Rewind the clocks back to a nine year old version of me sitting on my grandmother’s bed watching her zipper up her dress, cinch her belt around her waist, and fasten her clip on earrings to her lobes. Her waist looked so small, her fingers were so delicate. “Grandma- you’re so pretty. You’re so skinny.” “Sarah,” she said to me “I’m slender. Skinny is for crack whores.”
Now, some find this story funny. Others find it a little concerning. To me, it’s an honest and endearing reminder of my grandmother. The one who, good and, let’s face it, brutally honest, loved me to the moon and back. But, it is also, in my adult years, a curious glimpse into body image and self awareness.
Like almost everyone I know, I struggle with my body sometimes. I wish I was thinner. I wish I could find clothes I feel good in. I would love to take care of that underarm jiggle. And I am taking steps to make positive change. I’m working to feel better in those clothes. I have taken stock of what I eat and feel good about how I have changed my daily intake. I go to the gym and enjoy my workouts. I play with my kids and run around in our backyard. And here is where my quest for “slender” has taken on a different tone in recent years- I have these kids who soak up what I say and how I say it.
If you know me well, or honestly if you don’t, you might know that I come close to idolizing my mother. She was smart and funny and kind and beautiful. She taught me to be an independent and thoughtful person, but she did have faults and, one in particular, she passed on to me without even thinking about it. She struggled with her body image. In passing comments, in trying on clothes, in dressing for formal events- she had much the same struggle that many of us do. And when she talked about it, or tugged at her clothes, or bought things without trying them on to avoid a different size, I heard her and worried about my own body. I am now responsible for how I think and I am trying to change it, but those nagging concerns about my hips, my belly or my arms linger.
Another story. In February 2012, joined by my husband and my father, I found out that our first baby was a girl. I was so excited- I knew she would be a girl and now I had confirmation. Justin and I already knew her name- she would be named after our mothers. Nina Patricia was already a source of joy and pride. And then, I started to overthink having a girl. I started reading article after article about how to talk to girls about their bodies, how to love themselves. She wasn’t even born yet and I was telling people to make sure not to call her cute or pretty or beautiful first. “Isn’t it interesting,” I would say, “if we just make sure to call her kind or smart or thoughtful first, her whole self worth will change.” ……
So, here’s my question as I consider my body image and how to talk with both my children, daughter and son, about our insides and our outsides- what’s wrong with being pretty? When my daughter asks me why we go to the gym, I tell her that I exercise to be strong and healthy. Which is true. But I also exercise to be pretty. Pretty as I see it. I am DEFINITELY influenced by media and what popular culture thinks of as pretty, but I know what makes me feel good. A hard work out, the right jeans, and a little make up helps me feel pretty. And along with pretty comes confident and strong- when I feel pretty, I feel more prepared to take on the world. It’s a loop really.
So, here’s where I am. I want for Nina and Ryan to learn how to be confident about themselves. But I also want for them to know how to use the tools at their disposal responsibly. I want to teach them good eating habits, sure. But almost more than that, I want to teach them how to move their bodies, how to feel good about their clothes, how to be proud of their appearance.
I am happy when people tell Nina she’s smart and kind and funny and brave because she is those things. But, I also like when people tell Nina how pretty she is, how gorgeous her hair is, how great her smile is. Because both will be important- in the right measures.