My Body Image, My Daughter

I eat too many pistachios. This is the thought that repeats in my head as I stand at my kitchen counter, stomach rumbling, mouth salivating, hand immersed deep within my pistachio jar. Again: I eat too many pistachios. I look at the brimming handful of delectable, bright green nuts that I am attempting to extract through the narrow opening of the jar and swallow in anticipation, wondering if I will successfully convince myself that the mass encased within my fingers is equivalent to ten nuts, roughly, maybe eleven, close enough. Why ten? Didn’t you know? Ten is the maximum number of pistachios we are supposed to eat within a 24 hour period. I read this once in a book on diet and exercise, something related to Pilate’s if I’m not mistaken, and if I read it, it must be true.

Why do I care? I will tell you. Because I, like so many other forty-something women, do not look like my twenty-five year old former self, and I wish that I did. I have body image issues. There, I said it. And while I’m at it, one further confession—I am panicked by the thought that I may, in fact, be passing these feelings of inadequacy on to my pre-adolescent daughter.

Throughout my teens and early twenties I was a model, working on assignments in Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton and Tokyo. When I signed my contract to model in Japan, I was 16 years old, 5’ 5-1/2” tall, and I weighed 115 lbs. I will never forget my first meeting with the international agent who represented me overseas. I walked into the casting room clad from head-to-toe in spandex so that my body-shape could be revealed, barefoot, bare-faced, hair up. Before he introduced himself, but after he sized me up like a heifer he was debating whether to breed or slaughter, the first words that came out his mouth were “How long have you had this hip problem?” I have felt branded ever since. I was signed despite this apparent deformity, but I have never forgotten those words.

The issue of weight for children and adolescents is more prevalent today than at any other time in our history. On April 12 of this year the New York Times ran an article on this exact subject (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/magazine/18fob-wwln-t.html?emc=eta1). However, despite our collective pre-occupation with weight and health, childhood and teen-age obesity rates are on the rise. In Canada, the instance of childhood obesity has tripled since 1981. In the United States, President Bill Clinton has made it a personal crusade to end childhood obesity, which has quadrupled in American children over the same time. Simultaneously, eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia are at an all-time high. And if this doesn’t frighten you, a new eating disorder called Orthorexia Nervosa has emerged, characterized by an excessive focus on consuming healthy foods, a fixation that can become so extreme it can lead to severe malnutrition and even death.

The media and popular culture are complicit. Shenae Grimes, currently starring on the revised hit television series, 90210, and the most recent ingenue to come out of Canada, is reported to weigh between 90¾100 lbs, and for this she ogled by the press. Clearly, North American society has a perverse notion of what constitutes a healthy, attractive body weight, and our children are paying the price.

Looking back on my days as a model, I recall something else: I was also smart. I earned excellent grades in school. However, outside of my family, I received virtually no accolades for my academic achievements, but instead garnered a great deal of attention as a result of my superficial qualities. Even my school teachers commended me more for my latest modeling assignment than they did for the A+ I had recently received on an Honours English paper. Add to this equation ten years as a competitive figure skater, a sport in which “image,” that is appearance and weight, plays a significant role in an athlete’s success, and the makings for a lifetime of skewed perspective of my own physicality were set.

Fast forward to today. I currently weigh in (on a good day) at a cool 135 lbs, most of which appears to have settled resolutely in the areas of my butt and upper thighs, with just a hint of it causing my jaw-line and chin to begin to sag. The phrase “hip problem” still lingers in my consciousness, with a renewed sense of vigour and purpose. But the voice that issues this critical edict has morphed over the years, and now the words are no longer the man’s in casting room the shadows, but my own. It is me who berates my self for not being thin, for not being pretty, for not being the girl I physically once was.

It has taken years of growth, discovery, life experience, and one dismal failure of a marriage for me to understand and accept myself as I am. But here’s the thing: as much as I am proud of the woman I am today, and as much as I know intellectually that the loss of my 22 inch waist is a badge of honour and not a scarlet letter, I still struggle with a preoccupation with weight, and appearance. I am still that 16 year-old-girl who feels that round hips render me less desirable than the straight ones I long for but will never have. On a good day, this manifests in a minor obsession with food consumption; on a bad day, I find myself considering Botox, Liposuction, possibly a nose job. North American culture falsely associates beauty with success, happiness, desirability, even love. This has certainly been my experience. I do not want this to be my daughter’s.

Of course, I know that body weight is on Little Miss’ radar. I see it. I’ve seen her evaluating herself in the mirror, turning sideways to confirm the flatness of her stomach; I hear the conversation of her peers. Recently, as I was leaving her primary school, I over-heard a young girl in my daughter’s social circle decline a snack. Her reason: “I’m on a diet.” Some of her friends have started to eliminate entire food groups. Several of them, all of whom have been raised in omnivore households, have decided to become vegans. Is this an ethical choice? Perhaps, but I can’t help but think that, at least in part, these decisions were precipitated by a desire to control food intake, and thereby weight.

This would be consistent with the current research. According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre’s (NEDIC’s) Web site, 81% of 10-year-olds and at least 46% of 9-year-olds restrict eating, that is, diet. I know that the girls in my daughter’s class discuss and compare their weights. Many of them know the actual poundage they register on a scale. They talk about who the pretty girls are, and the pretty girls are thin.

Not convinced that issues of body image for young girls are at an all-time high. ? Here are a few more NEDIC stats:

  • 37% of Canadian girls age 11, 42% age 13, and 48% age 15 say they need to lose weight.
  • 47% of Canadian girls age 11, 58% age 13, and 55% age 15 say they would change how they look if they could.

In fact, young girls today are so appearance conscious that many have indicated in surveys that they are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, nuclear war or losing their parents.

As mothers, we strive to ensure that our children grow up with a strong sense of self-awareness and positive self-esteem. We hope that this will translate into a love of self that transcends popular ideas of beauty. Mothers are supposed to be role models, literally modelling the behaviours that we want to encourage in our children, but how can we teach our daughters to love themselves, flaws and all, if we cannot extend this same courtesy and compassion to ourselves?

3 Responses to “My Body Image, My Daughter”

  1. It is so sad and so true. My mother had weight issues all her life (or perceived that she did) as a result she took me to weigh in with her at Weight Watchers when I was 11 yrs old. She would promise to buy me outfits and other bribes if I lost weight. The funny thing is I was not over weight and it wasn’t until she pressured me to loose weight. I was curvy, I started developing when I was eight, so by the time I was 10/11/12 I was bigger then most of my peers. Once I got away from that cycle, my weight dropped and normalized. I am very happy, and proud of the way I look now (even after 3 children). My Daughter is four, but already we use phrases such as pretty princess, nice girls etc, phrases that have built in expectations, suggestions and judgements- My husband and I are taking note and trying to alter our behaviour, we are the ones that must lead by example.

    Sorry for the long comment- this is subject that touches me deeply and did effect my body perception for many years. I do not want to do that to my children, my daughter especially.

    • Hi Megan,

      I appreciate your comments very much. You are so right about the language we choose, and, as I’m sure you know than me, the different ways we speak to daughters as compared to sons. I still find myself saying things like, “You look so pretty today,” or other similarly inane things that refer to nothing of any substance, and then quickly find myself re-phrasing, or adding some benign comment like, “Not that it matters,” in a vain attempt to neutralize the effects. Some day I’ll learn. I try to talk about health and fitness, not weight, but I know that when she sees me fretting over my own image in the mirror (something I try not to do) the message gets muddied. No need to apologize for the length of the comment – I’m happy to have provoked the desire to send your thoughts, at any length.

      Thanks for sharing your experience,

      Christie

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