My whole childhood felt centered around food and physical appearance.
In an attempt to make sure I wouldn’t get fat (spoiler alert, I did) my mother drilled into me that clothes are made for tall and skinny people, so since I was very short I wasn’t allowed to be fat. It would simply not be tolerated. Her constant “you can’t eat this, you can’t eat that” while she criticized both my sister and I became a never-ending mantra that still rings through my head when I reach for a second dinner roll.
I watched my mother struggle with her self-confidence in her physical appearance, while she projected her own shortcomings on me.
It was as if she became obsessed with me being her last lifeline to being thin. To this day I struggle to form and maintain a healthy relationship with food, which I can attribute mostly to my upbringing.
So, when I began to navigate my childhood trauma, I vowed to be a better mom to my daughter. I silently promised her that I would never be a reason she questioned her worth, nor would I measure my love for her in the number that showed on a scale.
If you’ve ever questioned how to talk to your daughter about her body my best answer for you is, don’t. Educate her on how her body works, but don’t define how a body should look.
All Food is Everyone’s Food
My mom had an unwritten rule for my sister and me growing up; even though all of us had access to the snack cabinet, the ‘junk’ food was only intended for my brother. Remember, we were the only ones capable of getting fat so why not let my brother eat whatever, right?
Instead, anything I buy is open for anyone to eat. Though it is just my daughter and me, I don’t buy things with the intention of keeping her from eating them. I may occasionally hide my favorite pint of ice cream from her, but the point is this– if the food is in the house, it is free game.
Hunger vs. Portion Sizes
I can remember quite clearly when I was about 9, after a tumbling competition I was making myself lunch and made myself two hot dogs. I was hungry, and it was much later in the afternoon than I typically ate. My mother fumed when she saw I had made myself two hot dogs; she threw one away, belittled me for my food choices, and proceeded to comment how ‘overeating like this is why my leotard is so tight’. (Mind you, I was never overweight until my adult life. At this point I was an average child).
Shame over what you eat only leads to shame about yourself.
I encourage my daughter to listen to her body’s needs. Somedays we are hungrier than others, and that’s not something I am going to shame her for. That hunger isn’t always satisfied by adding an apple to your meal; an extra hot dog is not going to be the end of the world in my house.
Food isn’t just Fuel
I was taught that eating ‘junk’ food makes you feel gross and gain weight, and to avoid it at all costs. I was often reminded not so kindly that I ‘couldn’t eat like my taller friends: short people can’t snack and stay small’. But I also wasn’t taught how to eat in moderation, to allow myself an array of foods without guilt.
I have always approached food in this way with my daughter. I often buy prepackaged, single-serving snacks. You can avoid the chips binge when it’s coming in a portioned size. Applesauce pouches, go gurts, cheese sticks, veggie straws, you name it. If it can be bought pre-portioned I have it.
Negative Body Image
I don’t remember a time my mother was happy with her own body; I just remember comments about being overweight, clothes fitting poorly, this or that diet, and so on. It became so constant that it affected my own body image. My mother referring to my body as “toad-shaped” certainly didn’t help.
I don’t expose my daughter to my insecurities. Maybe when she’s older it would be appropriate in a conversation about loving your body even if it doesn’t fit your idea of the way it ‘should’ look. But for now, if I try a new diet, she will never know that’s what the ‘weird, mushy food’ is. Carbs aren’t the devil, and I don’t want her associating something I limit with how she at a young age should eat too.
Or, if I am not happy with the way my clothes fit, she won’t hear my side comments about it. I won’t practice fake self-confidence in front of her, but I also certainly won’t ruin her body image by constantly talking about how I hate my own.
Leave the Healthy Talk for the Doctors
I cannot count the number of times I heard growing up “you have to eat healthily or you’ll gain weight”, which isn’t exactly an appropriate comment for a child. Eating only healthy foods was forced upon me until I started sneaking snacks and binging in private. It’s the root of my eating problems today: helplessly eating until I feel like the garbage I was taught my whole life that I am.
I don’t dictate what my daughter eats. I offer fruits, veggies, and an array of enticing options. If she chooses not to eat her green beans one night, then so be it. But I am not going to obsess over telling her she has to eat this or that. I generally just don’t comment on what she eats.
Instead, I use affirmations like “wow, you look so strong today. I think your good breakfast really made your muscles grow!’. Or, ‘you have so much positive energy this afternoon, I think your grapes at snack were just what you needed!’.
Happy and Healthy
As parents, we have that normal tendency to worry about our children. We want them to be happy, healthy, and capable of doing anything their little hearts desire. It is our job to build the foundation and set the example that gives them the ability to do so.
I don’t know if I’ll ever truly have a healthy relationship with food or the way I view myself. But I know that without hesitation, this is not a generational curse, and it ends with me. My daughter will not grow up like this. I deserved better, and I will be better for my own daughter.
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