As I watch my daughter bloom from a toddler into a spirited, willful little girl my heart yearns for her to maintain the absolute lack of body self-consciousness and self-judgment that she enjoys right now. I watch her twirl without the fear of what others might think, I see her put together outfits and crazy jewelry combinations, not to impress anyone, but simply because they make her happy. She picks out her fantastic curly hair to make it as big as possible and exclaims, “I love my hair!”
Seeing her freedom makes me so happy, but that happiness is twinged with sadness, because as a woman in our world, I know that kind of self-satisfaction is fleeting. And once it’s gone, it’s so incredibly hard to reclaim amidst the barrage of negative messages we receive about our bodies.
Several months ago, my three year-old Alora and I waited for my son in the front hall of his school at the end of the day. Alora had wanted her hair half-up, so I had the front pinned back with two clips and left her curls in the back fluffy and beautiful. She jumped from square to square of the tired linoleum, oblivious to the adults standing around. A woman who works at the school watched her and then spoke to her when Alora got close, “Someday you are going to HATE your hair.” White-hot anger shot into my throat as I watched my little girl look up at the woman, then turn to look at me, perplexed. Until that moment, the thought I should hate my body had never entered her being.
“Well, actually,” I said trying to keep my voice light between my clenched teeth, “We love her hair and she loves to see how big we can make it.” The woman laughed dismissively and her co-worker replied, “Well, styles come back around and I’m sure big ’80s hair will be in again someday.” The bell rang, the hall flooded with kids, and I left the school somehow managing to not scream, “F you!”
I will shelf the racial overtones in the woman’s comments for another post, because although I am quite certain she wouldn’t have said that to a white curly-headed girl with blonde hair, I know for certain she wouldn’t have said that to a boy, either. Her statement laid bare her assumption that all women inevitably hate their bodies, that our importance comes down to how we look, not what we do, and that self-hatred is our fate. I didn’t say it to her that day, but I’ll say it now. F*ck you. And f*ck you for perpetuating that kind of thinking in the next generation of beautiful girls.
I know that place of hating your body, of wishing and believing if I could just get skinny enough, or tan enough, or hairless enough, or sexy enough, or chesty enough, that maybe then I’d be happy. If my nose was narrow enough or my lips plump enough, or my chin sharp enough, my teeth straight enough, then maybe I’d be deserving. I starved myself and spent hours in a gym until my hip bones jutted from my body and I could close my fingers around my thigh, and I still wasn’t good enough. I’ve spent countless hours shaving, waxing, plucking, dying and highlighting the hair on my body and head. I’ve spent who knows how much money on products promising to help me defy age, turn back the clock, take away cellulite and glow. I’ve cooked myself with straight UV rays, hoping to turn my skin into that impossible-to-achieve air-brushed golden brown that my Irish/Eastern European genes will never allow, that only helped grow a basal cell carcinoma on my shoulder by the age of 27. I told myself for so long that I was that most-dreaded word, fat, that I changed the way I see myself in the mirror to this day.
I do not want that for my daughter, the thought of her ever harboring those beliefs makes me nearly collapse with sadness. I fight hard every damn day to model the body love I want Alora to have. I figuratively and literally run from my negative feelings about my own body every day. Running, of course, has been the vehicle that shifted my perceptions about my body and self-worth and that continues to help me break down walls in my thinking about being deserving of joy. Running has been where I set goals and achieve them, building my self-esteem in ways that cascade into my non-running life.
I talk about Alora’s and my bodies being strong and fast, I talk about having healthy lungs and a heart and a brain. I talk about the importance of fueling our bodies with good foods so we can run and play and imagine as much as we want. We enjoy delicious treats with no shame placed on that enjoyment or on that food. I model a growth mindset and the importance and deep satisfaction that comes from working your hardest for a goal.
I want her to know that her body has the potential to bring her as much joy as she asks of it, that it is right just the way it is. Her body is a vehicle for joy and she is deserving of that. Her body is not an object to despise, but rather the means to happiness, depending on what she asks of it and where she wants to go. While running has helped me come to such realizations, I want Alora to have the freedom and belief in herself that she can try anything. No matter what she does, I want her to focus on what her body can do, not on how it looks. Because that is both fleeting and unimportant.
You can never hate your body so much that you end up happy and loving it.
Women, we need to be aware of our own ingrained stereotypes and insecurities to make sure we do our best to not pass them on to our young girls. Looking a particular way will never bring the joy that doing things you love does. Our bodies are not here to simply to impress and attract others sexually, they are the means that we experience the physical world we inhabit. As such, our bodies can become our prisons or our passports. If you’re at the beach, you can jump in and swim or you can sit on the sand fearing that others might catch sight of some cellulite on your thighs or see the stretch marks on your stomach. Screw that.
My girl watches me run and she joins me much of the time in the stroller. She sees my sweat, my smiles, my push ups to help me get faster, she cheers when I cross finish lines and sees my pride when my hard work pays off. I hope she knows that hating her body isn’t her fate. Self-consciousness doesn’t have to prevent her from trying new things or wearing an outfit that she loves, like it did to me. I’m sure she’ll have days that her hair annoys her, but I hope rather than hating it, she throws those curls into a messy bun and gets-going at whatever brings her joy.