Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Raising Little Girls
I was out shopping with my daughter a few weeks ago when she pointed to a display rack of bras. They were bright and colorful. They were padded. They were in the little girl section of the store. I stood there in disbelief wondering why a 5, 6, even 8 or 9 year old would need a bra like this, especially a padded bra. Before I could say anything my daughter turned to me and excitedly asked for one.
Oh no, I thought, even the youngest girls are no longer immune from the message that their body isn’t good enough the way it is. I thought I had at least a few more years before I would have to worry about this sort of thing with my daughter.
I am not sure I can pinpoint the moment that I first hated my body. I remember my mother telling me one day that it was a shame I had such thick legs. She had clucked her tongue and shaken her head as if it were a tragedy of epic proportions. In my memory it seems like one day I just took my body for granted– it was just my body not something I gave even a second thought about– then the next day I was filled with loathing. Before the comment about my legs it hadn’t occurred to me that I shouldn’t like something about myself.
I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what causes one person to develop an eating disorder while another person does not. Or what causes one person to turn to food as comfort and another to find the same comfort in starvation.
I don’t think that the comment from my mother caused an eating disorder, but it pointed me toward the path. From that point on I couldn’t look at my legs without noticing how fat they were. It was all-consuming. I learned to like wearing pants all year long. I began picking apart other parts of my body that were clearly inferior. My nose was too big. My shoulders too narrow. My hips too wide. My boobs non-existent. And my big toes, well they were just all wrong.
Fast forward a few years, I had a boyfriend who successfully eroded what little self esteem I had made it through high school with. I’d like to blame him for my downward spiral, but I think in many ways you teach people how to treat you. And when you hate yourself, you are showing the other person that there really isn’t anything to value in you. It becomes a vicious cycle.
A year or so into that relationship I was deep into an eating disorder. I would only eat one thing all day. I wouldn’t go into the cafeteria at college because I was afraid I’d be tempted to buy something. So I would pack a lunch. A tomato sandwich, two slices of bread and two slices of tomato. At first I salted the tomatoes, but then I got it into my head that the salt was making me retain water and look bloated. So I reduced it to half a sandwich and cut out the salt.
The less I ate the more in control I felt. I would go to bed at night dreaming of food, pizza, fried chicken, potato chips. Foods that I would never dare eat. I would get up in the morning tired and hungry. I’d look at my body, the hollow of my stomach, the skin stretched over my hipbones, and it wasn’t thin enough. A friend of mine told me that I wouldn’t be happy until I got so thin I simply disappeared and ceased to exist. I had thought what would be so bad about that?
I eventually got out of that relationship and slowly clawed my way back to the living.
I’d like to say that now all these years later the eating disorder is gone. But it isn’t really. I will never have a completely normal relationship with food. Most days I can pass as normal. I eat healthy foods, I exercise in moderation, I don’t calculate in my head how many calories I need to burn off for every bite I take. However, during times of stress or unhappiness I stop eating. Most often I don’t even notice it until a day or more has passed and I realize with shock that the reason I have a headache is because I have not eaten a single thing.
I don’t hate my body, or myself, anymore. I think that has been a gift of growing older. I honestly cannot remember why I hated the way I looked so much. Once I was approaching forty it suddenly seemed so pointless to focus on physical attributes that were obviously falling apart anyway. I clearly remember looking in the mirrior one day as I got out of the shower and thinking that I would kill for those thighs I thought were too fat at 20. And the breasts I hated because I thought they were too small have been replaced by a set that have been ravished by over a decade of breastfeeding. Not only do they sag, they are are full cup size smaller than they were 20 years ago.
It is sad that I love the body I have now more than I loved the one I had back then. Sad for the twenty year old I once was, not for the 40 year old I am now. I wish I could go back and tell my old self that she is enough. That she is worthy. That eating will make her happier. That she could let go of trying to be perfect.
I wonder all the time how to protect my daughter from the going through the same intense self hatred that I did. I model the kind of attitude I would like her to have about her body. However, mine isn’t the only opinion she hears.
She already tells me that she doesn’t ever want to get fat. She tells me how her friends at school comment on how tiny and cute she is. In her mind those those two go together: tiny and cute. She doesn’t think you can be big and cute, and you certainly can not be fat and cute. I think of those tiny bras I saw at the store, of how many of her friends, who are just a year or two older, are already shaving their legs. I think of everything the media throws at our girls and the ideals of beauty which are unattainable without plastic surgery. I think about how the porn industry has become mainstream. And I think it will be something of a miracle that any little girls will make it to adulthood unscathed.