“Mummy, I don’t like my tummy…it looks fat.”
Imagine my horror when my 6 – year old daughter (yes, I said 6) said this to me the other day while I was helping her apply her nightly eczema cream. Apparently, a child in her class had commented that it looked as though she had a “baby in her tummy” whilst they were getting changed for P.E….. and so it starts.
I remember all too well comparing myself to others when I was younger – although, for me, it started at a much later age than 6. My little girl’s body shape is exactly like mine was at her age – strong and solid with, yes, a little bit of a tummy. But she is a perfectly healthy weight for her height, she eats healthily most of the time and exercises regularly.
It is no wonder that children (girls and boys) appear to be becoming more body conscious at an earlier age. I am a big believer that the media’s constant bombardment of ‘perfect’ bodies isn’t helping. As a result, Hubs and I monitor and limit what our children watch on T.V. and on their tablets; for example, music videos are not allowed unless we have seen and listened to them first and deemed them suitable. But it can be a difficult balance at times – I will sometimes sit and watch YouTubers applying make-up, to give myself ideas of what I can try
even though I never actually give the looks a go myself, simply because it is a mind-numbing and sometimes enjoyable past time for those days that I am exhausted. In my mind, there is nothing wrong with people taking joy in trying to look their best; but when the unattainable becomes the ultimate aspiration, it is just wrong.
So, what did I say to my daughter when she told me how she felt? I did the first thing that came naturally to me: I told her that she is is lovely, I told her that I was exactly the same at her age, and I told her that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that is what makes everyone special; wouldn’t it be boring if everyone looked the same? I like to think that was the ‘right thing’ for me to say; I know that these formative years are such an important time to build up children’s self-worth. But after the encounter, it got me thinking: am I doing the right things to try and ensure that my children grow up to feel self-confident and accepting of others?
And other thoughts came to me… like how having Multiple Sclerosis (MS) has made me look at and consider my own body in a whole new light. I could spend ages writing about how unhappy I was with my body as a teenager, how I was constantly thinking about what I ate and whether it would make me fat. I was so worried about the way that I looked that it stopped me wearing what I wanted to wear (All-Saints combats and crop tops, anyone?) when there was never anything wrong with the way I looked! It was only once I reached my mid 20s that I started to feel body confident and stopped comparing myself to others.
My MS has made appreciate the body that I did have, so much. It was one that worked – it ran, it swam, it danced, it walked. Such simple, every day tasks that I just didn’t cherish when I had the chance. I guess it is like the age old saying, ‘you just don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone’.
So, this is what I would like to impress upon my children:
- Your bodies are strong and flexible – they let you roller skate, swim, play hide and seek, go to circus skills class, play basketball
- Your bodies are healthy – fuel them up the right way and they will give you all the energy that you need to keep going with your favourite activities
- Your bodies are individual – no-one else has the same body and that makes you, and everyone else, special
In regards to food, we talk about ‘everything in moderation’ – we wouldn’t be healthy if we ate only chocolate, but we wouldn’t be healthy if we ate only carrots, either. The children know that I follow a special ‘eating plan’, but this is because it helps my MS. I don’t talk about my weight to the children; I tell them my favourite body part is my stretch-marked tummy, because this is where they grew inside me
– ok, not anatomically true, but you get the gist.
I am aware that my kids’ body consciousness will escalate over the coming years and I worry that I can’t be the active role model that I would like to be. But I can be the Mum who takes them out for a walk, bike ride or roller skating, despite having to be on a scooter herself. I can be the Mum who tells them how lucky they are to have bodies that work so well and I can be the Mum who cranks up the music, encouraging them to ‘dance like no-ones watching’.