One night, while passing out plates of chocolate cake, my seven-year-old daughter’s favorite, she refused, saying “No thank you. I’m feeling a bit fat today.” My jaw dropped. I asked her to clarify her comment. “I just don’t want the cake right now. That’s all.” I set the plate down in front of her in case she changed her mind and told her we’d talk about it more later. My heart was heavy. I’d never heard her talk that way before. I ran through memories of conversations the past week. Did I mention anything about negative body image, my weight, or food I was avoiding? My husband and I work so hard to be body positive with each other and our kids.
I followed up with my daughter about “feeling fat” when she and I took a mommy-daughter shopping trip. I was taking a work trip to Miami and needed to purchase a new bathing suit. Normally, this shopping trip would be less than exciting and definitely something I’d prefer to do alone, but given the circumstances, I decided to bring her with me.
We rolled into the parking lot and I began to wonder if the plan I had was completely ridiculous. Would it make any impression at all? Would she even notice my attempts at modeling positive body image? I had to do something. I grabbed a cart and we headed for the women’s clothing department. For as long as my daughter has known me, I’ve been a “tankini or one-piece AND board shorts” swimsuit mom. My own insecurities about my body and the messages I’ve received about modesty and hiding my curves since childhood have taken up deep places in my mind. These beliefs have formed habits regarding the types of clothes I buy, especially when it comes to bathing suits.
As I watched my daughter look through various brightly colored bikinis, I asked her to grab me a size large in hot pink. She looked at me like I was crazy, but grabbed the suit and followed me around to the next rack. Over the next few minutes, we grabbed a handful of skimpy bathing suits I’d never even consider trying on before. Underwire, tie-backs, scalloped edges, and mesh. I was in way over my head. My insecurities screamed all sorts of insults at me, but I looked at my daughter and her giant smile as she held that hot pink bikini and we headed to the dressing rooms.
Trying not to hyperventilate and trying even harder to act like I knew what I was doing, I put the first bathing suit on, stepped out of the dressing room, and ignoring the urge to run for my life. I asked my daughter what she thought. “Oh mom!” She squealed, “You look so cute! I love the pink one!” I couldn’t help but smile back. For the next fifteen minutes, I modeled for her swimsuits I NEVER would have tried on. Ever. Swimsuits that magazines, blogs, and reality TV shows would not approve of on my body type. As I looked at myself in the mirror before opening the door to show my daughter, I had to get into battle-mode; arming myself against the negative, body-shaming thoughts that were trying so hard to win and keep me hidden. I’ve lost those battles for the last 25 years. But that day, I started to take back territory.
I didn’t end up buying the bikini. I bought a super cute one-piece instead. I know, I know. But let me tell you what I didn’t buy; shorts to go with the suit. For the first time since sixth grade, I wore my bathing suit without shorts as a cover up. I was terrified, but I knew my fears and insecurities were a part of the body image battle I had to win. Not only for my sake, but for my daughter’s, as well. And I won. And it was awesome. At one point, I looked around and realized not one woman on the beach was wearing shorts. I wanted to run and hug each one of them and thank them for being braver than I was. They were an inspiration, not only to myself, but to the next generation of woman growing up in this culture that tells them they are not okay as they are.
I’m fighting a war against diet culture and body image negativity. Sometimes the arrows of insecurity and the messages of “you’re not good enough” are so well camouflaged I can’t even see them or feel the wounds they inflict. But I sure saw them hit my daughter, and I knew I had to up my battle plan.
The world is both beautiful and harsh. It’s filled with messages of empowerment and shame. As mothers, we must arm ourselves with the tools to identify the dangerous body image messages and squash them as they come. We must do our best to model (perhaps literally) what is true, so they, too, can arm themselves and stand grounded on the belief that they are enough.