Trigger warning for body image, eating disorders/disordered eating
The old script was well-worn and well-memorized. It was stained and bent and a little torn. It ran like a loop through my mind: I am not good enough. I am not pretty enough. I am not thin enough. I am not strong enough. I can be better.
I hid inside pants that were two sizes too big, behind the silly expressions I wore for every photo, beneath a self-deprecating sense of humor I used in every vulnerable situation. I felt safer that way. But still–I knew I could be better.
It took a long time, but now I have a new script: I do not engage in body talk. I repeat it when I see articles about New Year’s Resolutions or detox diets or tummy-flattening exercises. I repeat it when people around me start talking about the last five pounds or the last ten pounds. I repeat it when I get weighed at the doctor and the number isn’t where I feel like it should be.
For me, it was an important and healthy paradigm shift to focus on what my body can do rather than what it looks like. It was a hard shift, especially when I went from the healthiest and fittest I’d been in my adult life to the heaviest I’d been in a decade in the span of a few short months. But it’s a shift that has saved my sanity and maybe even my life. I haven’t been to the gym since September, so I can’t even count my reps and weight any more. I can’t count my laps around the flat track, so I had to replace even that. I count my migraine-free days. I count the hugs I give my students. Right now, that’s what my body can do.
I verbalize my new rule to those who share my world with me. Some people have adopted it. Some just shrug. Some have attempted to actively sabotage it. If I could write such people out of my script, I would. I don’t need that toxicity. That’s the toxicity that led a 17-year-old me to subsist on baked beans and fat-free cheese to lose the fat I didn’t have.
Body talk damages children. Images in the media, the dolls in the toy aisle, the words from teens, tweens, and mothers all become part of the script. What script are we giving our children about their bodies? As this mother discovered this week, it tells four-year-old children that their tummies are too big. Four year olds. I’ll give you a minute or five to read that link, because the blogger handled it like a champ. I shall give you an additional minute to subscribe to her blog.
My third and fourth grade students are afforded some insulation from the body talk, as they do not overhear and eavesdrop on the cultural knowledge the way hearing kids do. But that also means they miss out on some of the counter-narrative about what “normal” really means. And my students are very visual learners. They see everything. They are the savviest elementary-aged Googlers I’ve ever met; they invent search terms I could never dream to concoct. I do my best to provide a bodylove environment: we talk about how hard their hearts pump during gym class, how fun it is to run and play, how strong their muscles get when they practice on the monkey bars. I talk about how much I love to skate, how much the kindergarten teacher loves CrossFit; I eat in front of the kids regularly and express my love for broccoli and pancakes (but not together) and hop on the scale so we can write math problems (Taz + TLK = Teacher, in case you are wondering). Even in our small elementary department, we have a broad range of diverse and beautiful and normal bodies.
I have a student who hops on the scale about once a week and does a fist pump now that she hovers at 100 lbs. with all her snow gear on. She says, “Yesssss! Hundred! Big strong pony me!!” You see, she is obsessed with My Little Pony. And ponies and horses are strong. And big=strong. I hold my breath and hope the day where big no longer equates with strong is far, far away.
If you think body talk doesn’t impact children, I hope this can persuade you otherwise.
If you need resources for talking to your children about body image, I direct you to Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, the community that got me started down this road.