I gave birth to my daughter six months ago, and, a few sleep-deprived weeks later, I realized it was right around the 10th “anniversary” of when I was admitted to a hospital for an eating disorders inpatient program.
When I try to reconcile the memory of my scared, enervated teen self with myself today, as a (somewhat) confident mother of two with visibly muscled biceps from lugging around a giant purse, a diaper bag, a breast pump, a baby, and sometimes a 38-pound 3-year-old, it’s difficult. But I still vividly remember the feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, and physical weakness. As it turns out, you can be too thin after all.
There were other factors involved, of course, but I first fixated on being skinny because I knew it would make me “someone” in a world where I wasn’t quite sure yet how I, as a nice Jewish girl, could make any kind of significant mark. What began as a diet veered into rigidity, ruling out hangouts with friends because food was usually involved and an early return from summer camp because, overwhelmed without my typical menu, I just decided to eat an apple and a cereal bar and call it a day. What turned into rigidity became a dangerous obsession when every new, lower number on the scale was a success and anything below that number was my new personal challenge. Intellectually, I knew I was harming myself, but I couldn’t stop.
Weekly sessions with a therapist and numerous doctor appointments later, I finally realized I needed more intensive help and entered the hospital, where I met a lot of other sick women and several sick men. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, they were almost all amazing, intelligent, funny, warmhearted people who had still fallen victim to the tangled webs woven by anorexia and bulimia. Some of them are still struggling, and some of them will probably never climb their way out.
I’ve come a long way since then, but still, even for women who weren’t once touched by an eating disorder, it’s hard to maintain the healthiest body image day in and day out. It’s especially hard in our good old U.S. of A., an image-obsessed and Photoshopped world, where even pregnant celebrities can’t catch a break. You know it’s bad when Kim Kardashian, perhaps the least sympathetic character out there, evokes my compassion for being viciously bitten by the hand that fed her, if you will, into undeserved stardom.
It’s a scary thing for us, as parents, to be responsible for fostering a healthy body image in our daughters, and I venture to suggest that it’s magnified for those of us who have actually suffered from anorexia, bulimia, and other disorders in our past. My fear for my daughter’s self-esteem increases exponentially when I see studies that say over 75 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, and that girls’ self-esteem peaks when they are 9 years old. Clearly, this nation has failed to make our daughters feel beautiful, despite Dove’s best media campaign efforts.
My daughter may be just a baby now, but I think it’s fitting that as she learns to ingest solid food, I begin thinking of how to ensure she remains as enthusiastic about eating and as unfettered with unrealistic expectations about her body as she is now. So how can I, as one concerned parent, help my daughter feel beautiful no matter what she looks like, when I’m not completely there myself yet?
I already do the obvious stuff–I don’t allow the “f” word in my home (fat, that is), and I don’t own a scale, because a number is less important than overall health. I don’t ascribe words like “good” or “bad” to foods (except for those deep-fried sticks of butter they sell at state fairs–that’s probably just a bad idea). When my son asks me why I’m jogging on the treadmill, I tell him it’s for exercise to feel healthy, not because I want to work off that slice of cake. I don’t buy women’s magazines with degrading headlines, because it’s ridiculous to pay money to feel poorly about yourself and your lack of time/motivation/money to get your BEST BODY EVER! (Besides, if you really want to feel that way, you can get it for free all over the Internet.)
But these are relatively easy things. Harder things might be figuring out a response if and when my daughter comes to me after starting school and asks me if she can go on a diet like her friends and classmates, or if she catches me, on the rare occasion, looking critically at myself in the mirror, despite my best efforts at concealing the lingering self-doubt that plagues me.
It’s difficult not to feel like a fraud sometimes. But it’s miles and miles from where I once was, and I do the best I can, as I am, every day. I think that’s all any of us as parents can do for our children: arm ourselves with our accumulating wisdom and life experiences, then hold our breath, forget the movie Mean Girls is based on actual girls, and pray it works.
So if those uncomfortable questions do come, I think I can just be honest, and tell her of the scores of women who are slaves to those culturally-idealized images, like I once was, and how it only leads to a vicious cycle of self-hatred and worse, real illness. I can tell her that a partner or friend who tells her she’d be so pretty if she just lost a few pounds, or toned this or that, is no partner or friend worth her time–better to find someone like her father, who loves me no matter what I look like, and friends who care more about helping others than looking “hot.”
Above all, I can tell her this: that becoming healthy is what allowed me to give birth to her and her brother, and staying healthy is what gives me the fuel to play tag, read bedtime stories, bake with them, and then eat one of those cookies together. Food, aside from being generally delicious, is, at its core, simply fuel for living, and living is more fun without all the self-loathing.
I hope she believes me.