I am a girl who eats. I love butter, full calorie beer, and every one of The Barefoot Contessa’s cookbooks. When we go out to eat, I’m definitely going to eat the French fries. I’m absolutely certain I will gain weight over the holidays.
Life is short, and ice cream is delicious.
It was not always so. Like many women, my history with body image has been complicated. I struggled with what I guess I would term “anorexia light” for most of high school.
It wasn’t just that my dad’s nickname for me growing up was “sturdy girl.” Or that my sister was one of those lucky people who ate three candy bars a day and was a beanpole. No, the catalyst that pushed me over into disordered eating happened in early high school. One night, my parents had a few friends over for dinner.
I remember one of the adult men teasing the other about his bird legs and complete lack of leg muscle, and then saying “Jane’s thighs are bigger than yours!”
(Side note: Can we all agree it’s probably never okay to say something to a teenage girl about her thighs?)
Looking back, that was the moment.
I was an athlete, and it had never occurred to me prior to that point to be worried about the size of my thighs. I was absolutely humiliated. That’s when I began the cycle of starving myself, weighing myself ten times a day, and making daily lists of the six saltines or apple I had allowed myself to eat. I watched with satisfaction as I began to shrink, and people began to compliment my baggy jeans.
My mother eventually noticed the thirty pounds I had lost in an alarmingly short period of time. “You’ve lost enough weight,” she told me. “We aren’t having any anorexia in this house.” I’m not sure how much parents in the 1980s knew about eating disorders, but all that comment did was convince me to be more careful to hide my food intake.
I’m lucky. Before I spiraled into full-blown anorexia, I went away to college. There the pressure valve was gradually released, and over time I eventually learned to be comfortable with and even embrace my body and to deal with the negative thoughts.
Then I had kids. I remember an early summer morning when my daughter was about seven. She was at that artless, unself-conscious age with clear skin, long gangly legs, and the rounded belly protruding slightly from her two-piece bathing suit which signals the storing up that a little body does before it suddenly shoots up. I was brushing her hair before swim practice, and she was looking at herself in the full-length mirror.
Out of nowhere, she said with real horror “Mom, I’m FAT!”
As with most of my parenting experiences, I wasn’t ready for the moment when it happened. I probably said something dismissive like, “Of course you aren’t fat,” and we all went on with our morning. But it brought back my own adolescence and gave me a pit in my stomach.
From that point on, I resolved that I wasn’t going to raise my daughter with the same negative body image issues, and our family would be candid and comfortable talking about body image, weight, and food.
5 Keys to a Positive Body Image:
1. Honor your body.
I was mindful never to say anything critical or disparaging about myself in front of my kids (even when I was thinking it). Instead, I said “I’m grateful for the body I have. I’m strong and healthy. My body is capable and efficient. It made three healthy children. I am very blessed.”
2. Food is not your enemy.
Eating should be a joyous, celebratory experience that brings people together. It’s all about moderation. My husband and I were careful to show that we loved pizza, wings, and chocolate cake, just not every day.
3. The “f” word is forbidden.
I never used the word “fat.” Ever. Not to describe myself, other people, or food. Instead I used the word “nutritious” and tried to train my kids to think of their food choices as fuel for their bodies. We talked instead about being fit, in shape, or healthy.
4. Exercise is part of your life.
My husband and I made exercise a visible part of our routine. Our family activities included fun activities such as hiking, golf, or badminton in the backyard. Our kids did sports at school each season. They didn’t have to be the best on the team, but they had to do something that made them work up a sweat and tired enough to sleep at night.
5. There is no shame in gaining weight.
We were matter of fact about gaining weight every now and then, and that it wasn’t the end of the world. To get back on track, we openly discussed limiting our portion size and not eating between meals. It’s no secret how to gain weight—it shouldn’t be a mystery how to lose it, either.
It worked pretty well. My daughter is a girl who loves to eat but has a much healthier attitude. One day in high school, she commented that her jeans were getting tight. I was in agony whether to agree with her or simply to say nothing. I said something like “Everyone gains weight now and then. Are you feeling upset?”
“Oh no, I love myself,” she replied. “I’m not hating on myself or anything. I know how to get back on track.” And she did, too.