yeti since you’ll never have time to shave or shower anymore.
I say shame on the media. Shame on them for being cruel to a pregnant woman and again, I don’t care what she stands for or who she is; she doesn’t deserve that kind of hateful scrutiny. Shame on them for perpetuating the idea that women only have as much value as the amount of positive attention her body and looks grab for her. And shame on them for distorting motherhood as something that takes more than it gives. This is the message I’d like to send to all young girls: Being sexy is not the same as being beautiful. You may think your worth hinges upon how attractive you are. You’re sexy. Men (and women, too) notice. Therefore, you must be beautiful and valuable. Nope. It’s the other way around. As a woman, you need to believe in your value and your worth. When you do embrace your femininity and dignity, it’s beautiful, and this beauty can’t help but attract.
As for pregnancy and motherhood, yes, it does change your life and shift things around physically and in other ways, too. But it’s not for the worse. Becoming a mom doesn’t mean you transform into an unattractive, unthinking lump, but anything worth creating bids a price from its creator. There will be sacrifices and changes ahead, but there will be joy, too, and sticky kisses and spontaneous hugs and yes, even power. Motherhood is the ultimate form of girl power. The laborious processes of growing a human and nurturing aren’t always easy to recognize or even to assign value to, but they are what is building the future. There’s nothing quite like raising a child to make you feel strong.
No matter her age, a woman’s worth is tied to whom she is – not how she looks and not even what she does. And if a woman becomes a mother, this is a gift, not a burden. This is the critical message we need to be delivering to our society, to our daughters.
Please join me along with several other guests on Huffpost Live at 11:30 EST today (April 1st) for a candid discussion in response to this blog post about the hateful headlines attacking Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy weight gain. Tune into the conversation here.