I just had a really serious conversation about body image with my kids.
Last night, and for a few weeks before this Sam has been making comments about people. He’s noticing things more; ‘That running guy has really big muscles!’ ‘That lady eating salad is really tan!’ but last nights conversation was about peoples skin color.
He told me that he knew that when he said ‘people with brown skin’ other people said ‘black people’ and he was telling me that ‘people with brown skin aren’t black people, they just have brown colored skin but they are regular people.’ He said that ‘people shouldn’t refer to people by their skin color anyway, because no one calls him ‘Yellow Sam’.’ (he has always referred to his skin color as yellow, and he has always referred to people with darker skin as ‘brown colored skin’, never ever black or white)
I was proud of him. Yellow and Brown are a lot closer on the color wheel than black and white, right? Sam is a pretty sensitive and empathetic kid. He picks up a lot of what we lay down, and sometimes, even the things we don’t say. Sometimes it’s the things we don’t even say out loud, that we are shouting the loudest.
I have told Sam, since he was a toddler in his high chair scarfing down blueberries that I was proud of how healthy he was. I tell him often, teasingly, endearingly ‘oh you have such a nice body, no fat on you! And so healthy! You are all muscles!’ or some form of that sentiment. (Sometimes even with the complete phrase, ‘you are so skinny!’)
I praise Marilyn for when she eats healthy choices, and I tell her that she has the cutest bum/belly/dimple/whatever often, but I don’t tell her that she has ‘no fat’ (and I’m not sure why, if it’s because she’s four and she still does have baby fat, or if it’s because she does not eat super clean the way Sam does so I don’t want to praise those eating habits or if I just am more aware of putting importance on body image (or rather, not putting importance on it) for girls) But- so anyway- we’ve been talking about what we look like and who we are a lot lately.
This morning I was telling Sam as I was putting sun tan lotion on him ‘you are all bones in your shoulders!’ and he repeated back to me ‘I know! I am SO skinny!’ and I tried to turn the tide of this and I said ‘You are super healthy because of all your clean eating and that makes me proud!’ and he said completely innocently, never intending it the way it sounded (because he loves his sister) ”Marilyn does not eat healthy. She eats a lot of junk. She’s not going to be as skinny as me” and I knew right then, that I had made a mistake.
I do often make an example of Sam to Marilyn.
”Marilyn, look, Sam is eating salad with dinner. Wouldn’t you like salad? Wouldn’t you like to have big muscles and energy like Sam?” and she says ”No. No Salad. I do not like salad” and that she doesn’t care if she has energy or muscles or if she looks like Sam. I never mean it to be a better than/less than situation, but it’s been taken that way.
I turned off the tv. I sat them on the floor and sat in front of them.
”Okay guys” I started. ”I like your bodies. I like both of your bodies because they are yours.” and Sam interuppted me. ”Do you like your body, Mama?” he asked me.
[Let me interupt myself quickly and tell you that last week I was putting Marilyn’s hair in braids after her bath and she was telling me how Sam gives her squeezy hugs and that she loves to hug Sam because she puts her legs around his waist and then he will carry her. She said to me ”I can’t hug you like that mommy because you are too fat” and then she immediately got very quiet and I said after a few minutes of silence (breath knocked out of me) ”I know that you didn’t mean that to sound as mean as it did. You are far too nice of a girl to have meant that” and she started to cry. ”Why are you crying?” I asked her ”Is it because you hurt my feelings?” and she sobbed ‘yes’ I told her that I knew she didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but that maybe she could pick a word that was a little bit nicer than ‘fat’ and she said she agreed so we went over some words that maybe meant the same thing (that she couldn’t fit her legs around me) but that didn’t hurt feelings like ‘fat’ and we settled on ‘big’ I am too big for her to fit her legs around me because I am an adult and she has little legs because she is a little kid. ]
So Sam is asking me if I like my body and Marilyn is dipping her head, maybe thinking about this exact conversation that is now flashing in front of my brain. Years of body loathing and fat shaming are like lightning strikes in my mind. Puberty and a particularly hellish 7th grade group of girls, trying on a wedding dress, coming to terms with who I was and what I was willing to do vs the ideal of who I wanted to look like… I know this is a watershed moment, I have to answer this completely correct or I am going to somehow damage their fragile sense of self.
“I like what I have done with my body” I carefully answer. ”I have brought you, and Marilyn and Judah into this world, with just my body. That’s pretty amazing isn’t it?” I watch them carefully, my wildlings, the best things I have ever been a part of, I need to see that they ‘get it’ that loving your body for what it can do is not the same thing as it meeting an impossibly high and warped ideal of what they see in magazines or on tv.
Marilyn says ”I can crab walk with my body. And I can sit criss cross applesauce”. Then Sam says ”I can play hockey and I can run really fast”
”Yes.” I reply. ”Yes. We can do amazing things with our bodies. I wish I sometimes took better care of my body though… I wish I ate more vegetables and fruits and not so much candy… ” and Sam says ”Because you don’t want to get fat like [someoneIknow] and [someoneelseIknow]. They are un-health-y.”
”Yes.” I tell him. ”That’s right. I don’t want to be unhealthy… because then I can’t do all the things I like to do, like run around the playground with you, or go up the stairs, or…”
”Or do all our laundry!” Sam interjects. (Inside I am rolling my mental eyes, I am just glad that no one has said anything about being pretty or having big boobs. Boobs are a riveting topic in my house, Marilyn is obsessed with when she’ll have boobs and Sam is obsessed with getting to the root of exactly why he has nipples if he doesn’t get to have boobs)
We talked a little more about being healthy, and how health was the goal, not weight. I asked Sam if he could think of anyone who maybe was bigger than he was and he named someone who is a friend of his. I asked Sam ”would you ever make fun of him for that?” and Sam said ‘No way!’ I said ”Can you think of anything that is different about you?” and he said that his glasses were different and that he would not like it if someone made fun of them. We talked a little bit about that we don’t make fun of people for the color of their skin, or for being in wheel chairs, or having an accent, wearing glasses or having curly blonde hair, so we also don’t make fun of people who are bigger or smaller than us. [Or smaller, I want them to get that too. This isn’t a one way street of obliterating fat shaming. I don’t want them to shame bodies period].
”Sam, would it hurt your feelings if I said you were so skinny that you were weak?” and he said that it would, (after scoffing over and over at the idea that he was weak) and I said ”So do you think maybe it would hurt Marilyn’s feelings if you said that she was going to be fat?” He got very upset and said that ‘yes, yes that would make her feel bad.’
I told them that we are a family, and we love each other, and we should try to help each other make good and healthy choices, and that those choices extended beyond our food. That brushing our teeth and getting to sleep on time was a good choice, that using kind words was a good choice, that not lying was a good choice, but that yes, also taking care of our bodies was a good choice. And that maybe we could help remind each other that we want to be around for a very long time and not be sick because of things that we could have changed.
I feel badly that I have been manifesting this idea of good vs bad for them when I was really just trying to praise and encourage. I told them that I love their bodies. They are unique and different and exactly perfect for them, but that I want them to always be able to do everything they want their bodies to do, and in order to do that, we have to fuel them the right way, with sleep, good foods, washing, rest, exercise, etc etc.
I want them to see people for people. Not for the group they belong to. I want them to see individuals for who they are as people first, and what they look like second. I don’t want them to think that either skinny or fat is a good or a bad thing, it is just a thing, a word that only means something positive or negative because of the faith we put behind it.
I don’t want them to see gay, black, white, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, fat, skinny, or disabled as positive or negative words, I just want them to see them as facts, as things that are, and to make their minds up about the person, not the description.
I just hope they got it.
You should be relieved to know, the morning did not continue for long in this serious vein, not five minutes later Sam was poking his bare chest and asking Marilyn if she had as many nipples as he did.