If you have kids, maybe you’ll agree that they are simultaneously the best and the worst.
A four-year-old can send you over the moon with a hug and a whispered “you’re the best Mommy, ever.” Then, bring you to your knees by asking why your belly is “so big” while you’re in your most physically and emotionally vulnerable state: naked.
There I was, a 30 something mom of two, who’s always been self-conscious about her weight/body, standing in front of a wide-eyed, precious girl that I love more than life itself. I felt the sting of that question wash over me as I stood there totally (literally!) exposed. As I internally gathered myself, and picked my jaw, and my heart, up off the floor, a few things ran through my mind:
- What kind of person walks in on someone getting undressed and asks something like that?!
- Well… a tiny person does… She has no context for this question. This is like asking someone why their hair is brown or their dress is pink.
- She didn’t ask this question to hurt my feelings.
- My feelings are hurt because of my shame about my body.
- I don’t want to pass this body shame on to her.
As the shock of being emotionally assaulted by my preschooler slowly subsided, I took a deep breath and grabbed a towel. I attempted to channel my inner Brené Brown by choosing “courage over comfort,” and I fumbled through a response that sounded something like this:
“Well, baby, every ‘body’ is different, and that’s ok! Some people have little bellies, and some people have big bellies. Some people are tall, and some people are short. Mommy has blue eyes and you have green eyes. We’re all different and that’s a good thing.”
She seemed satisfied with that, and thankfully, she has the attention span of a four-year-old, so she moved on to the next thing quickly.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the kind of parent I want to be and the message I want my babies to grow up with.
I have realized that it’s not possible to give my children a message of self-love and acceptance if I can’t extend those things to myself. I can’t teach my daughters that their worthiness isn’t defined by pounds or inches if that’s how I’m measuring my own. I can’t give them the inner strength to be confident in their own skin if I can barely stand being in my own. I know there are more hard questions like this one in our future, which is why I’m working on getting comfortable with being vulnerable.
If I’ve learned one thing about parenting, it’s that I have no idea what I’m doing.
Parenting is hard. Having someone’s childhood in your hands is a lot of responsibility, and I sometimes wonder how many of my mistakes and shortcomings my children will talk about in future therapy sessions. Let’s be realistic. The answer probably isn’t zero.
But, I’ve also learned that parenting can be a wonderful gift of self-discovery if you let it. Parenting forces you to peel back all your protective layers and really look at yourself and why you feel, think, say and do the things you do. Parenting will expose all the little vulnerable pieces of yourself that you hide from the world… unfortunately you can’t hide them from your children.
Had I responded differently by letting my shame take the driver’s seat, my four-year-old would have learned from that one interaction that talking about bodies is off limits. That having a “big” belly is something to be ashamed of, and avoided at all costs. If I continued to send that message to her over time, we might be headed for trouble.
But, thanks to a little bit of humility and lot of time spent listening to Brené Brown discuss her research on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, I was able to acknowledge and accept the shame I felt and not pass it on.
How do I know I didn’t pass it on? Well, I’m glad you asked.
We’ve had a few follow up scenarios where my daughter will come over to me and ask when her belly will be “big” like mine.
Yep. It stings every time. But, maybe it’s like exposure therapy at this point…?
As many things as I’m destined to get wrong, there’s one thing that I REALLY want to get right, and that is to teach my daughters that they are enough just as they are. More than anything, I want them to grow up with a strong sense of self worth and belonging. I don’t want them feeling like they have to hustle for acceptance by losing weight or being a certain shape or size.
And you know what? I really want that for myself, and for you, too!
Lita Chatham, MS, RDN, LD
Lita believes that changing our mindset to one that eliminates blame, shame, and guilt in relation to body size/weight is the first step in ensuring future generations develop healthy relationships with food and their bodies. She believes that kids are like sponges and should soak up messages of self-love and acceptance from the adults in their lives, not be bombarded with weight-centric messages.
Lita is a graduate of the University of Montevallo and the University of Southern Mississippi, and was selected as the 2019 Emerging Dietetic Leader of the Year by the Alabama Dietetics Association. She is an active member in several professional organizations including the Alabama Obesity Task Force, Alabama Dietetics Association, Montgomery District Dietetics Association, and the End Child Hunger in Alabama Task Force.