I Grew Up Obsessed With My Body Image & I’m Terrified My Daughter Will, Too

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The first time I remember thinking I was fat, I was only 4-years-old. It was right after dance class, and I looked in the mirror at the small fold of skin next to the strap of my leotard, and told my mom I had fat there. When I look back now at photos of myself as such a skinny reed of a kid, and know what I was thinking that whole time, I’m so sad for the little for the girl in the picture. Now that I’m a mom, it’s even sadder to look back and remember. My greatest fear is that my own daughter (who’s only a toddler now) will struggle with body image like I have most of my life, and the thought breaks my heart.

Even though I don’t blame my parents, Im sure they could have shielded me more from their own insecurities. I remember a scale for food on our kitchen table in the early days of Weight Watchers. I remember hearing comments about people who should or should not wear certain things. I remember, with sadness, being told at 10-years-old, that it was time to ditch the bikini of my childhood for a “slimming” black one-piece until my prepubescent pudge went away.

Now that I have a daughter of my own, I solemnly swear to never take away clothes from her that she loves, even if I don’t think they’re flattering. Again, I don’t blame my parents and babysitters for the complicated relationship I had with my body and with food, but I don’t think some things that happened to me helped it in any way. This is why I don’t talk about my body in any negative way, ever, around my daughter. It’s kind of like the “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” mentality, but toward yourself. I’m not perfect, but I’m trying.

That same summer I was made to toss my bikini, I went to sleepaway camp for the first time. I was completely unsure of myself around the willowy theater kids who roasted marshmallows and sang pop songs around the campfire at night. They all seemed so confident, while I was confused and soft in the middle. When a counselor caught me reading the back of a bag of Doritos trying to decode the nutritional information in order to make a decision, I told her I was scanning for the fat content. “It’s calories you should be more worried about,” she explained. By that time next summer, I was back without the baby fat. Willowy and singing the Top 40 myself, no longer soft in the middle but certainly not sure of myself.

As a teenager, the cycle continued and worsened. Rigorous ballet training made me strong and lean, but I was so much taller than my classmates that I never counted as “small,” which bugged me. When I started getting noticed by boys, later, it got better even as it got worse. I started to see the value in my shape (a size two with a perky butt, that I wish I could have back now!), but it was only as far as boys were interested. Now that I have a daughter of my own, this part sickens me the most. I hate to think of her judging her own body and self-worth based on how someone else sees her, but I know boys (and girls) can be cruel, and I’m terrified that she’ll endure what I did.

When a boy started to like me, I felt great. When he discarded me in favor of some other girl, I envied her shape. By the time I got to college, I was restricting my calories for male attention. It worked — I was a size zero. I would get serious with a new guy and start eating normally, gaining 10 pounds or so. Then, when things didn’t work out (because things between dysfunctional teenagers who think they’re adults rarely do), I would stop eating again.

I’d love to say becoming an adult “fixed” me, but my early twenties were rough. I chose fashion journalism, where skeletons in Manolo Blahniks ran the world. I so admired my colleagues in their sky-high heels with their tiny waists and gorgeous husbands. I lucked out when I met my own hottie of a husband. We cook and work out together. We’ve gotten a little fat together, laughed our way through that, and lost the weight together, too. Today, we lead a fit and healthy lifestyle and I’m usually happy with myself, but my old demons haven’t disappeared completely. I delete photos where I look fat and I prefer looser-fitting clothes. But one thing I never do is talk badly about myself in front of my daughter. I am terrified that she’ll hear the wrong thing, even one time, and start thinking she is fat.

But even though Im doing my best to not talk negatively, and to boost my daughter‘s self esteem, I know I can’t protect her from our looks-obsessed society, and that scares me. The media is awash with air-brushed supermodels who are damn near flawless already, but are smoothed-out and skinnied-up even more for the photos. The average American woman is a size 14, but the average model is a size 0 or 2, so what is that saying about what our little girls see? I try hard to find the balance between telling my daughter she’s beautiful and perfect, without focusing so much on looks that it’s all she thinks about. But eating disorders run in families and I’m certainly not the only one in mind who’s dealt with one, so I’m scared for her.

The best I can do is focus on today. Emphasize a balance of fruits, veggies, proteins, carbs, and treats. Do yoga together and run around the yard, but never push her or talk about physical activity as a means to a certain appearance. It’s hard. I don’t have all the answers. But no matter how hard I try, I’ll always worry. Because I know how dark the struggle with body image can be, and it’s the last thing in the world I want for my little girl. I can’t go back and fix my own past, but I’m doing the best I can for her, today.

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Photo: Getty