{Let’s Not} Bring Sexy Back

I was in the kitchen making final dinner preparations as my older children were setting the table when I overheard my then 4-year-old ask her 9-year-old big sister, “Maddy, why is sexy a bad word?”

There was a pregnant pause. Then Madeline slowly began to speak, “Well…uh. You know, I think that’s a question for Mommy.”

Smart girl.

The kids have asked me why I don’t want them to listen to certain pop songs that have sage phrases like “I’m sexy and I know it” or “bring sexy back.” I haven’t gone into great deal, but I have started to explain the difference between the words “beautiful” and “sexy.”

When I first became a mother, I harbored a lot of fear about my daughter’s perception of beauty because I had suffered from an eating disorder and struggled with my own body image and had made my appearance my idol. I was terrified that my own children would make let their outward appearance become a barometer of their self-worth and waste precious years of their lives at war with the scale and the mirror.

Fortunately for me, my first daughter was born pining for pirate parties and soccer. She didn’t seem to pay much attention to the frilly stuff. Rachel, my second, liked to play dress up and pretend she was a princess, but it was just one of many interests, and these days she prefers reading while wearing comfy clothes rather than pretty frocks.

Enter Mary Elizabeth. The girl has loved makeup and shoes from the day she first discovered my vanity and closet. She piles on the pink puffery, and most of her tantrums involve bad hair days or wardrobe malfunctions. She never leaves the house without myriad accessories. At a recent birthday party, a friend of mine complimented her shiny bracelet bling. She told her thank you and that it was her “party bangle.” I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word bangle.

IMG 5267 225x300 {Lets Not} Bring Sexy Back

Our resident girly-girl

When she was probably around 2, I recall her picking up a blush brush and making it dance across her cheeks. My first impulse was to tell her to stop, but I hesitated when I saw the way she was smiling at her reflection. I had a parenting epiphany. I had no business trying to dissuade her from pursuing beauty or encouraging her to eschew all things feminine. God designed her to be a mark of beauty in the world and to find a way to express her femininity. For some women like my Mary Elizabeth, that may involve applying tasteful makeup and wearing pretty things, and that’s okay. And truthfully, taking one look at my closet clues you into the fact that I am drawn to pretty things (shoes!), too.

Over time, I’ve grown in wisdom and now recognize that when any of my daughters want to slap on some lip gloss or play with a makeup brush, they aren’t on an extreme makeover mission. My daughters don’t (yet) see their bodies or faces as objects to be adorned or altered. They see them as canvases on which to paint, as mirrors with the potential to reflect inner as well as outer beauty.

As humans, we are drawn to beauty. As women, we may be similarly drawn to making ourselves beautiful even as we recognize that beauty transcends the external and the material world. This desire to be beautiful might make some women uncomfortable. It may feel an awful lot like superficial vanity. But as Pope Benedict XVI explained, our attraction to beauty is a power that “unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards each other, to reach for the beyond.” In other words, the pursuit of beauty is good because it leads us to a deeper yearning for the divine. God is the source of all beauty.

But most of the pop singers aren’t crooning, “God made me beautiful, and I know it.”

One of the problems is in today’s world “sexy” and “beautiful” have become interchangeable and seem to mean the same thing even though they’re entirely different. Mary is beautiful without drawing attention to herself or being “sexy.” Sure, Marilyn Monroe was beautiful, but so was Mother Teresa.

Sorry, Justin, but we really don’t need to bring sexy back. It’s already rampant. We need to put it back in its place and reserve it as an offering from a wife to a husband, not as the goal for our daughters.

What I will one day tell my daughters is this: Pursuing sexiness over beauty leaves a woman feeling empty. A “sexy” woman might feel she’s only as valuable as how much she’s noticed. She feels all she has to offer the world is skin. I know because I was once the college girl singing in the church choir who wore her skirts way too short. I didn’t believe in my own worth, so I needed men to notice me to affirm that I was someone of value. In fact, I still struggle with searching for external ways to give myself value, but I am hoping my own challenges will better equip me to empower these lovely daughters of mine.

And I know I am not alone in my struggles. Modern Western society has distorted what it means to be beautiful as well as worthwhile, and this is why so many grapple with poor body image. It’s why young women feel the need to wear flashy, immodest clothing, or moms chronically diet, or grandmothers tirelessly fight the aging process. Attention from men or even compliments from girlfriends make us feel attractive, and, hey, if others think I’m attractive or sexy, then that must mean I am a little bit beautiful and if I’m beautiful, then I’m worthwhile and have something to offer the world.

But we’ve got it backwards. To reclaim the beauty of Creation, we have to turn that equation inside out. I want my daughters to recognize their worth and their dignity lies in their being, not their doing or their looks. I want them to know that it is in their ability to love and accept love in return that makes them truly beautiful. This is the kind of beauty cannot help but attract people. We know our value and have dignity and so we express that beauty to everyone we meet, and that is what makes us beautiful.

Unfortunately, our primary conception of beauty is that of the pretty, sexy variety. It’s a kind of beauty that grabs our attention and takes our sensations hostage.

Most wouldn’t argue that a woman on the cover of a Victoria Secret’s catalogue isn’t beautiful, but she possesses a kind of beauty that doesn’t give. Sexiness grabs. It seizes. It can be almost violent – a force that takes a hold of others. Sexiness has its place. A woman who feels sexy for her husband is one thing; a child who sees being pretty and sexy as synonymous and wears flashy, immodest clothing is another. Sexiness should be reserved for our spouses, and it shouldn’t be inexorably linked to our beauty.

Pursuing raw sexiness (no pun intended) simply takes more than it gives.

Real beauty, on the contrary, is a gift. Authentic beauty is Eucharistic; it is transformed to what is offered and becomes a living sign of Christ’s love.

I brought dinner into the dining room and smiled at my daughters. My young daughter forgot to ask me about why “sexy” isn’t a good word, and I considered sharing my heart, but I’m not sure they’re all ready for that. For now, I will keep blacklisting the word “sexy” from their vernacular. I’ll keep encouraging my girls to be drawn to the beautiful, to share their beauty with others and to believe in it, and to sing with all their heart, “God created me. I am beautiful and I know it.”

 

 

 

 

The best before and after you’ll ever see

Occasionally, I use a popular fitness app to work out that’s definitely designed more for the younger set. The instructor, for example, sometimes talks about her new nail color for the day (can you imagine having time to change your nail color daily?), and I sheepishly look at my chewed nails and un-manicured toes and want to say to the peppy, chic instructor “Doesn’t she know that au natural is the new ‘color’ of the season? She also mentions things like studying and exams without nary a reference to potty training or sassy kids.

Nevertheless, the reason I keep the app is simple: The workouts are challenging and free (the app is free to download as well), and they also incorporate a lot of Pilates, something myriad health professionals have encouraged me to continue to do as I tirelessly attempt to rehab the injury-that-will-never-go-away*.

The app also comes with recipes, workouts, and a forum. I never paid much attention to the forum component, but a few months ago we were on a longer car trip and I started perusing through the “Before & After” section. I will tell you right now that if you struggle with your body image (or ever have), or you have suffered from an eating disorder in the past, this is probably not the best place for you. I’m not sure it’s a great place for any woman to spend much time, given how it’s so body-centric and gives girls a chance to compare themselves to hundreds of half-dressed women.

To be fair, there were some women who really seemed to be using the before and after photographs as healthy motivation.  They have lost the weight and/or toned up in a healthy, balanced manner. The community was also mostly very encouraging. There was one young woman who only posted a “before” picture along with the comment “my body is disgusting, but I’m going to change that.” Someone immediately responded, “Your body is not disgusting. It’s going to be hard to make healthy changes if you don’t love yourself first.” Agreed. There were also girls desperately trying to achieve what seems to be the Holy Grail of Beauty right now – the elusive thigh gap. But for every young woman lusting over one, there were two or three telling her this is an unrealistic goal for most women and is based more on bone structure than fitness.

So the “Before & After” section certainly wasn’t exclusively black hole of negativity. What’s more, taking a before and after photos as you embark on a healthy lifestyle makeover rather than fixating on the number on the scale can be quite beneficial, but I would recommend keeping the photos private. Of course, for some sharing progress with others helps hold them accountable. In fact, the idea of a “social media diet” is growing, thanks to websites and apps like My Fitness Pal and Lose it! to But like so many things in life, you have to know yourself, your temptations, and be vigilant about ensuring what may have healthy potential doesn’t morph into something that leads you to unhealthy comparisons, vanity, and/or obsessiveness.

Personally, while I could recognize some good coming out of this particular social media “Before & After” forum, I also saw a whole lot of bad. Somewhere in the back of mind, I started to look at one young woman’s enviable midsection and wonder why my efforts to strengthen my core were not resulting in that streamlined, muscled look. (Ironically, my “efforts to strengthen my core” have been successful even if you don’t see it based upon how long I can hold a plank these days without earthquake-like body tremors.) If you clicked on the username, you would learn that the “woman” was all but 15. A mom of four inching closer to 40 every day was actually comparing herself to that of a 15-year-old in a moment of absurdity. I wasn’t the only one making unwise comparisons. Many of the girls on the forum were asking questions like, “How did you get your thigh gap?” and “What can I do to have abs like yours?” All of these girls were looking to others for inspiration instead of looking within themselves and asking themselves, What can I – with my own gifts and natural design – do to live the fullest, most healthful life possible?

I don’t like admitting that I was actually on a fitness “Before & After” forum comparing myself to adolescents, but I can bet I’m not alone. Maybe most women don’t go so far as to seek out a forum full of fitness photos, but most of us fall prey to comparing ourselves to someone somewhere. Perhaps it’s someone in the media or on the cover of a magazine you glance at while checking out at the grocery store. Or it’s the fit neighbor who runs by your house every day. Or it’s the beautiful mom who doesn’t look like she just had a baby whom you meet at a playdate. Or it’s the “friend of a friend” on Facebook who posts her smiling, lovely face and her status update: “Soaking up the Mediterranean sun and getting the tan of my life.” Or maybe you’re looking at pictures of you – maybe it’s the “thin” you from that day long ago when you didn’t have varicose veins or maybe it’s the “current” you who’s just a bit too soft – and you’re comparing yourself to what you could be, once was, or should be.

Stop it. Stop it right this very second.

You are more than a paper doll to be dressed up, scrutinized, and criticized.

I wish all those young girls on that app knew this. I almost thought of leaving comments such as these after some of the posts.

I nearly did comment after a post that made me pause. There was a picture of a young girl with a lovely, round face. She wasn’t smiling. Actually, it almost appeared as if she was trying to make herself look as miserable as possible. Beneath her picture, she wrote, “I hate my round face. What can I do to make it thinner?”

I had an answer for her. “Age, my beautiful girl. The aging process will siphon all that collagen from your face, so that one day it’s no longer round and all angles, and you’ll realize your the face of your youth was perfectly fine just as your aging face is lovely as well, and its ’roundness’ was had everything to do with being young and full of life, and your wrinkles now have everything to do with living a full life.”

See, once upon a time I was a chubby girl who got teased and called names like “Miss Piggy.” Then one day some crazy hormones started finally coursing through through her body and – viola! – she slimmed down. She felt like the ugly duckling turned swan. The very boys who teased her started flirting with her; girls asked her what her “secret” was (once again, it was simply aging and hitting puberty later than others).  So the swan preened her feathers and flaunted them, believing all she had to offer the world was skin. She embraced a warped view that to be thinner was to be better and even more loved. She started to exercise rain or shine, sick or well. She started to eat shards of lettuce (hold the dressing, please) for her “big” meal of the day. She grew thinner and yet, she felt that her face stubbornly remained round.

If there had been social media in her day, she would have most certainly become obsessed. She would have seen the girls with hip bones jutting out and hollowed-out faces and wonder why she wasn’t as “strong” as them.

This girl was me. I hated my face. I hated how “fat” it looked.

Now I look back on those photos and I see nothing but youth. I used to sift through photos of my “chubby” self (my “before”) and compare them to my “after.” I was mostly pleased with the way my clavicle was a noticeable ridge and one of the first things you noticed when you looked at my photo, but that face of mine never seemed to change. I put so much effort into trying to change the outside of me while the inside atrophied and was consumed by thoughts of what to eat and what not to eat, how to smile in a photo or tilt my head so that plump face of mine wouldn’t look so full, how to get rid of those nasty calories I’d taken in, how to be thinner, and in my twisted mind “better.”

If I could turn myself inside out, what would my internal before and after look like? There would be a girl – a silly girl who loved writing in her journal, reading, drama, and horses – who was shutting out all the beauty that longed to radiate from within by becoming preoccupied with weight and changing a face that would one day change all on its own.

More recently, I was with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in quite awhile, and we started talking about what we were up to. I admitted that I was in a bit of a slump, but that I was learning something very valuable through it all. I noticed her new Garmin watch and complimented it. “I love it,” she said. “I use it all of the time.”

“I used to use mine all of the time, too,” I said just a tad wistfully. Just call me Eeyore.

“But you don’t anymore!” Madeline, the ever-eavesdropper, added.

Nope, I don’t, and for some reason I started to consider all of the time I’ve invested in trying to rehab my tendons and my lopsided pelvis, and I thought of my lackluster soul, how it’s been mired in what feels like an interminable dark night for too long, and in need of some serious rehab as well. I thought about how going to weekly Mass really isn’t enough to nurture a living faith or to resuscitate a flagging soul. I need to enfold myself into a stronger chrysalis to change: prayer, more confession, more hope.

“You know,” I told my friend. “What I’m going to focus on right now is just trying to be a better person. I’ve spent so much of my life achieving and trying to meet goals, but what if I just poured most of my efforts into being a better person? I know it sounds cliche….” I trailed off.

“No, it doesn’t,” she said. “Not at all. It sounds like something we all should do.”

And so I’m working on pursuing a different kind of before and after. Here’s my before: Here’s a woman who God just won’t give up on despite her doubts, her fears, her struggles that are suddenly resurrecting after years of peace and wholeness. Her soul is beautiful, but it’s in need of a makeover. It’s not as radiant and trusting and hopeful as it should be – or as it once was. But that’s okay. There’s no reason to despair or to give up or to compare herself to others who diffuse peace and kindness and unwavering faith.

Because after weeks, months, a lifetime of ups and downs and effort, and grace-seeking and mercy-begging, here’s her after:  This soul of hers is resplendent. It can’t stop shining. It is a grateful soul. It has a few blemishes, yes, because this is a soul of a human, but look at the way it sings and shines and gives and joyfully receives and loves.

That’s the “after” I’m going for. Hold me to it.

 

*I met with a new specialist yesterday and am very hopeful about overcoming this injury and getting back to running, but I am determined to find peace no matter what happens.

 

When being “healthy” isn’t…

A friend of mine passed along a link to an article every mom needs to read: “Moms, Put on That Swimsuit.”

It was most definitely an article I needed to read at that moment.

The author writes,

I refuse to miss my children’s high-pitched, pool-induced giggles because of my insecurities.

I refuse to let other women’s judging eyes at the pool prevent me from exposing my kids’ eyes to the wonder of the sun glittering on the water.

I refuse to let my self-image influence my children’s.

I refuse to sacrifice memories with my children because of a soft tummy.

Because at the end of the day, it is not just about me.

It is about my kids.

I want them to remember twirling in the water with their mom.

I want them to remember splash fights together.

I want them to remember jumping off the edge of the pool into my arms.

I want them to remember that their mom was there, with them.”

Her third refusal really jumped out at me: I refuse to let my self-image influence my children’s.

I thought about my own self-image right about now. Last year around this time, when I ironically was still logging in a lot of running miles (I tend to blame the dearth of running in my life because of my injury as the reason I’m feeling a little less comfortable in my own skin), I wrote a post about my struggle with the scale and how I felt like a fraud admitting I was suffering from “scale sickness” since I am supposed to be a healthy body image expert. I wrote a book making peace with your body, after all. I speak to women and encourage them to redefine beauty and to accept their God-given designs. Shouldn’t I do more than talk the talk, so to speak? Where was my walking?

Some days it’s there. A lot of times I am a super model for my kids and my fellow women. Not the Cindy Crawford variety (I am getting old; I don’t even know who the cool super models are anymore), but of the super ROLE model variety. I sometimes live a life that reminds women that in our efforts to be beautiful, we women must not limit that pursuit to sexual appeal. Our virtue is what begets real beauty.

But there are days when I’m not very kind, or I’m just plain selfish and that makes me ugly. Or there are days when I feel ugly and that makes me not want to be very kind. There are days when I feel lacking as a good human soul – and as a body.

Then there are the moments when I think that maybe I did a thing or two right. I look back on my day. I did something nice for a friend. I cuddled with my kids, read them books, put my husband’s socks away with nary a complaint. And, yet, my insecurities – they are so deep-rooted – still get the best of me.

Let’s tackle the pool first. I have been swimming with my kids this summer. I’ve jumped in, made a splash, and not worried that I don’t have perfect abs. But that’s because I’ve made sure to go to a pool that none of my friends go to, and we’ve visited at odd times. Or we’ve headed to my parents’ lake house where there’s nothing but family, love, and acceptance. I’ve avoided being seen by anyone other than those who will love and accept me no matter what. What will I do in July when we are on vacation, and there will possibly be those judging eyes the “Moms, wear your swimsuits” author mentions? Will I gladly accept the swimsuit and bear my skin all for the sake of my family? Yes. I will. But I would be lying if I told you it was going to be easy.

Recently, I’ve been whining to my husband that I’d like a pool in our backyard like I had growing up, which isn’t really a possibility with our given yard and home. Besides. I love my home and don’t really want to move. But, oh, how I want my own pool! I sound like a spoiled ninny. I use the excuses of a backyard pool simply being more accessible, a great way to fight the afternoon doldrums, a place for me to exercise and rehabilitate my broken-down body, and the fact that we ought to want to create a super-cool teen pad so that when our kids are older, they will want to hang out at our house with our friends.

These are all fine and valid points perhaps, but there’s another reason I am pining for a private pool that I haven’t dared to say aloud. I don’t like public pools. Again, not because I am a snoot. Not because I worry about my kids’ decibel-piercing “outside” voices disturbing the peace, although this is true sometimes. Not even because it can be overwhelming to keep a vigilant eye on four swimming children, but this is a reasonable source of reluctance for me spending every afternoon at a crowded, public pool. It’s exhausting, really. I can’t possibly socialize with friends I might see at the pool and make sure my kids, especially the two littles, aren’t on the verge of drowning.

But perhaps, sadly, the biggest reason and the unspoken one is that I want my own pool so others won’t have to see me in a swimsuit. Or really, I won’t have to be seen by others. I’ve wanted to avoid public pools this year because of the way I look – or the way I once looked and the fact that I don’t think I look that way any longer (my dear husband still says my body image can be a bit distorted and that I haven’t completely shattered that funny carnival mirror in my head that twists and distorts the way I seem myself as well as my body). Or maybe it’s just the way I think every other woman but me (we never see others’ faults as glaringly as our own, now do we?) looks in their swimsuit. I am afraid of those (probably non-existent) judging eyes. I don’t want an audience. I feel okay with just my family, but I don’t want any other onlookers to see my physical flaws or to see that I don’t possess the kind of self-confidence someone who fights for women’s freedom from the scale and the societal constraints of beauty ought to have.

I do also happen to have some really fit friends. I try not to compare myself to them, but it’s difficult when their bronzed skin is sparkling in the sunlight and their muscle definition pops out at me like an Andy Warhol painting.

I feel inferior, weaker.

My kids don’t know about my feelings. Yet. I haven’t complained about my swimsuit. I have taken them to the pool – just an unpopular one where we never see anyone else swimming. I jump in and swim and feel happy and weightless. I forget that I am sometimes still at war with my flesh.

But when I read the article yesterday, I realized me putting on a swimsuit and being confident in it – whether we are hanging out in our backyard patio kiddie “pool”side or at a public pool – isn’t about me any longer. Like the author points out, it’s about my children. It’s about showing them there’s more to life than looking “hot” or just “good” in a swimsuit. It’s not how you look; it’s what you do with your life. We can’t let our bodies or our feelings about them define our lives.

As I came to realize my own reluctance to slip into a swimsuit with ease, I started to consider the other messages I might be conveying to my children – all under the guise of pursuing health and fitness. I recently joked about how my 9-year-old admonished me for doing push-ups less than 24 hours after I’d had an impacted wisdom tooth extracted. At the time, I felt like I was sending her a positive message. Look at your tough mom who can show her strength even in the wake of surgery, albeit a very, very minor one. But this morning, I realized I was performing a precarious tightrope walk there between coming off as strong and healthy and just plain stupid and obsessive.

I am constantly teaching my children about healthy food choices. I don’t define any food as bad or vilify any one food group. Food is fuel. Some of it’s better than others. Food is also a conduit of community and even love. We break bread together. We don’t need to serve it with a heaping side of guilt.

Similarly, I don’t make exercise (for them) about feeling good in a swimsuit. We’re active because it’s fun! They feel great in their swimsuits because it means they get to cool off and swim! Nothing more, nothing less. With the exception of one persnickety child who doesn’t cope well with the occasional swimsuit wedgie, they have no cares when they show more skin. And, yet, I am still not always conveying the “right” message to my beautiful daughters.

There’s a fine line between the pursuit of health and an obsession with it. A relatively new eating disorder known as orthorexia has even been introduced. The National Eating Disorders Association explains orthorexia and those who suffer from it like this:

Those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from “orthorexia nervosa,” a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity. They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with “slip-ups.” An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style. Every day is a chance to eat right, be “good,” rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise). Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.

I’d add that a “sister” disorder would be those who become “addicted” to rigid exercise routines. The obsessive organic and the compulsive CrossFitter both have problems even if they appear to simply be making healthy choices. We need to ask ourselves: How attached are we to these healthy choices? Does our need to eat a strict Paleo diet or run a certain number of miles a week steal intimacy from our lives? The more attached we are to being healthy, the more we might withdraw from others. We might avoid a social event out of fear that unhealthy food might be served or because it interferes with our workout schedule. We might miss a child’s baseball game because we have to work out. We think we are gaining with these righteous, “healthy” choices, but we’re really losing.

I have often argued only treating women with clinically diagnosed eating disorders is rubbish. Just because a woman doesn’t have a dangerous BMI or drop a below a certain percentage of her weight doesn’t mean she’s not sick. There are women walking around at a healthy, average weights who are slaves to the scale and food or who purge several times a week after eating “bad” food. There are overweight women who are obsessively at war with their bodies and eat as a way to soothe their frayed edges and to fill the part of them that they feel is unlovable. And there are women with athletic, lean bodies who look like the picture of health but who wouldn’t think of skipping a workout even if they had a fever or a family member needed them or it was Christmas morning. All of these women have disordered habits, and I’m afraid performing push-ups because I feel fidgety and then thinking it’s funny or just a sign of my tenacity might be a wee bit disordered as well. Sometimes being healthy just isn’t.

Pray about the messages you might be sending to your children with your “healthy” or otherwise choices you make every day and your subtle and not-so-subtle actions.

Our daughters – and sons! – are watching. They see us when we duck out of a photo-op. “I’ll take the picture,” we say obligingly. “I don’t need to be in it.”

They read between the lines. “Mom doesn’t want to be in the photograph.”

Later, they will wonder why. Is it because she didn’t feel beautiful, good enough? Am I good enough?

“You go ahead and swim. Have fun! I’ll be watching!” we shout to our children at the beach or the pool as we stay wrapped up in a cocoon of flesh-hiding towels.

Mom’s always just watching instead of living. She’s watching the scale. She’s watching how her jeans fit and allowing it determine her mood for the day.

Or Mom is chronically on a diet or refuses to eat anything with gluten in it even though she’s never been diagnosed as being gluten intolerant. It just seems like the healthy thing to do and at some level, Mom feels superior because she can go without a food that others enjoy eating.

“I want to be strong!” Mom says as she squeezes in a few crunches or tricep dips at an odd time.

Kids already think their mom is strong; she doesn’t need to ban a food from her diet or obsessively flex her muscles when a doctor has told her to take a few days off. That’s not a healthy role model. That’s someone with an unhealthy compulsion.

Disordered eating, compulsive exercising – these are addictions. We turn to our addiction – whether it’s with food (binging on it or restricting it) or exercise or the scale – because we think it will give us something we need: Control, self-worth, value, a purpose, strength. All the while it’s robbing us. It keeps us from the pool. It keeps us from making happy memories. It keeps us from enjoying food and enjoying the movement of our bodies. It keeps us from loving our families fully. Addictions cause us to accept fear and anxiety as an inextricable part of everyday life. We should not have anxiety about wearing a swimsuit in front of others. Nor should we fear going to a friend’s house for dinner because she might not serve “clean” food.

A preoccupation with food, our weight, our health, and yes, ourselves keeps us from living.

Addictions always, always take far more than they give.

I see so many moms embracing Paleo diets or going gluten-free or running 5Ks, and I am proud of them for taking charge of their health. But be careful, Mothers. It’s not easy to hide your insecurities or distorted body image in a swimsuit, but it can be frighteningly easy to hide in the subterfuge of an ironclad dedication to a healthy lifestyle.

Consider those little eyes watching your every move. They are learning from you – for better or worse.

Once my most sensitive child was eyeing her reflection in the mirror as I braided her honeyed hair. “I’m not as pretty as [one of her sisters],” she said.

I looked at her sparkling, doe-like eyes. You could get lost in their dark, imploring beauty, and I wanted to gently shake her like a snow globe and watch all the white specks as they settle into their peaceful, beautiful form. Why would she think this? Why would she compare herself to someone else and feel like she had come up lacking?

Why…

Ah, yes. Maybe because her own mother fears the public pool because in her distorted mind it can become a contest of the fairest of the fair. Or maybe because her own mother is so afraid of losing a few days of fitness she ignores her doctor and her husband’s orders.

My daughter is beautiful in every way. So are her sisters. So am I.

I believe my children are nothing but loveliness and beauty personified. I can easily see glimpses of God in them, in their sense of wonderment, their peals of laughter, and the raw joy they exhibit at the most simple sights – a ladybug discovered on their bedroom windowsill, morning clouds gilded with the gold of the rising sun.

Indeed, it’s easy to see the beauty in my children. In me not so much. But it’s time to start working at it again.

So many of us are hungry for something more in our lives. We fill this void with food, or rigid, healthy habits, or we relentlessly pursue beauty or youth in an effort to feel better about ourselves. Many women know eating disorders – anorexia, bulimia – are bad. But exercise and eating clean? Well, these are just good for my health, we rationalize. And they can be. To a point. We must protect what is precious, that is the house – our bodies – that carry our souls. We must consecrate the desires of the flesh to sanctify the spirit within, and that means making healthy choices and sometimes saying no to the Doritos and Ben & Jerry’s.

But we’re no longer being healthy when we lose balance; when we feel overwhelming guilt because we ate one cookie or missed a workout. A desire for self-improvement can easily become self-annihilation if we can’t ever let go of our healthy habits, or we’re always focused on the person who’s more cellulite-free, prettier, or thinner than us. And she might just be sunbathing at the pool, so it’s best to stay hidden at home and keep doing those push-ups.

Then it becomes a compulsion, an addiction. We become a slave to it. And so do our children.

Meanwhile, life is passing all of us by.

Moms, put on your swimsuit. And swim. Moms, step in front of the camera. And smile. Those photos will one day be treasured memories and you might think you look puffy or old now, but a few years from now you’ll recognize the beauty that is you. Your children already see it. Take care of your body, yes, but not at the expense of your health or your family or as punishment for feeling inadequate or for mindlessly munching on potato chips. Don’t let being healthy become unhealthy.

Step away from the mirror and instead become a mirror for your children; a mirror filled with light, a mirror that reflects love, joy, and optimism. I promise that even if you don’t always, your children, your friends, even the stranger at the grocery store or the fellow mom you meet poolside will love what they see. You.

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