My maternal grandmother lived with my mother, father, and me during most of my childhood. I remember her never being satisfied with her appearance and the stream of negative body comments she made about herself. She pointed out the sagging skin under her arms, her “ruined” stomach covered in stretch marks from carrying and giving birth to five children, and other various complaints she harbored against her own body, too many to enumerate here. She tried every fad diet and trendy exercise device that came along.
Who originally fostered this negative image my grandmother held of her own body? Her mother did.
She constantly criticized my grandmother, calling her “ugly,” among other damaging remarks, and made her feel like she wasn’t good enough. The negative body comments my great-grandmother made about her own daughter adversely influenced how she felt and talked about herself for the rest of her life.
In spite of heart palpitations and breathing problems, my grandmother refused to quit smoking. She said smoking prevented her from getting “fat.” Instead of suffering what in her mind constituted a fate worse than death, she smoked herself into an early grave. At only 73 years old, her body riddled with multiple cancers, she left this world painfully thin at just under 80 pounds.
I remember once proudly showing off the high school graduation dress I picked out and bought. Walking down the stairs to model it for my family, my grandmother embarrassed me by saying, “Well, that dress would look nice if you stood up straight.”
Her perpetual negative body comments about my stooped shoulders and her “offer” to buy me some kind of sling to wear to improve my posture created a specter of “not good enough, not attractive enough,” whispers in my ear.
Only now, as a mother, do I see how her constant negative body comments and her fatal vanity influenced me. Almost subconsciously, I scrubbed these phrases from my vocabulary. Do I love everything about my body? Do I think it’s perfect in every way? No, none of us do. With the constant onslaught of media images defining what constitutes the ideal female form, it becomes unrealistic, if not impossible, not to compare our own bodies to those images. Regardless, for the sake of my daughter, I silence the negative body comments that play in my head rather than speaking them aloud. She doesn’t need to know how I feel about my own body. No good can come of it.
This approach seems to work. My daughter, now seven years old, loves mirrors. This love affair with her reflection started in preschool. A full-length mirror hangs in the hall across from our bathroom and just outside of her bedroom. After bathing, she often stops in front of this mirror to pose, dance, and preen in the nude. We went on a beach vacation, and I gave her the freedom to choose which bathing suit to wear every day. She chose the bikinis first, begrudgingly switching to tankinis and one-pieces towards the end of the trip. When we arrived at the beach each day, she strutted through the sand, completely unselfconscious.
At this age, my daughter loves her body. She feels comfortable in her own skin. I want to keep it that way.
A couple of years ago, one of my friends invited herself over to my house to get ready for her office Christmas party, since she worked close to the party location, but lived an hour away. While my daughter and son watched TV in the living room, she and I drank prosecco and chatted while she put on makeup, curled her hair, and tried on multiple outfits.
Sounds like a fun girls’ night, right? It would have been, except for my friend’s continuous stream of negative body comments about herself.
Honestly, I felt shocked when she started saying these things. I consider this friend one of the most beautiful, vibrant people I know in real life. She just glows with this incredible energy, so, to hear her critique her arms, breasts, derriere, and neck felt scandalous to me. Feeling like I was fighting a losing battle, I kept deflecting her negative body comments and sincerely reassuring her about how great she looks. (She really does!) Other than bewilderment that she sees herself this way, I didn’t feel anything stronger about our interactions that night – until she walked into the living room and into the company of my children.
On my friend’s way out, she twirled around, looked at me over her shoulder, and said, “Be honest. What does my back fat look like?” All of a sudden, a well of anger rose up inside me. I responded, “Stop it! No! You can’t say that in front of my daughter!”
As the mother of a teenage son, she looked at me in confusion for a moment and then, somewhat chagrined, said, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” Luckily, my daughter, engrossed in her television show, didn’t register this exchange. Unfortunately, I realized in that moment that I can’t fully protect her from the prevalence of negative body comments in our society and the media.
As her mother, I can only model self-acceptance and self-love for her. I want her to feel beautiful, healthy, and comfortable in her own skin. Most of all, I want her to love herself and feel worthy of the love of others.
As best as I can, I will shield her from hearing negative body comments uttered by my friends and family. If you fall into that category, please keep in mind the things you can’t say in front of my daughter, and, rest assured, if you forget, I will remind you – forcefully.
How do you approach negative body comments? What things do you forbid your friends and family from saying in front of your children?