Breaking the Cycle ... and my Heart

I had secretly hoped my first-born child would be a girl. So when I found out my dream was coming true, I was so excited and began thinking about how I would raise a daughter.

I grew up with strong female figures in my life, whose wisdom and advice helped influence the woman I am today. However, they all had one thing in common – body image issues.

Dieting was a culture in my family. A comment about your weight was always the first thing out of my Grandmother’s mouth when she saw you. The message that thin was beautiful was seared into my psyche at a very early age.  

I watched my mother and aunts try every diet in the book, persistent in the pursuit to conform to this ideal image of beauty that was being perpetuated not only by society, but also by people around them who loved them. I watched them gain and lose many, many pounds and eventually, at a very early age, I followed them down the same path and fell into the never-ending cycle of dieting.

So when I found out I was having a girl, I decided enough was enough. 

I started reading blogs and articles about body positivity. I was determined to break the cycle. I was convinced that I had the power to single-handedly ensure that my daughter would feel good about her body, no matter what shape or size it was. No diet culture in my house! I was going to shut that shit down.

I started talking to my husband and family about rules. The first rule was that no one was allowed to talk negatively about his or her own body in front of my daughter. Even when she was a baby, and I would hear my mother in-law make a comment about gaining weight and having a “fat ass” I would gently – and eventually not so gently – remind her of our rule.

To that point, I became hyper aware of how often people talked negatively about their appearance. For example, my mother in-law is in fantastic shape. That woman works out more than most people my age. No one would say she has a fat ass. No one. So the fact that she would say that, tells me that everyone has body insecurities, no matter what shape or size they are.

Other rules began to emerge such as not using the word “fat”, or making sure that instead of always telling our daughter how cute and pretty she was we made sure to tell her how smart, creative and funny she was, too. We wanted to make sure she knew her Self-worth was not dependent on her appearance. These are all great things right? Sure, for the most part, when you have some control over her environment … but she got older and that control began to erode.

Folks, did you know that kids as early as pre-school are talking about whether or not you are pretty, skinny, fat, ugly, etc.? I didn’t, but I do now!

What the actual hell?

We began to deal with negative messages that had slipped through our veil of control much earlier than I had anticipated – and for the most part, I thought we were doing pretty well. She seemed confident and happy and loved her body. She would grab my belly and squeeze it and tell me how much she loved my “squishies”. When she would comment on other people’s appearances it was either in a positive manner, or in the form of a question, because she was seeking to understand something she had never witnessed before.

I was breaking the cycle!

I was winning!

And then one day she brought home a book.

To most people, this was an average early reader book. The story was about a family of big people and their tiny car. I was sitting on the floor in my living room and my daughter cautiously approached me and said, “Mom, how would you describe the people in this book?”

Remembering my rule, I said, “They are tall.”

Lilah timidly looked at me.

“Okay Mom, but how else would you describe them?”

“Well” I said, “they are big compared to their car.”

Then I noticed she seemed scared.

She opened the book and pointed to the word “fat”.

I looked at her and saw a six-year-old little girl who was so conflicted, confused and frankly scared.

Scared? What was she scared of? Well it turns out that she was scared to say the word “fat” in front of me, because she thought it was a “bad” word - like shit or damn.

All I could think of in that moment was “Oh shiiiiiiiit, my crazy efforts to practice body positivity have gone too far, and I have just screwed up my kid!”

I mean, my kid thought she was going to get in trouble for reading the word “fat”! What have I done!

So we sat down and had a long conversation. I explained what the word fat means and took some sage advice from our very own Sarah Stevens and explained that all bodies are good bodies. That people use the word fat to hurt others, and we don’t ever want to hurt other people’s feelings. It was a lesson learned for both of us. She taught me so much more in that moment than I taught her.

I went to bed that night replaying our conversation, remembering the look on her face and re-evaluating my rules. What had I done?

As women and girls we already have so many damn rules we have to follow – why did I think it was necessary to create more?

I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought these rules would help break the cycle, but in the end they had created some unintended consequences … as rules often do. 

So now what? How do I proceed?

I mean this girl just turned 7. I still have so many more tough conversations to have, so many more external messages to help her understand, so many more myths to dispel. So many more …

This is what I learned:

I cannot control what messages my daughter will receive about her body or other people’s bodies.

I can control the messages I send about my own body.

I can control the messages I send about other people’s bodies. I will do my best to make sure they are as positive as they can be, but I am only human. Just like the rest of us.

I am going to make mistakes, but I am going to choose to fail forward.

A wise woman recently told me to focus on the things I am doing right. We get so hung up on the things we think we are doing wrong, we forget about all of the things we are doing right.

So that is my challenge to you – think about all of the things you are doing right.

Don’t let the rules box you in and keep you focused on the things you think you are doing wrong. I bet if you take a step back, you will realize, much like I did, that the rules are of our own making, and we don’t need any more rules in our lives that make us feel bad about ourselves.

Nicole Cisne-Durbin