Perfect and Good: Promoting a Healthy Teen Body Image
- 10-year-old boys like washboard abs.
- It’s possible to intensely dislike a child.
Both of these revelations came while I was chauffeuring my then 10-year-old daughter and her friend to a school carnival. My only source of entertainment during these trips is eavesdropping, since my music playlist is questionable at best and my interjections are wholly unappreciated. I’ve learned a lot about Cal during these unguarded moments.
In the midst of a conversation about the girls basketball team, Cal’s friend asked, “Are you working on your six pack? I’ve been doing crunches, but I don’t see any lines yet.” The question wasn’t delivered sotto voce, and there was nothing hesitant in her manner. I stayed facing forward and forced my lips shut because I wanted to hear my daughter’s answer.
“No. Why would I do that?” Cal replied.
“Boys like toned stomachs.” There was a hint of impatience in the tween’s voice. It’s the same edge I get in my own tone when I am forced to explain something obvious.
I pulled my foot off of the gas pedal. What would be the best way to ask a child to leave my car? I was pretty sure that her conditioning exercises would help her traverse the steep and winding curves of Mulholland Drive.
“I don’t show my stomach to boys. I don’t even wear a tankini at the pool.”
Cal’s friend sighed loudly and changed the subject. Maybe she decided that my daughter was a lost cause. Besides, she would get first dibs on all of the boys with her hard-earned physique.
For the rest of the drive (with both girls), I debated whether I should say something once we got to school. I try my best not to parent other people’s children, but as my initial anger and judgment turned into sadness, I found it difficult not to intervene. But I didn’t.
Why did I foolishly believe that girls today wouldn’t obsess about the same body image issues that I agonized over as a teen? I didn’t have access to a fraction of the media my daughter does because my parents couldn’t afford cable television or magazines subscriptions, but I was exposed to enough images and words to know that I needed to be fixed. I never want my daughter to go through any of the anxiety or shame or self-doubt or self-hate that I allowed into my childhood. Actually, I am still tethered to these filters, and they color everything around me.
When I’m feeling nostalgic, I often flip through photo albums that my mother meticulously organized by “era.” They range from our years in South Korea to our early school years and then as high school students. Two narrative tracks run simultaneously as I relive old memories. One recounts particular details: the who, what, where, and when. The other track digs into the mental monologue as I posed for each picture: How I would remind myself to keep my lips together so my crooked buck teeth wouldn’t jut out. Or how much I hated being photographed in my biker shorts because my knees were too knobby and my thighs too spindly, especially if I didn’t have the bulk of my neon fanny pack to hide my stick figure.
My body was too thin. My chest was too small. My hair was too frizzy. My toes were too stubby. My nose bridge was too flat. I was too short. It’s strange…I can’t think of much else in life where too much of something denotes a lack instead of an overflow. But that is how I saw myself. My body wasn’t good enough. I was lacking.
Even now, I’m very self-conscious. Until ten days ago, I did not own a single photo of myself in a bathing suit. I’m not that much taller than I was as a tween, nor has my body magically filled out. My ass is still concave. My friends good-naturedly tease and ask if I purge or withhold. “I would swallow tapeworms if I could be your size.” “Petite women are so cute. I just want to put you in my pocket.” I always go along with the jokes because I never felt like I had permission to talk about my insecurities. When I slipped into the bathing suit I hadn’t worn in four years except in the dressing room before purchasing it, it was my way of saying, “I will not hide anymore. This is good. Not just good enough. But GOOD.” It still didn’t stop an inner monologue of self-doubt as my friend snapped several photos by the pool, but, like, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
That’s the unshakeable truth I want my daughter to own. That she is good. Beautiful. Perfect.
What I don’t want is for her to someday be 33 like me and believe that her body’s worth is based on a standard set by others. I don’t want her to wait for external approval before she feels like she has permission to love herself.
I still regret holding back during that carpool several years ago, but Cal and I have had multiple conversations since about that afternoon. She knows:
- Washboards abs do not guarantee happiness. Or a boy’s affection.
- Don’t bring that girl over no more.