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vintage-scales“Oh so pretty! So skinny!” the ladies at the local shop gushed to my daughter.

In my head, I formulated so many responses.

“Thank you so much, but my girls are learning not to talk about other people’s bodies.”

“Wait…did you just compliment a seven year-old on being skinny?

“Eh, genetics.”

But of course I responded the only appropriate way I could think of to the well-meaning women: an awkward smile. I couldn’t bring myself to say thank you which…well, weird.

Oh man, it’s starting already.

From the mom who told Thalia she’d probably do well in ballet “because they like them small and skinny like you” to the salon employee who admires her figure.

Eek, do second graders have figures?

We shouldn’t be dealing with this stuff already.

Sometimes I wonder if talking about it (“no girl could ever really look like Barbie without being sick, honey”) is worse than not talking about it. But I don’t want to ignore it either. My girls know relatives who have big bellies. They knows about my dear friend who was finally compelled to have gastric bypass surgery to get healthy. They understand about healthy foods and Jamie Oliver and good and bad food choices–even if they don’t quite make them themselves just yet.

I’m not always sure where to go with it all.

I too was the “skinny girl” growing up.  I was the one whose friends thought it was hilarious that they could stretch their thumbs and middle fingers around my waist and nearly get them to touch around the other side. The one who could get up on stage in a leotard year in and year out, never once worrying about what was jiggling.

Admittedly, I kinda miss those days of bandanas as belts and breasts that couldn’t be measured in length. (Sexy, I know!) I liked being able to walk into a boutique and know that things would fit But things changed in my mid-thirties and suddenly, whoa! What are those uh, dimply-looking things on my thighs? You mean I can’t live on bagels and pasta any more? To make the transformation complete, things sure changed when I got pregnant. It still stings when I think of the clerk at the fancypants maternity store on upper Madison Avenue that looked my non-pilates-toned body up and down and practically sneered, sorry…we don’t think we have anything here to uh…accommodate you.

I bought a way overpriced diaper bag that I wore maybe twice and yeah! That sure showed her!

Today I’ve settled into a detente of sorts with my postpartum body, thanks in part to some middle-aged resignation, a fine array of A-line skirts and bias-cut dresses, and the acceptance that I can only be mid-40s me, not mid-20s me, whatever it may look like.

As with most things in life, I often take comfort with the mantra that well, I will probably never be the most _____ woman in the world and I will never be the least ______ woman in the world either.

Fill it in yourself. Kind of fun.

But it’s harder–way harder–to think about these attitudes and societal norms conspiring to infiltrate our daughters heads and eat their brains like airbrushed, fashion industry zombies in belly shirts and teetery Louboutins.

We’re so super-sensitized to any signs of eating disorders or early sexualization that sometimes it’s paralyzing to know how to react when your 5 year old grabs the skin on her thighs and says “look at my fat, mommy!” Is it just stuff kids do? Sign to call 16 therapists immediately? I don’t tend to be reactionary about most things that the parenting world at large panics about. I don’t think that a monogram on my kids’ backpacks will lead to their imminent kidnapping.  But I have read so many posts from women I know, now admitting to anorexia or body image issues as children, that I can’t help but mull that over. Maybe too much.

(I do take heart that these women have grown up to be strong, productive, amazing.)

All I want is to know the 100% right thing to do to insure my girls stay on a healthy–mentally and otherwise–path. The way our mothers did for us. Or the way our mothers didn’t do for us and we wish they had.

Too much to ask?

dancers-c-liz-gumbinner

I wish there were some easy way to know what to do. To know just the right thing to say and to know just when to shut up and not turn it into A Thing. To be able to ask for a comic book superpower that lets a mother distinguish Things Little Girls Say from some terrible foreshadowing of things to come.

What do you do, parents? How do you talk to your girls about bodies? How soon?

Because seeing my five-year-old joke about “wiggling her fat thighs” is not something I’m quite ready for.

75 shards of brilliance… read them below or add one

Lauren @ A Lovely Lark April 4, 2013 at 8:08 am

We’ve only got a three-year-old at the moment, but my husband and I already argue about when to address things (like when she imitates the baby at her daycare who sucks his thumb) and when to ignore them. I tend to fall more on the side of “don’t make it into a thing” because she is the reverse psychology queen. (I mean, to get her to give her Opa a hug I have to say, “Don’t you dare give your Opa a hug!” and she runs right over and wraps her arms around him). My husband’s natural response is to address everything. Thank goodness we don’t have to deal with body image yet! I’ll be reading the comments because I know it will unfortunately happen sooner rather than later.
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Lot April 4, 2013 at 8:22 am

I am a parent, but don’t have a girl, just a wee baby boy at the moment. Lol – “just”. Anyway, for what it’s worth I’d say you as their mother know best when to let things slide and when to take action. It’s just like disciplining, you know when to put your foot down, but sometimes you let them get away with it. I strongly believe that as long as you have a good solid relationship with your daughters, and keep communicating your values with them, they’ll find their way.
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Lor April 4, 2013 at 8:24 am

Haha my phone autocorrected my name. I’m not “Lot”. Lol.

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Bryahnn April 4, 2013 at 8:33 am

My eating disorder started when I was four. Not because I was worried about my body image, but because adult aquaintances started making comments about how much food and what type of food I was eating. I started overcontrolling then and got worse through my teenage and college years.

Now, as a high school teacher, I often mentor girls who are struggling with similiar stories, who are wondering why they are weak enough to be suspectible to this when their friends aren’t, who are wishing to get better at the same time they cling to their behaviors because the behaviors make them feel in control.

I don’t know when to address it or what to say to your daughter. But I’m glad you know its real.

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Mom101 April 4, 2013 at 10:27 am

Oh my gosh Bryahn. Thank you for sharing that with me. I think it’s wonderful that you find yourself in a position now to help other girls–I bet you do a great job, drawing from your own experiences.

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Melissa April 4, 2013 at 9:18 am

I have a daughter in kindergarten that will soon turn 6. I have had similar experiences to the one you describe here and I too struggle to handle it well. I was never the super skinny kid, but I was never overweight as a kid either. However I do have a tendance to obsess over what I should eat versus what I want to eat. My mother was overweight and told me all the time how beautiful and thin I was. She also constantly reminded me not to get fat like her. So, she would often remind me that I should not eat too much mac’n cheese because it would make me fat. I don’t have an eating disorder and never have. Still, like other areas, I want better for my daughter. I don’t want her to obsess over what foods to eat, then give in to the guilty pleasure and feel bad about herself afterward. Like you now as I’m in my mid 30′s and post pregnancy I’m heavier than I should be. Not just for looks, but for my health. I’m not doing that bad, but still, I struggle. The more I think about what I should eat, the more I crave what I should not eat.
So far I think we are doing pretty well with our daughter. She has 2 moms so we have a unique dynamic most girls don’t have. She has 2 different approaches to food and body image in her home everyday. I try to be careful not to criticize my body in front of her. It has been good for me, I just don’t critisize myself so much and I feel better in general. We talk about healthy foods and eating a balanced diet. Instead of talking about eating to stay thin, we focus on eating to stay healthy and what her body needs. We tell her she needs some protein to go with her fruit before gymnastics because she’ll need the energy. We eat dinner as a family, and on weekends we eat all our meals together. We also have dessert most nights. Lately she eats dinner to get dessert so we openly talked about the fact that we were going to only have fruit for dessert and saves sweets for special treats because we want her to listen to her body and eat until she is full. She has sometimes asked if a food was good for her and we tell her. On vacation once she asked if a muffin she wanted was a healthy choice. We told her the muffin had good things for her body like whole grain and fruit, but more sugar and fat than her usual breakfast choices. We also told her she could have whatever she wanted, it is fine to treat herself especially on vacation. Same for sugary cereal. We usually have high fiber/low sugar cereal, but sometimes we might get a super sugary cereal either as a reward or for a holiday. We are lucky she is a kid that loves to try new foods and is very active. We just try to keep everything in terms of keeping her body healthy. And, we try to tell her she is smart and kind and beautiful every day. It amazes me that on her own she will go pick out a cup of greek yogurt for breakfast while I’m still struggling to pick the same yogurt because I really want some cheesy toast.
Sorry, that was long winded. Like you I have thought about this so much. Thank you for writing about it.

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Mom101 April 4, 2013 at 10:25 am

Not long-winded at all. I really appreciate you sharing your story with me.

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Liz April 4, 2013 at 9:31 am

I too have a daughter that is thin and as someone who wasn’t thin as a child secretly I am grateful for her being naturally thin. I try to model healthy behavior (I exercise regularly and we eat pretty well, but that includes dessert). I think how you *act* is more important than what you *say*.

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Grown and Flown April 4, 2013 at 9:34 am

I think your girls will do what you do. Really. If you eat, happily but sensibly, they will too. If they see self-deprivation and anxiety, they will mimic. I have not had the pleasure of a meal with you, but for your girls the dinner table is probably where they are learning much about weight, self image and seeing food as a source of joy.
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LV April 4, 2013 at 10:02 am

As a couple of other people have said here, it’s all about communication. When the lady said that to your daughter, you could ask her what SHE thinks about the comment when you get into the car. When they talk about it on Lizzy McGuire reruns, or whatever the new Disney shows are where they’ll have an issue of the week, you can discuss it then. Tell her what you just said. I have two lovely daughters, one a teen and one who just turned 20, and they seem to not have any food hangups. When they were little, as little as 5, we talked about healthy eating, the media, and attitudes about food.

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Mom101 April 4, 2013 at 10:23 am

Asking what she thinks…that’s so smart. And simple. Thanks LV.

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Suebob April 4, 2013 at 10:49 am

It is such a terrifying minefield. I have heard such scary stories about the smallest things setting off eating disorders…a comment from a dance teacher, a nutrition class what flipped a switch about “bad” foods…

I think the focus should be on how we feel, not how we look. Do we feel healthy and strong and capable? Good! Do we feel bloated and sleepy and sick? Time to make some changes. I’m only starting to learn that at 52, and sometimes I still make that mistake, but I’m getting a better grasp. In other words, that almond croissant is going to make me feel like crap, so I’m not going to eat it.
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Mom101 April 4, 2013 at 10:51 am

You are a wise woman Suebob. Always. But I really love this.

I also love almond croissants, though. Hm.

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Julie Marsh April 4, 2013 at 11:12 am

I could write pages on this topic. Chapters, probably.

We talk about being strong and being healthy. We talk about good habits and giving our bodies the fuel they need to accomplish what we ask of them. We praise hard work in pursuit of personal goals, not in an effort to be like others. We revel in what our bodies can DO, not what they look like.

I hope to instill these views in my girls (in my boy, too) for life, so that when they face their own aging postpartum bodies, they will still take pride in caring for themselves for the sake of what those bodies can still do.

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Tanya April 4, 2013 at 12:35 pm

I don’t have a girl but I have a 3 year old son. I don’t have to worry about this quite as much as I would if I had a girl. I think you will do a fine job with raising your girls to love themselves! 7 is a bit early to be hearing comments about what their body looks like.
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J April 4, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Sadly, I don’t honestly know that there is anything you can do to guarantee that your daughters grow up healthy on this. It’s a big, mean world out there sometimes. We spoke to our daughter about feeling good, we never talked about ‘good food vs. bad food’, we modeled good behavior, we ate (and eat) dinner together every night, on and on. I truly cannot think of anything we did wrong. I don’t know if someone at school said anything to my daughter that made her start on the ‘Special K diet’ in the summer after 7th grade. I did panic early, I called specialists who said it is normal for girls at that age to try dieting as a way of asserting their control over themselves and the world they live in, but they gave me signs to watch for. Which came true, and our sweet, healthy child lost almost 30 lbs before we were able to get her help. It was like her body was possessed by an angry, scared, HUNGRY person who was terrified to weigh more than 90 lbs. She’s been healthy again now for 3 1/2 years, thank god. One thing that still bugs me is how much attention she got for her beautiful looks when she was severely underweight than she gets at a healthy (size 1, still small) weight. Infuriating.

I honestly think that there’s something genetic that makes some people more susceptible to eating disorders. Most of us can go on a diet and we either lose weight or we don’t, we may gain it back and more, we may not. But for some, it turns into something different and dangerous. Your commenter Bryahnn touched on this a bit, I think.
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Sharron April 4, 2013 at 12:39 pm

I am child free, but I wanted to comment because my perspective on this issue was not shaped by the well meaning comments (or otherwise) of strangers but by my mother, grandmother and Aunt.

I grew up in the 70′s before the media challenges that young girls and parents are now faced with. However, I can quite clearly remember being told that ‘I wouldn’t want to get fat’ if going for second helpings’ and that I did not want to ‘end up like my cousins’, among other hurtful comments.

I was the skinniest kid you ever did see and yet by the age of 13 I had seriously disordered eating habits all learned from watching these role models shove food around their plate, diet relentlessly, talk about my larger relatives in a hurtful way and associate any one with any excess weight as lazy and unattractive.

You cannot stop the comments of well meaning strangers and you cannot always be prepared when they happen, but as long as you have a healthy and honest attitude with your daughter then she will do better than I ever did.

It probably took me up until last year at 41 years old to come to terms with and have a normal and healthy relationship with the food I eat. I am no longer the skinniest thing you ever did see nor am I the largest, but I certainly am the healthiest I have ever been.
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Angie April 4, 2013 at 10:58 pm

This is a topic close to my heart. I was chubby as a child and became morbidly obese as an adult; there was no precipitating tragic event that led to my overeating, I was just a compulsive eater. I made a change and lost almost 90 pounds and became a much healthier person, mainly because I wanted to be a healthy mom. Fast-forward 10 years and I have 4 children, one of whom is an almost 10 year old daughter. When my kids ask me if their weights are OK (sometimes they all get the scale out of the closet and weigh themselves for fun), I tell them they are all the perfect weights for themselves. But I worry that i monitor their foods too much and am petrified that any of them will have a weight problem like I have.

I also recently found out that a beautiful athletic 8th grade girl in our neighborhood has been hospitalized and tube-fed because of severe anorexia. It make my heart hurt to imagine her feeling that way about herself.

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Angie April 4, 2013 at 11:01 pm

I meant to comment on the whole thread, not just your comment, sorry!

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Cloud April 4, 2013 at 12:48 pm

I have two beautiful little girls. One is, and always has been, quite thin. Even as a baby. One is, and always has been, a little rounder. Especially as a baby. They are 3.5 and 6, and so far haven’t really noticed the difference between their body types. But the adults around them do. And they comment (usually out of the kids’ ear shot, thankfully). And I cringe, and mumble, and don’t really know how to answer.

One thing I came to quite late in life was an appreciation of what my body can do. I was never a very athletic kid, probably because kids athletics are all competitive and I wasn’t good enough to make that fun. As an adult, I discovered hiking, kayaking, rollerblading, martial arts, and a host of other things that I like to do. Being active, and strong, and able to do fun things that require physical strength has helped me make peace with my basic body type, which has never been as thin and lithe as I wished it would be. I am hoping to bring my daughters that same peace a little earlier, if I can, by helping them learn to focus more on what their bodies can do and less on what their shape is. But I’m not sure I know how to do that. So far, it has been b example, and by signing them up for the active classes that interest them. But I know the hardest time for this is ahead- so if you find the magic answer, please share!
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JLee April 4, 2013 at 12:51 pm

When I found out my child was a boy, one of my first thoughts was, thank God he won’t have to go through what I’ve been through.

I was a hard-core dancer for many years. My build is naturally petite, but not thin, as is the ideal. My disordered eating started in high school and by college I was anorexic/bulimic. I’d love to blame it on the pressures of dancing (that would make it so easy! Moms, just keep your daughters out of dance!), but there were many, many factors in play. Including my perfectionist, people-pleasing personality and well-meaning female relations who hadn’t fully addressed with their own body image issues.

My eating disorder was not nearly as serious as many, and I got help and got better within a year. But it wasn’t until I had my baby that I really started to change the way I thought about my body, because of exactly what Julie said above: I was focused on what it could do. Isn’t it strange that even at the height of my dancing career, when I could split at 190 degrees and do triple pirouettes, I couldn’t appreciate my body’s abilities the way I do now?

I think we moms need to change the focus on what our girls look like to what they are capable of. I’m not quite sure how we do it…maybe when the shop lady says “so skinny!” we say, “but you should see how strong she is!” Wouldn’t it be great if the next generation of girls is able to appreciate their 20-year old body when they’re 20, instead of 10 years later?
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My Kids Mom April 4, 2013 at 1:14 pm

I have two sons, and all of us are tall and skinny. While I like being tall and skinny (with a post pregnancy roundness in the tum) I want to teach them that round women are just as lovely, not lazy or unattractive. They have great eating habits themselves, but I want them to know that the media portrayals of women are unnatural. The women they meet will have rounder parts, jiggly parts, hair on places they “shouldn’t” and might not want to wear makeup or wear provocative clothing. I want them to know that they need to look through all that to a woman’s soul to know if they like her. I see this problem as directly related to the “how to teach your sons to not rape” discussions. Learning to think of men and women with the same criteria and values.

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gabs April 4, 2013 at 1:15 pm

I think about this a lot. I have a 6 y/o girl and she often speaks of other people’s body, more specifically of people she thinks are fat. I have no idea where it comes from since we make an effort not to talk about people’s bodies in the house. I can’t help to think it’s a self esteem issue. She is not particularly skinny nor fat — just average and will continue to be. I make great efforts to talk about food in a more positive way, what’s healthy and what is not. The need to eat a balance meal and to eat more healthy than non healthy foods (she loves french fries). I’m also lenient in regards to allowing dessert most nights as long as they’ve eaten a good healthy meal. Allowing them to eat what they want (for the most part) on vacations, etc. I address the fact that she speaks of other people’s bodies by talking to her about it openly. She’s too young to know if this will stick, but my fingers are crossed. Unfortunately, I think her peers could be her own worst enemies or best friends on these issues.

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Marci April 4, 2013 at 1:23 pm

My girls are 15 and 17 years old now. My oldest was always super skinny and my youngest not so much. I tried really hard to instill good body images and healthy eating. You will find that it never ends. For years I heard about my younger daughter and how she was heavier than her sister (and a lot of peers). At one time my brother and sister in law wanted the girls to visit and I wouldn’t let them go for fear of them starving her. Like she would be in a fat camp. Maybe my fears were unfounded but I still said no. Fast forward a few years, and now my daughter is tall and thin. She is a very strong athlete. She actually lost 20 pounds since last summer. Grown women have come up to her and complimented her on the way she looks. Oh you are so skinny! I didn’t even recognize you! And I cringe. We talk about it all the time. She finally told me that she cut out all junk food and only eats when she is hungry. No mindless eating. I am her mother and I really believe that she has a healthy relationship with food. Being a strong athlete probably contributed to her determination to be fit and strong.

I know that the battle isn’t over. Her older sister is finding out that she can’t just eat junk and stay thin. Her metabolism is slowing down. She is incredulous that her younger sister is so lean and fit. So, now I worry about the older one. She actually calls herself fat. I cringe some more. I wish you luck with it all. Just when you think you have it all figured out everything will change. We, as parents, can do the best we can. And we have to stay vigilant.

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Mom101 April 4, 2013 at 2:02 pm

I hadn’t even considered the notion of sisters, who may have different body types. That’s its own challenge I’m sure.

I had a brother – in that sense maybe that was one less factor to worry about.

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Korinthia April 4, 2013 at 1:26 pm

I struggle with my weight and try very hard not to be critical about it in front of my kids. I do my best to model the right things by exercising every day and serving fruits and vegetables for snacks and limiting desserts to an occasional treat. We talk about being healthy and strong and eating foods that have things our bodies can use.

My big challenge of late is that my kids are all so different. One is a bit overweight, one a bit underweight, and the third probably right where she should be. How do I work with that without making anyone self-conscious? The one who could be thinner is very emotional and I can easily see her spiraling into a disorder if we say the wrong thing, and it scares me. All I can think to do is encourage all my kids to eat well and to move and hope for the best. Beyond that I’m not sure. (When you figure it out, please post!)
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Issa April 4, 2013 at 6:50 pm

There are no magic answers for this one and man I wish there were. I have been on one side of it, although every day I’m thankful I was an average sized little kid because most of the people who picked on me were family and I was in my teens. Shrug. I can’t help that. My girls are on the other side. They get picked on for being too skinny. My oldest is constantly asked if she eats by adults and classmates. I mean the girl is teeny, as is her sister. What kills me is when people (ADULT WOMEN) comment about how she needs to eat some cheeseburgers. What can be done about it, heck if I know. I know that both of my daughters are healthy, albiet on the petite and wee side.

You can’t win in this society. Be thin but god forbid not too thin!

My son is tall and athletic and I think he’ll never get any shit from anyone about weight.

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Cassie Boorn April 4, 2013 at 7:04 pm

As someone who has spent the last decade struggling with an eating disorder, there is no doubt in my mind that your girls will be fine. Because they have a mother who is a model of strength and self-love.

I once read that questioning if you are a good parent, makes you a good parent. The fact that you worry about them loving themselves, means you will make sure they love themselves. I have zero doubt in that.
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Mom101 April 4, 2013 at 9:52 pm

You’re the best, Cassie. Thank you so much. I like that adage–it makes a lot of sense.

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eggks April 4, 2013 at 9:00 pm

Too many people have experienced eating disorders, and too many more have experienced ongoing, non-life threatening disordered eating that they never even realized could be different.

It’s great that you are concerned, and it sounds like you are doing the right things, but as many others have pointed out there’s no way to ensure that they don’t experience body-image or eating problems.

To me, the best thing you can do is to try to lessen the shame that is associated with being overweight and with having disordered eating and with just worrying about this topic in general. I think that this probably doesn’t mean trying to have the answer, but rather being open with them about how complicated the issue is. Already, your daughters are being bombarded with messages about weight and food, and they’re probably confused about it. I was an incredibly thin child (my BMI was consistently around the 10th percentile) but I was, for as long as I can remember, terrified about being fat or gaining any weight at all. I wish that my mother had taken this fear seriously and talked to me about it rather that just avoiding discussion of it or making me feel like my fears were ridiculous or ‘wrong’. When I was 18 and finally started to get curves, I was still terrified and also horribly unprepared.

So I guess what I’m saying is that this is going to be an issue in some capacity (hopefully a tiny one!) and I think that the best thing that you can do is to give your kids tools to deal with it. That means acknowledging that – now and in the future – they might have bad feelings about their bodies that are unfounded or that you wish they didn’t feel. But better to give them a place to work through those issues without shame than to just hope that they will never have them.

Wow, I didn’t realize that I had so many thoughts about this. Sorry that it is long!

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Mom101 April 4, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Really great thoughts – from you and everyone. Thank you so much!

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Holly April 4, 2013 at 11:14 pm

I had an eating disorder as a teenager so I’m extremely cognizant of talking about anything to do with weight in front of my kids and it’s really hard. My daughter is slightly overweight and my son is too skinny. So one needs to be careful of what she eats and he can eat anything he wants. However, I never, ever make her feel that the contrast in their sizes is so vast and I never deprive her of food. I try to teach her healthy choice and I keep her active playing sports. If she gets a complex now, the damage will be permanent and I know that from my own experience.
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Mom101 April 5, 2013 at 7:58 am

I’m sorry to hear that Holly–and I am so grateful to you and everyone here who is sharing their personal stories to help make things easier on friends and strangers in similar situations. It sounds like you’re doing great.

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Jill Amery April 5, 2013 at 12:33 am

I’m a bit lost for advice. As an only child who ‘developed’ early and was shuffled out of the fast ballet-track, any comment about weight I ever received stung. I still remember one danseur saying that I was very talented, ‘weight-thing’ aside. They’re breasts, sir. They’re not light. I still get comments from people approving or disapproving of a two pound shift. All I can say is that with your profound maturity and communication skills, your girls will flourish. And if they are like me, they will want to discuss every comment with a wise parent.

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Josette Plank April 5, 2013 at 2:58 am

Sports, sports, sports, sports, sports. Or dance, dance, dance, dance. Or martial arts, martial arts, etc.

My daughters are 14 yo and 11 yo. One is not super-skinny, the other is. Body type and how you look in clothes matter so little compared to what your healthy body can *do*. When we talk about food, we talk about it as fuel for what we want to do, enjoyment second. Both are important, but remembering constantly that our bodies are organic machines that allow our souls/selves to enjoy life makes it all very practical. Weight doesn’t matter as much when girls think of themselves this way.

Yes, of course, some sports and dance can take things to an extreme. But talking about bodies as things that DO and not things that look a certain way helps immensely. Also, again, we very much limit commercial television, fashion magazines, Internet. It’s helped, I think.
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Mom101 April 5, 2013 at 7:57 am

I couldn’t agree more Josette. As a former dancer, it wasn’t something that caused body issues with me–more like, it provided self-esteem through achievement and goal attainment that stayed with me. I think of your girls skating a lot and how much that’s meant to them.

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wendy @ mama one to three April 5, 2013 at 7:07 am

oy, this is so stressful– I have two girls and a boy. and my own history (sometimes present) of body image hell. I worry always about what they will face in the world and within their own minds. And I try hard to not let my issues become theirs.
Thank you for sharing this–
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Elise April 5, 2013 at 9:36 am

I have three year-old triplet daughters who already have very different physical forms. One very tall and strong, one tall and super skinny and one who is two sizes smaller than her sisters. We talk about how their bodies are different, for example when they are in conflict because the 4T girl can’t get into the 2T dress that still fits her sister. We use very factual terms: taller, shorter etc and they are all very excited to be growing “bigger and bigger, inside and out”. The other day, one of them had a big meal and noticed her belly was protruding. She patted it and said something to the tune of “I ate SO MUCH, my belly is going to grow bigger and bigger until it’s as big as Santa Claus” and was delighted with herself.

My mantra is that I am never going to be younger or more attractive than I am at this very minute, so I might as well celebrate what I’ve got. I wish I had realized this when I was a teenager or in my 20s, but I’m glad I know now.

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@observacious April 5, 2013 at 10:41 am

Ugh. I wish I knew. My daughter is only 2 years old. She is in the 80th percentile for weight, but she’s also in the 80th percentile for height. That is, she is big, but she is proportionately big. Still I know that “big” can have a stigma no matter how proportionate it may be.

My husband calls her “pork chop,” which makes me cringe. Will it make her feel badly about her body or will she just see it as one of the many silly things dad says? I want her to be healthy but not obsessed with weight. Ack! What is the answer?!
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Heidi April 5, 2013 at 3:45 pm

A poem about a kid called pork chop. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltun92DfnPY

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Karen April 5, 2013 at 12:10 pm

I could go on and on about this. My mom was overly focused on my weight for years. I’m sure it was borne of her own fears and generational culture, but it wasn’t until I had babies that my body became something to wonder in awe over instead of something to dissect in disgust.

So, with my own daughter, I’ve always said, “You look exactly the way you’re supposed to look, and look what your body can DO.” With her being born without an ear, and having scars on her head and abdomen from reconstructive surgeries, her self-acceptance had to come early. We’ve never tried to cover her up in that way. We say, “scars are stories, and you have stories.”

(Coincidentally, I just wrote on a similar subject last night about her hair.)
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Mom101 April 5, 2013 at 12:37 pm

I love your line about scars!

Whenever sage has a bump or a cut or a bruise I always say, “congratulations. You’re a kid! If you didn’t have those that would mean you weren’t running around the playground or jumping off a brick wall or climbing a tree.” I love applying that to all of life’s imperfections though: “congratulation, you’re a human!”

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Loukia April 5, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Last year another boy called my then four year old fat at summer camp. I was crushed. Crushed. My boys are healthy, active, and have bellies. I tell them every day that they are perfect, and that we all come in different shapes and sizes. It’s awful that anyone thinks they have the right to comment ok someone’s body. Especially a child’s!

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Mom101 April 5, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Oof.

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Patty April 5, 2013 at 1:38 pm

This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I am a big girl. Both in height and girth. Buy my two daughters (8 and 11) are very lean. Who knows how their bodies will change as they grow older, but for now, they are “skinny.” My daughter’s best friend is a “big” girl (like I was at her age), and this has opened the door to may conversations about what really counts; what we are on the inside, not how we look on the outside. We talk daily about what it means to be healthy; how to value our friends for what they are and not how they look; and how unreal the images are that we see on TV and in magazines. I’m happy that these are common topics of discussion in our home. I know there will be challenges ahead (peer pressure, boys) but I am laying the foundation and believe that it will make a difference in the future.

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Deb April 5, 2013 at 2:04 pm

I only have a 15-month old son, but I do have nieces and young cousins. I have no idea how to combat the early indoctrination into body image issues. I have to imagine, however, that having frank conversations with them in language they can understand is probably more beneficial than not saying anything. Because they are going to be bombarded with it sooner or later. They might as well have some language with which to understand it.

Oh, how I wish it didn’t have to happen so soon. I didn’t start having body image issues until I went to college. Truth be told, however, I’m sure the seeds were planted very early on … and by well meaning adults. We have all internalized the script to a certain degree.

Good luck.
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Amy April 5, 2013 at 2:35 pm

I, too, have a daughter (just turned 5) and she is on the smaller side, but very active, and is just starting to gain a bigger appetite. I, however am on the larger side and grew up being tormented by school mates, etc for my weight. I seem to always be dieting and worry that she will pick up on the fact that I am extremely unhappy about my size.

I also have three nephews (aged 8 and 6). The twins are naturally thin and tall (take after my brother) and their younger brother is shorter and a little bigger (I believe they are all very close in weight). The boys constantly tease their younger brother and I find it extrememly painful to watch and hear. I’ve talked with them several times, but to no avail. So, unfortunately, it does happen to the boys as well, not just the girls. :(

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Mom101 April 5, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Oh my gosh…do the parents respond to the teasing? I’d think we could start with our own families’ attitudes toward each other, before we take on the world.

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Amy April 8, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Very, very unfortunately my brother and SIL are right in on the teasing (not to his face, but to other family members) which I absolutely hate and have told them so, many times. I’m actually surprised my brother and SIL do this as they both have been through weight struggles and don’t seem to have issue with the teasing.

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Melissa@Julia's Bookbag April 5, 2013 at 2:54 pm

I worry worry and worry some more about this. My daughter is naturally very thin, and when she gets sick and loses her appetite, well she really can’t afford to lose much weight, so I push the milkshakes and whatnot. She’s very active. But I just about died inside when she told me a friend told her she was fat. I have a suspicion that the friend was just using the term as a general all purpose insult.

We don’t discuss weight at all in our house. I heard the phrase ‘High nutrition, low nutrition food’ on Cakies blog and I really loved that terminology. I like it more than calling food ‘good’ or ‘unhealthy’.

One thing I struggle with is mealtime. My daughter likes to eat a few bites and then go play, but a half hr later she’ll say she’s hungry. So I feel like we encourage her a lot to get enough in her tummy at mealtime, but I worry about that too, I don’t want to be pushing food on her if she’s not hungry. We try and remind her that dinner, for instance, has to last her till morning, so try and make sure she’s got enough in her tummy to keep her comfortable until morning.
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Mom101 April 5, 2013 at 3:41 pm

I’ve had similar concerns, Melissa. Thanks for your comment. My doctor once told me that some kids are like snakes: They eat an entire rabbit one day, and then nothing for the next two. I’ve found comfort in that because it describes my girls perfectly. They can’t always finish a half a PB sandwich. But as long as the next thing they eat is the other quarter (or an apple or some carrots) and not a candy bar, even if it’s an hour later, I’m okay with that. I’ve realized, they’re grazers…like their mom.

I like when my oldest starts to ask questions like “mom, is this a healthy food?” because it opens up discussion at least. So your idea about high nutrition food is awesome. I’m going to look that up!

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Heidi April 5, 2013 at 3:40 pm

I have 3 girls, 13, 11, 9, and they are gorgeous. I tell them that all the time. I was raised never being complimented for anything to do with how I looked, and the best my mom could say was “you have a beautiful smile” I still wonder what a beautiful smile is. I was also raised with a very unhealthy body image and with anhealthy attitude towards weight. My resolve is that my children wouldn’t be raised like that, and I think I have succeeded so far. When they make one of those weight comments (they are all a healthy weight, as are my 2 boys) I try not to overreact, but every once in awhile, we have a conversation about it. Luckily, the comments don’t come too often, but I think that the solution is that the conversation is an ongoing one. (plus, my boys have been instructed what to not say to a girl – but, oddly enough, I find that they are making some strange body comments about themselves. Things that a boy would never have said when I was young. I guess that our ridiculous society is making victims out of boys as well.)

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Laura April 5, 2013 at 3:59 pm

This is a really thought-provoking post, and just yesterday, I watched this video which offers a powerful response to the question you pose: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6wJl37N9C0. Well worth your time if you haven’t seen it yet.

Weight and appearance are simply realities that we can’t shield our children from, and I suppose that the ideal would be to give kids the tools to navigate these issues with their own brains and strength. I honestly believe that if we love and accept our children as the little people they are, they will learn how to love themselves for who they are, too. And if we can try our best as parents to refrain from making critical comments about our own appearances and to make healthy choices for ourselves, those things should trickle down, too.

It’s painful for me to know that I won’t always have as much control over what messages my girls hear (I have 3-year-old twin daughters) and that they most likely will struggle with some of these issues, just as I did growing up. But struggle is not always a bad thing, and I learned important lessons going through that process in my own life about what was important to me, what I wanted to value in myself and others, and who I wanted to be.
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Dawn @ thedalaimama April 5, 2013 at 4:03 pm

We talk a lot about being healthy. I have an endocrine disorder that makes it really hard to lose any weight (but super easy to gain it) and I am working at eating food healthy for my body’s needs. I am not at all happy with my body now–but I don’t let my kids every hear me talk about a dissatisfaction with my body. I talk a lot about being healthier so that I can ride my bike farther or faster, or so that I can run longer and play more football/soccer with them and not get tired fast.

They know that fat is a word and we try not to use it. I also try not to use the work skinny–my kids are both healthy. I am hoping that they get the message that being healthy is important and that it looks a bit differently on everyone.

I have a 5-year-old who wants to be pretty–it’s currently her life’s ambition. So we talk a lot about what makes someone pretty and that it isn’t just looks and we focus on how smart she is or athletic or creative. I find that taking control and framing the conversation helps. But my kids are only 5 and 7 so we’ll see how it works.
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Emily April 5, 2013 at 10:16 pm

That’s just what I was going to say! It’s all about healthy, whatever that looks like. Setting goals is a great thing to focus on.

When I was young (11 or 12) my mom told me that the most popular people were the ones that were nice to everyone. She said that people want to be around people that make them feel good about themselves. Then she challenged me to identify my friends who were like that. It was true, and that became my focus. I wanted to make other people happy to be around me by complimenting them, being interested in their lives, and having a good attitude. If I can do the same for my kids, I will be satisfied. It’s not a bad definition of “pretty” either.

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Mom101 April 6, 2013 at 8:16 am

But don’t you think it’s hard to talk about simply “healthy” with kids when the world talks about “skinny” or “beautiful” more often? Honest question. I find I’m very aware of that.

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J.D. April 5, 2013 at 4:44 pm

My daughter will be 9 in a couple weeks and we struggle with this. My husband and I really make an effort to focus on HER, everything that makes her who she is. But twice a year she visits her dad and stepmom and their nickname for her is ‘Beauty’ and they are constantly talking to her about her appearance. A major emphasis is placed on her clothing. She will come home singing songs like ‘California Gurls’ and a few weeks ago I heard her singing the ‘I’m a Barbie Girl…” song. I make a point to discuss with both her and my son, who is 11, why these songs are so inappropriate. Trying to combat media and all the messages they get in the world is one thing, but having these messages come from her dad, my ex husband, is so difficult. I’m just grateful she isn’t exposed to it year round.

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Grace April 5, 2013 at 7:32 pm

I haven’t read all the comments so if I’m repeating someone else’s thoughts, please forgive…however, I had an experience recently that I thought might add a different slant to the conversation. My parents were very sparing with their praise when I was growing up, esp about my appearance, and I struggled with the repercussions for many, many years.

I’m now 48, and my mother and I were looking at old pictures when she was visiting over Christmas. She looked at pictures of me as a child and said something that shocked me: “You were such a pretty child – I really regret not telling you that back then, but I didn’t want you to be conceited.” I’m thankful I wasn’t conceited, but what I wish I had felt was valued. I didn’t, and I behaved accordingly.

If there’s a way to impart a sense of value to your daughters that has everything to do with how precious they are and not so much what they look like, that would be the way to go. I have a friend who, every time someone commented on how beautiful her daughter was (esp in her daughter’s presence), would always add her own praise of her daughter’s character. That seems like a wise way to go!

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Mom101 April 6, 2013 at 8:18 am

Wonderful point, thank you! We talk about our girls being beautiful inside and out. We talk about inner goodness and kindness and empathy radiating outward and that’s what makes them beautiful, and that angry, unhappy or mean people are not beautiful, no matter what they look like. (Well, in kid terms at least.)

When I was a kid and someone said I was beautiful, my mother always added, “and on the inside too, and that’s what counts.” It used to annoy the crap out of me. But I admit to doing it now; only not in front of other people so much.

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Marija April 6, 2013 at 12:35 am

I hate the fact that teasing moved to one side only, while “skinny” is adored. “Normal” body comes in all different sizes. I learned that from my pediatrician. With my firstborn, the at 75% for length, but bellow 50% for weight, I panicked, and pediatrician calmed me down explaining that steady growth is what is monitored, not the exact proportion. Then, my second arrived: above 98% in length, but barely 10% in weight. Now, already experienced, I just calmly asked side-question: should I be paying attention at such big gap? Pediatrician looked me and my husband over and simply responded: what do you expect can come between two of you?

I use this story every time when somebody suggest that my kids should be more rounded/taller/bigger – each person is given set of genes to use, and as long as kids are moving and eating varied diet, whatever size they are – they are. I also try to refer to differences in body size as light-boned vs. big-boned, to defuse (at least partially) the negativism now attached to “fat” and to point that being larger/smaller kid is not a choice. But yes, it is going to be long, drawn battle – and the weight is not the only battlefield (my son is starting to get subtle teases for not being tall). Really, anything can be used as tease-start point, and any of those teases can escalate into bullying and life-long issues. Teaching tolerance is the key.

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Anita April 6, 2013 at 2:01 am

Oh wow. Kudos to you for bringing this up! Me and three of my brothers came from the spaghetti machine: tall and skinny. The other brother was of football stock: tall and bold. We gave him a hard time, I’m afraid. Mom was large – enough that she never went swimming with us, never played at the park with us, never went to my kids’ school events… She just passed away due to complications from a gastric bypass operation. I miss her terribly, and I wish she had been more healthy.

And yes, I’m still thin. I can’t bear to not be there for my kids. And yes, I get hurtful comments about my weight, too. You can’t be fat or skinny without someone having something to say about it.

Don’t care what you look like – just be clean and healthy and full of life. Take care of the marvelous gift that your body is, and celebrate what it can do. That’s what we teach our kids.

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Mom101 April 6, 2013 at 8:15 am

I’m terribly sorry to hear about your mom. I’m sure that adds another layer to the discussion for you.

Take care of the marvelous gift that your body is, and celebrate what it can do.: Your attitude is wonderful.

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anniekw April 6, 2013 at 6:15 am

I love this post as I have two girls (nearly 1 and 3.5) and I worry about this stuff a lot, it was certainly a “thing” for me growing up, and pretty much all the girls I knew too. A lot of the comments here are helpful, I like the idea of celebrating what your body can do rather than what it looks like. We try to model eating well and exercising for fun and function (as in cycling to work, walking where possible) and don’t focus on appearances, but I just know they will meet the question of skinniness at some point unless we keep them wrapped in cotton wool. I think kids who are genuinely passionate about playing a sport (unless it’s ballet or something where it is necessary to be super-thin) tend to fair pretty well and have a positive body image so I will be encouraging that where possible.

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Barbara April 6, 2013 at 6:56 pm

My 9 yo- who has always had freakish rock-hard abs and a round booty- just asked me what I would do if she started to get fat, would I tell her? I said I would not, but if she ever felt like she needed help to feel healthier I would guid her toward that if she asked. The thing is, she’s gotten slightly, and I mean slightly, chubby since Christmas, so I think she noticed and is worried. I’ve been making time to play with her and her siblings and put out healthy snacks and letting them know they welcome to what I put out. It’s been awkward since she’s my oldest, but I think just playing more and treating them with attention and games instead of cooking treats, is our path.

The toughest part will always be the influence of Others. I still recalls sister telling me that having a pooch before I started my first period meant I’d always be chunky. My oldest has a friend whose tiny mother frets openly about her size- out of fear the girl will be bullied and knowing her birth parents were tall and seriously obese. Kids are going to internalize this stuff their way, which is scary.

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Mary Clare April 7, 2013 at 10:48 pm

With the issue of racism I became aware that not actively teaching your kids about societal biases is just as bad as teaching the bias itself. Although we live in a multi- cultural, bilingual household, much to my horror, my half- Puertorican and half white 4 year old daughter, who looks white, made some comments suggesting preference for light- color skin. I subsequently realized that the messages she is getting from the world are giving her that idea, rather than someone directly telling her that light skin is better than dark skin. I then knew I had to be more proactive in countering racism. Now we talk a lot about racial & cultural issues – in very, simple age-appropriate discussions. I am afraid that the pressure to conform to beauty standards has to be countered early and actively. Whatever that may be. Kids feel unfairness sharply. The idea that people are treated unfairly because of the way the look in the context of weight may the place to start. Like you I’m still figuring this out…

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Kelly Damian April 8, 2013 at 1:30 am

I also have two girls and this is something I fret over more than I’d like to. I think I’ve settled on three things. 1. I’m careful about how I talk about my own body. I never describe myself as ‘gross’ and I never talk about dieting. (nor do I diet… so I guess that helps) 2. I try to frame health in a hedonistic way: healthy food is delicious, so we eat a lot of it. Junk food is super delicious, so we eat a little of it. Excercising is a pleasure, so I try to do it every day. And 3. I try to point out that lots of different bodies are beautiful- flat chested, big boobs, fat, thin- there are lots of ways to be beautiful. I hope this sinks in, and if not, I hope my girls talk to me about their struggles so we can work through it together.

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Sera April 8, 2013 at 5:48 am

This article started out well, but the fact that you included the picture is, frankly, disturbing and extremely off-putting to me. It suggests to me that either you are very pleased at your daughter’s size, and/or that you care more about this blog post than your daughter’s body image.

In either event, the picture makes your supposed concerns sound very insincere.

—-

Sera: I’m sorry to hear that you feel that way. I thought it was an interesting photo of five different girls in a ballet class, all in silhouette, all of them very different shapes and sizes. (One of the things I like about their ballet class, in fact.) Can I ask what it is exactly that disturbs you about it? I’m always interested in a perspective I may not have considered. -Liz

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Dee Wilcox April 8, 2013 at 1:47 pm

My daughter is only two and a half, and body image is already something I’m painfully aware of for her. She knows she’s beautiful. We tell her all the time — I can’t seem to help it. She’s got the most adorable baby belly. I know it will probably be around for a while, and I don’t mind. I had a chubby belly until I was probably 10 or 11, and it made me very self-conscious. Thankfully, I grew out of it for the most part as a teenager. We already receive little comments about it from strangers and friends alike, and it’s disturbing. I’m hoping to somehow protect little M from those comments that make her shy or unsure of herself.
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Barbara April 9, 2013 at 9:25 am

I just wanted to come back and mention that our youngest, a baby, has Down syndrome. Many children like her have thyroid issues. That combined with low muscle tone causes these people to be chubby, or down right “fat”. I have fielded a lot of comments about hoping she’ll be skinny. This is so hurtful because…WHO CARES? This child has brought out so much goodness in my other children, myself and and my husband-goodness that may have lay hibernating for the rest of our lives had she not come into our family.

I try very hard to have these discussions with my older girls, especially my 9 year old. Because they will have to fight with their own demons on this issue no matter what I do or say. I just want them to know what is important so that they can fight. They need the weapons against a world that lies to them. Maybe that’s the best I can do.

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Mom101 April 9, 2013 at 9:37 am

Oh my gosh Barbara, I can only imagine that her weight is the last thing on your mind. We can all only wish our children to be healthy. Thank you for saring this.

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Ellie April 10, 2013 at 9:11 am

As a young woman who was a teenager very recently, my perspective on this is a little different. I am the youngest of my family, with two older siblings. My parents were a bit overweight when I was growing up, but not so much that it had huge effects on their health. They began Weight Watchers when I was 13 or 14 and their dieting had a profound effect on me. I had always been tiny- both genetically and due to some health issues as a baby. But when I saw and heard my parents talking all the time about foods that were full of fat and would make you fat, it isn’t too big a stretch of the mind to imagine that I too began to have the mindset of a dieter.

So, at 5’1″ and 95 pounds, I decided that I, too, should lose weight. Fast forward a year and my eating habits were disorded. I remember limiting myself to 800 calories a day and stepping on the scale one day and being elated at the fact that I weighed 85 pounds.

Luckily, that was as bad as it got for me. I began to realize what I was doing to myself and started eating more healthfully. I still battle with the voice inside me that obsesses about becoming chubby, but I have to tell it to be quiet. It’s taken a great man in my life who makes sure that I know I’m beautiful for my eating to improve. The influence of parents, even if they’re not being directly critical of their children, can have a very very large effect on kids.

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Mom101 April 10, 2013 at 10:16 am

Thank you Ellie, that’s a brilliant and very important perspective.

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Stoich91 April 10, 2013 at 11:20 am

Very pleasant read…very real question. Came over from Modern Mom . ;D Thanks for populating the internet with well-thought-out ideas and good writing. Heaven knows we need it. I was the skinny kid with redonk metabolism, too, and the comments were the same. I think you should go with your first response…it’s the best… ;D you can still throw in the awkward smile if you’re feeling generous lol

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jenny hutt April 14, 2013 at 8:27 pm

LIZ! i believe you already know my experience with this sort of body stuff. conversations have to happen… but self worth/love/acceptance has to be known REGARDLESS of body shape/size.
It is your blog so not posting link to my blog post about this but feel free to do so if you’d like. xo

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Lindsay April 19, 2013 at 11:59 pm

I won’t go into my personal struggles, but one thing that I try to keep in mind (though often hard to do) is remember something my 8th grade physics teacher said. She was a tall willowy woman in her mid-20s, and we were discussing weight and mass. She stepped onto a scale as part of a demonstration, and someone commented about how light she was. Her reply, “I don’t really care what gravity’s pull on me is. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that the mass being pulled on is strong and healthy no matter what its size.”

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