Bust The Beauty Myth, Call A Girlfriend, And Prevent An Eating Disorder
Bedtime. I hear my daughter sniffle. Within seconds, she’s sobbing: “Mom, I have too much fat on my thighs.” I’m in her bedroom, lying next to her, winding down from the day.
Oh, Sweetheart. She’s not happy with her body.
The pressure was on. In that moment, I wanted to say the right thing, because the stakes are high. The dire statistics flashed in my mind: 53 percent of 13 year olds are dissatisfied with their bodies, rising to 78 percent by age 17; 65 percent of women and girls have an eating disorder.
I doubt I’ll cause or prevent an eating disorder in one night, but that felt like my mission.
While my daughter isn’t obese, that doesn’t make the moment any easier or harder. Sure, she has a tough time navigating satiety, perhaps an inherited tendency from her father and me. Every vegetable that passes her lips is negotiated. Still, fatness is not the issue. Her perception, and how it’s becoming distorted, is.
“Darling, your body is beautiful. You have strong legs that power you to dance, run fast, and practice gymnastics – look at the progress you’ve made this year.”
Her sobbing continues, unchanged.
“What made you think about this, my love?”
She tearfully describes how no other girls in her class have fat on their legs. They’re skinny. I considered the evidence. She had a point. My daughter was starting puberty, with tufts of hair under her arms and breasts developing. The other girls did not.
I offered the biological explanation. “Your body is changing earlier than theirs… it’s normal to make more fat so that you can grow breasts and hips….”
She looked alarmed—and sobbed louder. I thought of something I read recently by Atul Gawande about how doctors are explainaholics, when what we should be doing is validating and soliciting more of a person’s story. As a gynecologist who deals with body shame, I should know better.
“Darling, I know it really sucks when it feels like the other girls are thinner than you.”
It seems she’s hearing me but only in bits—probably normal for a 10-year-old girl. I continue my smorgasboard approach:
“You are smart, funny, and creative….
“You’re a great friend and a loving daughter. I enjoy being with you….
“As you get older, you may notice young women on TV and the Internet … that are not normal. Those images are manipulated to make us feel bad….”
The crying continued. Maybe I haven’t healed my own body shame. Maybe I talked too much in front of her about weight and fat, the topic of my latest book.
Author Naomi Wolf wrote that a “mother who radiates self-love and self-acceptance actually vaccinates her daughter against low self-esteem.” I’m good on the acceptance scale, but self-love? How does one know? Moments like these? I consider my own experience with fat shaming and self-objectification.
I shared my own experience: “I used to feel like my thighs were fat too, and it took growing into my body, accepting it – the parts I love and the parts I wish were different, and finding the courage to get through the times when I felt fat compared with other girls.”
My daughter is now crying more softly. I take this as a cue to exit and get help: “Let’s talk about it more when we’ve both had a good night of sleep, OK?” She slowly nods.
I consider how brave she is to raise the issue with me. When I felt like my thighs were fat at age 10, I hid it under a shame rock and never discussed it with anyone. I restricted my eating through high school and it took me years to heal, all in isolation. Now that I realize that my daughter, like every other woman in the Western World, faces the same battle with body shame, I’m determined to make sure she won’t do it alone.
My first instinct is to Google Naomi Wolf’s latest wisdom about the Beauty Myth, the title of her 1991 book that describes the problem of “judgments regarding women’s appearance to undermine us psychologically and politically.” I’m hoping for a 3-step strategy to help girls avoid internalization of unrealistic standards of beauty.
But I realize that an Internet search only further isolates me from the best solution I have found for my own body shame: talk to a girlfriend. Be honest and vulnerable. Don’t try to figure it all out on my own.
I call my friend and executive leadership coach Jo Ilfeld PhD.
First, Jo gave me credit for validating my daughter’s experience, remarking that I wasn’t agreeing that she should feel bad about fat on her thighs, but instead, telling her that every feeling she has is valid, and that she has a right to express it and be heard, i.e., “I’m hearing you and feeling along with you how horrible that feels.”
Second, Jo encourages me to keep the conversation going. Jo tells me that I’m lucky that my daughter is willing to talk to me now, but may be less willing to talk about body shame at age 13 or 15, potentially putting her at greater risk of running underground with anorexia or bulimia. Next week, Jo suggests, say something like, “Remember that conversation last week about thigh fat. How’s it feeling now?”
Ah, a 3-step plan for the universal female experience.