I noticed my daughter was acting odd the other day after school, but I didn’t think much of it as I watched her climb the stairs with her head hanging low. She is a teenager, and while she is typically pleasant, her moods will ebb and flow.
At dinner, I noticed she was pushing her food around the plate. Usually a voracious eater, I was shocked when she didn’t ask for another biscuit.
When we finally had a moment alone before she went to bed, I asked her what happened that day to make her so glum.
She sighed and rolled her eyes upwards, but realized I wasn’t leaving her bed until she fessed up.
“We had to weigh ourselves for health, and I’m so much heavier than I was last year” she stated dejectedly. “I don’t want to be fat.”
I stared at my daughter in shock. There was so much I wanted to say to her at that moment, so much that I didn’t know where to begin.
As the mother of three daughters, and a woman fighting her own self-confidence issues her entire life, I am keenly aware of the importance of promoting a positive body image. We live an active lifestyle, eat in moderation, never talk about weight and focus on attributes like strength, intelligence and kindness more than beauty or unrealistic body types.
We did everything we were supposed to do. So what in the hell just happened?
“Honey, you are the perfect size for your height! You’ve grown three-and-a-half inches this year. What would make you think you were overweight?” I stammered.
“I don’t know. It just seemed like that I shouldn’t weigh that much,” she countered.
That’s when it hit me. Even though we did our best to promote the positive, even though we never talked about weight or her physical appearance or skinny or fat, my daughter still boiled herself down to a number. And we unknowingly perpetuated a stigma that what you weigh is either fat or skinny.
Worse, when she didn’t like what she saw, it impacted her entire mood.
We can’t just promote positivity and expect our young girls to embrace it. We have to make sure they look at all the measurements.
We sat in silence for a few moments, and I chose my next words carefully. “Hey, didn’t you just beat your personal best in the mile? Your body did that. And how about when you play the cello so beautifully? Your body helps you do that, too.. And how about how well you did in school this year?”
She did not look convinced. Let’s just say there was more eye rolling and perhaps a feeble attempt to contain an exasperated sigh.
I had to start talking straight.
“Alright, here’s the deal. What I’m saying is life is going to throw you numbers for the rest of your life, but happiness is not measured in numbers. Period.”
I finally got her attention.
We talked about all the numbers in our life. Likes on social media, GPAs, and test scores. We talked about how you could get up in the morning and ruin your day by the number you saw on the scale and cry yourself to sleep because you don’t have as many followers on Instagram.
Or you could start taking different measurements.
You could start looking at your life in a way that doesn’t involve concrete numbers.
We talked about how she works to Improve her time in cross country or increase her strength when training. We discussed the value in taking a more challenging class even if it negatively impacts her GPA. We talked about how she has a positive impact on others through her volunteer efforts.
And even though I felt like we were making progress, she still asked me this one question: “So, I’m not fat?” she asked.
I sighed. “Do you feel fat?”
“Well, I didn’t. I didn’t until I saw it on the scale.”
“I think that’s your answer. Don’t ever let a number tell you who you are. As long as you are doing things to be healthy, that’s all I care about. And it’s what you should care about too.”
And then I watched her lanky body stand up tall as she wrapped her gangly arms around me. The scale may say a number she didn’t like, but as she hugged me, the weight lifted a ton from the room.
Our kids are trying to figure out their place in this world. It’s important to focus on the positive, but we can’t ignore what they sometimes see right in front of their face.
It’s up to us to make sure they use the right measurements.