Scale Sickness

As my regular readers know, I’ve gotten back into running after a long hiatus. It’s been about year now since I’ve been running regularly again, and it feels great. I feel strong, and I see a marked improvement in my levels of anxiety on the mornings I roll out of my bed for an early run. I’m also in great health as my medical numbers like blood pressure and cholesterol levels indicate. But there’s one area I’ve felt a little bummed about. I weigh 10 pounds more now than I did when I wasn’t running. I’d never lost the last seven pounds from baby number four and since running again as well as getting back in to a more regular strength training routine, I’ve gained an additional three pounds. Some of the weight gain can be attributed to increased muscle mass. I’m still able to fit into my old jeans. If I’d put on 10 pounds of fat, this wouldn’t be possible. I know I am blessed with an athletic yet somewhat curvy figure and probably should just shut up about the weight gain; yet, I also don’t want to fall in to the trap of gaining a few pounds every year so that one day I wake up and find myself at an unhealthy weight.

I get frustrated some days because I feel like I don’t look like a runner. I run almost every day. I’ll have completed three half marathons before the year is over, but I look at my soft upper body and I get frustrated. Why don’t I look leaner? There are days (weeks, sometimes) when I could have skipped eating the brownie or drinking the extra glass of wine, but there are plenty of days when I eat a clean, wholesome diet. Get your five fruits and veggies a day? I typically get that in one breakfast smoothie. I feel good about my diet and my running, but then I step on the scale. And this is when I really feel like I don’t look like a runner – whatever that means anyway – because the number isn’t going down. Sometimes it goes up.

For months the number really hasn’t budged. Shortly after my first half marathon, I gained about three pounds, but now it stays put whether I eat that cookie or not. Intellectually, I know that I am close to my set point weight – that is a healthy weight my body keeps returning to even if it’s not my “happy weight.” I weigh about two pounds more than when I got married (ironically, that was also a time I ran more. Perhaps my body needs this extra weight when I’m covering greater distances.). I got married after about two years of recovery from my eating disorder. I was told my body would naturally gravitate to a healthy weight for me if I listened to my internal hunger cues and exercised in a balanced manner. I did seem to arrive at a fairly stable weight. But in between pregnancies, something surprising happened. I dropped below what I thought had been my set point weight. I dropped to about ten pounds less than the weight I’d been when I had gotten married and had maintained that weight for several years when I wasn’t pregnant. Maybe it was all the nursing. I don’t know. But I wasn’t doing anything unhealthy or extreme and although I’ve always been active, I exercised far less then than I do now.

During my pregnancies, I typically avoided the scale. My midwife would just tell me how I was doing weight-wise. She was laid-back about weight gain and also very sensitive to my history and just encouraged her patients to eat well for themselves and their growing babies. Since I was so sick during two out of four pregnancies, she ended up being more concerned with me gaining enough weight than ballooning out of control. After I’d have a baby, I’d step on the scale just to gauge where I was at. I might weigh myself once a week, twice a week at the most. If I’d gained a pound or so, it didn’t really affect me. Overall, I felt good about my weight, how I looked, and most importantly, how I felt. My body image was healthy. This is around the time I thought I might want to write  a book to help women who struggled with eating disorders, body image, or food issues. Perhaps I was more qualified to write a book on body image then than I am now, but I’ve realized just recently that I still have some work ahead of me in terms of making peace with my body, food, and the scale.

Back in my eating disordered days, I weighed myself several times each day. The number on the scale determined my mood and how much I was going to enjoy my day.  A low number was like a narcotic hit of delight; it made me feel strong and it almost guaranteed a happier day. I felt like I was a better person somehow. A higher number brought me way, way down. Because weight gain was necessary for me to reclaim my health and because the number on the scale had so much power over me, experts during my recovery process initially told me to stop weighing myself. I wanted to be healthy more than I wanted to be thin, so I got rid of my scale. It was scary not knowing the number at first, but it was liberating, too. I could focus on health and eating more mindfully. I was not worried about how my day might turn out if I discovered I had gained a few pounds.

Later on when I reached a more healthful place, a new counselor told me it was okay and possibly even beneficial to occasionally weigh myself providing it did not morph back into a barometer of my self-worth. Eventually, I started stepping back on the scale without trepidation, and I thought I was cured from both a clinical eating disorder and scale sickness. The number would register, and it did not weigh me down (pun intended) with misguided feelings even if I’d gained some weight. I honestly felt I could keep tabs on my weight like any reasonable, health-conscious person could.

But, more recently, the scale has had far too much control over my emotions.

Not too long ago, I logged in a seven mile run in intense humidity. I came home all pumped about how I felt and how I was able to sprint the last mile or so. I was also convinced that all my hard effort surely would have some payoff. Then I stepped on the scale. And with surprising alacrity, I was asking myself, “What’s wrong with me?” (Because I hadn’t lost anything since the last time I weighed myself and had actually gained a pound.) Then I started to cry. It was still early, so none of my kids were up, but I looked at myself in the mirror, sweaty and tear-streaked, and I was angry. What kind of example was I setting? What if my girls saw me come in after a long, healthy run and step on the scale and then start to cry?  Nothing was wrong with me except that I was giving a little number – and my weight is not a big number that puts my health at risk – far too much power in my life. My exercise is paying off – intrinsically. I don’t need the “reward” of weighing less to keep me lacing up running shoes. It’s just like my kids don’t need library reading programs to get them inserting their noses into books. The reading – the losing yourself in the story – is the best reward of all. A temporary tattoo or cheap pencil is nice, but it’s not what motivates my kids to read. The enjoyment of a good book is enough. So is the enjoyment of exercise and the health benefits that cannot be measured on the scale.

After my pep talk, I had to make a difficult decision. I had to decide to not give that number on the scale power over my life or how I saw myself as a person. In order to do that, I needed to banish the scale from my life once more. Maybe I’ll never make a date with it again. I had a doctor’s appointment recently since deciding I was done with the scale for awhile.  I told the nurse I did not want to know my weight. She told me to close my eyes once I stepped on the scale. I did. My palms were sweaty. I was anxious, wondering what number the scale had registered. Was it a good day? Yes, it was but not because I weighed a “good” amount. Ultimately, I was at peace with not knowing how much I weighed. Later the doctor made a reference to how little I was. It surprised me. It often does. But it made me realize that that funny mirror in my head is still not completely shattered. It still twists and distorts the way I see myself. I’d put too much stock in how much I weigh. How could people see me as little if I weighed such and such?

And perhaps more important questions to ponder are: Why does being seen as little make me feel better about myself? Does my size have to do with the kind of person I am? I see all my friends – some who are smaller than I am and others who are not – as being beautiful, powerful, amazing women? Why do I cut myself short? Where does my treasure lie? In the number on the scale? In my clothing size? In the circumference of my wrists and ankles?

I feel like a fraud admitting any of this. I get paid to give speeches to encourage women to free themselves from an obsession with weight or appearance, and here I am fighting the demons I thought I’d defeated long ago. My husband has said I still – despite my hard work toward healing and my dedication to encouraging other women to reclaim the beauty of creation – don’t always have a realistic or particularly kind perception of myself. I’m trying to change all that. I am trying to see myself as others see me and as I see others.  Please forgive me for writing a book on being “weightless” when I’m not quite there yet. I thought I was, but I’ve had some recent setbacks. I could lie and hide all of this, but then I’d probably feel like an even bigger fraud and a hypocrite. The good news is not weighing myself is helping me to let go and to love myself.

I do get angry with myself sometimes because I wonder why the scale can’t just be a helpful tool in my life for monitoring my health.  After all, I read all the time that people who maintain healthy weights for the long haul regularly step on the scale. They keep tabs on how much they weigh. If the scale inches upward, they stop eating dessert or skip seconds. In fact, one of the women I run with frequents the scale for this very reason, but the number for her provides information. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not an indictment of her character. When she’s gained a few pounds, she says she passes by the all-you-can-eat buffet. She doesn’t start to cry. When she loses a few pounds, she chalks it up to the extra miles she’s logged in. She doesn’t pump her fist in the air and feel like an invincible and awesome rockstar. She does not suffer from scale sickness. I do.

Will I ever be able to step on the scale, see my weight, and have it register only a number without conjuring up any emotion? Maybe. I truly thought I was at a healthy place a few years ago when I was weighing myself regularly again, but I wonder if that’s because I was simply happier with the number I saw then than the number I started seeing more recently.

A daily glass of red wine is purported to be good for your health, but an alcoholic isn’t going to be able to take even one sip without some terrible risks. Many people use regular weigh-ins to maintain a healthy weight but if you’ve suffered from an eating disorder or if you’ve ever allowed the number on the scale to determine how you feel about yourself (even when the number is in a healthy range) like I have, then maybe we ought avoid the scale for awhile and not fixate on a number but instead focus on eating mindfully and pushing our bodies physically without punishing them. I also can’t fool myself to thinking that just because I once could step on the scale and not unravel that it meant I did not suffer from scale sickness. I remember writing a story about a recovered alcoholic who told me it took years to admit he had a problem because he could sometimes go to a party and have a drink or two and not let it turn him into a monster or have an impact on his life. But he knew he was just rationalizing and in denial that he had a problem because he would inevitably end up drinking too much, do something stupid, and his screwups just gave him an excuse to drink more. It’s not a perfect parallel. After all, part of my sickness has to do with food, and I can’t shun food from life. I need it live and have to figure out how to eat in a balanced manner. But the scale is not just some flat square I can step upon; it’s a slippery slope that can trip me and leave me wheeling for control, sad, angry, and with the temptation to do something stupid or unhealthy.

There may come a time in the future when I can step on the scale, see a number – even a, gasp,  higher number – and not let it provoke any sort of feeling in me whatsoever. But I’m not at that point now. I know that for now, and I need to accept my limitations and be aware of my tendency to get all obsessive-compulsive about external measures such as my weight.

I am more than a number. (You are, too.)

My body is strong. Yet, I’d started to obsess about the number on the scale to the point that I was blind to my strength. My moods were becoming mercurial and at the whim of the scale. A number I’d arbitrarily decided was too high (even though in reality I weighed just two pounds more than I did 11 years ago when I got married and also ran marathons) tempted me to ignore the rumblings of my stomach, and to deny a strong body that just ran almost ten miles of the fuel it desperately needed. I will not fall into that trap of self-denial again. I will not allow the number on the scale to jeer at me. I will keep running. I will keep doing push-ups, not because the exercise makes me look like a chiseled goddess or makes the number on the scale decrease, but because it makes me feel good physically, emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually. I will fuel my body with green smoothies, quinoa, lean meat, cheese, Greek yogurt, good wine, and the occasional delicious treat or cocktail (my husband makes the best mixed drinks).

I will respect my body and love it for what it can do – how it moves, how it covers long distances, how it carries heavy toddlers and nurses little ones, how it has blessed me with four natural childbirths, how it takes me where I need to go, and how it allows me to fulfill my vocation as a wife and a mother. I won’t worry about whether I look like a runner or whether I resemble my thinner self because I know that I am runner simply because I run. I am healthy because my doctor, my pace, my husband, and my more reasonable inner voice say so.

I will accept that I am still very much a work in progress. I am healing, but I am not whole yet. I still suffer from scale sickness, and so I’ll stop weighing myself and start loving myself, extra ten pounds and all.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

1156610 36788246 Beauty is in the eye of the beholderI was recently invited to partake in a discussion about body image with HuffPost Live. Unfortunately, I lost my Internet connection not once but twice, and I may have disturbed at least one slumbering child while cursing blasted technology. (“Mommy, how’d your interview go last night? I heard you yelling at the computer and asking Daddy for help.”  Oops.)

Sadly, I missed a big chunk of the conversation spoken from some articulate guests and when it was my time to share, I heard an echo in my earphones of everything I was saying, which made it difficult to concentrate. I’m pretty sure I said “aesthetics” way too many times. Despite the technological glitches, my verbal fumbling, and the gaps in the conversation, I found the talk very thought-provoking.

The focus of the dialogue was on women force-feeding themselves for beauty’s sake in Mauritania, a poor Western African country wedged between Western Sahara and Senegal. In this region, thin is not considered beautiful or even remotely desirable. Mothers who wish for their daughters a bright future begin a practice referred to as “gavage” usually around a child’s eighth or ninth birthday in which they stuff their daughters with fat-laden and rich foods like bread crumbs soaked in olive oil and bowls of milk (yes, bowls). The article explains that “gavage” is the same term used to describe the force-feeding of ducks to make foie gras.

Admittedly, the first thought I had after I initially read the article in preparation for the interview as someone who has spent way too much of her life longing to be thinner is what a (welcome?) change it would be to live in a culture where I could eat as much Ben & Jerry’s as I wanted and just become more beautiful by the spoonful. However, as I continued to read, all levity was quickly replaced with sadness and anger. Crushing daughters’ toes with pincers if they resist the gorging? That’s far worse than an American mom telling her daughter she probably should start watching what she eats if she wants to be pretty (I am not condoning this kind of behavior either, but it’s not the same as overt torture).

And why would any mother – even one who would never go so far as injuring her child in an effort to fatten her up – advocate force-feeding? And, then, why would any daughter, especially as she grows older, self-inflict pain on herself all because she wanted to appear desirable and beautiful as her culture has defined it? Why are these women resorting to such extreme measures all for the sake of living up to an idealistic (and oftentimes unrealistic) standard of beauty?

Probably for the same reason American women tirelessly diet or inject their faces with Botox to erase the signs of aging. Our aesthetic preferences mirror the cultural ideals to which we are exposed and we think if we achieve the ideal, we will have more and be more.

Here in the Western world, we’re bombarded with images of air-brushed, slender women. They boast taut, thin, and often sun-kissed yet wrinkle-free bodies. There’s often a cartoonish quality in some of the women that help sell everything from cars to body soap. Large, perky breasts balloon over a concave stomach. Thin is in (except in the chest area). But in other parts of the world, being fat is the Holy Grail of perfect aesthetics. Beauty is clearly subjective. Every society has its own views of what is beautiful, and the culture we live in shapes our body image.

Moreover, history reveals that whatever is more difficult to achieve and generally more unusual is idealized. Here in the United States, in the land of plenty where sedentary jobs are the norm and fast food, and processed, convenience foods are ubiquitous, we idolize thin and athletic builds. Food is abundant, so slenderness is glorified. Whereas where food is scarce, full-figured women are more desirable.

As I mentioned during the interview, economics plays a major factor in how we define beauty. It’s not just access to food that might drive women to pursue certain beauty standards. While some women are naturally beautiful as defined by the Western definition of beauty, many pay a hefty price to get that way whether through endless exercise, strict diets, and/or plastic surgery. But many of us don’t have the resources to hire a personal trainer, invite a personal chef into our homes, only eat organic, whole foods, or buy pricey, anti-aging skin creams. The Western brand of beauty comes with a price, but it’s this very price that makes it the ideal. Looking a certain way becomes a status symbol of sorts. Just as in the past, pale, plump women were adored because that meant they were not laborers in the field but were instead living a more lavish life indoors, there’s perhaps the subterranean belief somewhere in our culture that a woman who is a piece of delicious eye candy has more money and power; that’s how she got that way or at least how she stays that “pretty.” In poorer countries, the richer people have more access to food. The more food, the better and the more beautiful they become. Fat women with silvery stretch marks are fertile goddesses. There is no sign of famine, only feasting.

Two women joined the HuffPost Live conversation grew up with well-meaning family members trying to fatten them up. This was all done out of love. What we have to understand, as foreign as it is to accept that becoming obese is desirable, encouraged, and even viewed as healthy when we live in such a fattist society, is that moms who begin force-feeding their young daughters are doing this out of love. They want to ensure their daughters meet the standards of beauty in their culture so they will find good husbands. Marrying well is not about securing a dreamy “happily ever after.” Living up to their culture’s beauty ideal is not just about being the “fairest of the fair.” It’s a matter of survival for some of these women.

{An interesting aside: Anorexia has been shown to be more of a middle to upper class problem that is more prevalent in countries that are more developed. A woman who can eat all the cheeseburgers and potato chips she wants or dine out and gobble up monster portions has something she can immediately give up – food. By restricting her calories and what she consumes, she feels more powerful and claims a sense of purpose and control in her life. On the other hand, a woman who might not always have enough to eat would likely not resort to restricting her calories to feel more powerful. Eating disorders are far more complicated than what we put into our mouths (or don’t) and become vehicles for expressing certain feelings, but it is interesting that even women who grow up in America and are exposed to the same kind of media and definitions of beauty are less likely to develop anorexia if they are poorer.  And in the poor nation of Mauritania where a food crisis exists, 20 percent of females are obese and more than half are overweight. When food abounds, we seek to control it. When it is in short supply, we seek to control it as well – just differently.}

What I’ve been trying to figure out as I’ve reflected on what goes on in Mauritania as compared to the oftentimes more subtle brainwashing of our daughters over here in the United States is what are we going to do about it? It’s not healthy for women to teach their daughters how to force-feed themselves, but it’s not healthy for an 8-year-old to think she needs to go on a diet either in hopes that she can achieve the coveted yet elusive thigh gap.

And what about the countless American women who are perpetually on diets yet remain overweight? Their lives become whittled down to how much they eat and the number on the scale. What’s going on here? How do we put food in its proper place and accept our bodies and ourselves as they were designed to be? Some of us will be more heavy-set. Some of us will be thinner. No one ideal is better than another. I typically have argued that we must focus on health rather than just being “hot” or looking a certain way, but what constitutes good health is not entirely objective either. There’s a growing body of research that fat (overweight but not obese) people who are somewhat active live longer than thin people. Likewise, it became apparent during the HuffPost Live discussion that ideas of what it means to be healthy vary by culture as well. One of the women interviewed from a region where being a fat woman is idolized and force-feeding is practiced said her loved ones constantly ask her if she has gotten more healthy and what they mean is: Are you fatter yet?

Body image is really the way you see yourself in your mind. Unfortunately, rigid cultural scripts have distorted the way we perceive ourselves. Depending upon where you live or even the kind of family you grew up in and its own aesthetic ideals, you might see yourself as being too thin, too curvy, too fat, too bony, too boyish, too soft…too whatever. But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then it’s up to us to edit those cultural and internal scripts and not blacklist our body – whether it’s more naturally slender or naturally rounded. We cannot berate our bodies, tirelessly tweak them, and adopt potentially dangerous practices until they meet or are closer to the ideal standard of beauty our culture lauds.

Instead of pushing one aesthetic over another, we have to develop a broader appreciation for the diversity of the human race. We have to learn to eat intuitively, too. Or perhaps relearn. So many people eat too much or too little. When we are children, we don’t think about eating. It’s a lot like breathing – something we just do to live. But Americans obsess over food, and people obsess over how much they eat in other parts of the world but for different reasons.

During the HuffPost discussion, I said something about how it’s up to us to see our bodies more as instruments to do good in the world than as objects that need to conform to beauty standards. Our bodies are simply a part of us rather than the sum of all our parts. When we see our bodies as instruments, we naturally will gravitate toward taking care of them. When we focus more on what our bodies can do rather than what they look like, we will have more of a desire to fuel them with the proper and right amount of food and move them in a way that’s not purgative. Choosing to view our bodies as instruments to lead happy, fulfilling lives and to serve others helps to reshape our body image and perhaps helps to reshape the perceptions of those around us. Externalizing women – that is making their bodies and how they look the emphasis of success, a good life, and even good health – is just another a way of objectifying them.

Several weeks ago a Facebook friend of mine sent me a link to a poignant post about someone on social media ridiculing a Sikh woman for her body hair. What was surprising was this woman’s response to the unkindness; she did respond with defensive, indignant zingers; nor did she collapse into a heap of unworthiness. This beautiful, young woman has a firm grasp on her identity and the fact that she possesses an inner beauty that transcends her more temporal and physical traits. My hope is that I’ll raise my daughters to be this articulate and rooted in a kind of beauty that attracts far more people than a pretty face (however a specific culture might define a pretty face – chubby, chiseled, waxed, or hairy).

In response to the ridicule by a Reddit user, she wrote,

“I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will. Just as a child doesn’t reject the gift of his/her parents, Sikhs do not reject the body that has been given to us. By crying ‘mine, mine’ and changing this body-tool, we are essentially living in ego and creating a separateness between ourselves and the divinity within us. By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are.”

That’s just beautiful. “Sikhs do not reject the bodies that have been given to us.” That’s a big start for all women and for cultivating more positive body images globally. Don’t reject your natural design no matter what your culture’s aesthetic ideals are. Transcend societal views of beauty, and focus more on your actions and cultivating inner virtue. Divert your energies into creating change and progress in the world. What are you going to do with your body, your mind, your soul today? How will you use it to do good? What kind of impact are you making? What will be your legacy? These are the kind of questions we all need to be pondering and answering in a beautiful way.

 

How to respond when your daughter says she’s fat

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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