I want to apologize to you.
I’m sorry that you grew up internalizing messages that told you your body wasn’t good enough. I’m sorry that in your lifetime our culture’s definition of beauty became about being skinny. I’m sorry that as you grew, so did the proliferation of diet culture, telling you that you can lose 10 pounds in a week if you just TRY. I’m sorry you were told a lot of scary things about obesity and health risks if you have a few extra pounds. I’m super sorry about the weird fixation on “losing the baby weight” even though your body just did the amazing thing of growing and pushing out a child, and it maybe just needs to rest a little.
More than anything I just want to say, if you feel badly about your body, I understand and I’m sorry. You’ve been the victim of some internalized misogyny and body shaming, and that sucks. Trust me, I know how it feels.
If you have a daughter, I want to say I know you love her more than anything in the world. I know how important her health and happiness is to you.
And I feel like I need to tell you: her health and happiness is not intrinsically tied with her weight.
There has been a lot of research that has come out in the last several years explaining why having fat is not as bad for you as once thought and why the Body Mass Index (BMI) is bogus, so I’ll let the experts do the talking on why you probably don’t have to worry about the health effects of you or your daughter carrying a few extra pounds. In fact one study suggests it might even be good for you. There are a lot of factors that go into a healthy life. Some are genetic and some are steps you have more control over. It is important to eat a balanced diet, and be active, but it is also important to take time to take care of your mental health.
And I understand: having spent so many years hearing that you are unlovable or unattractive because of your body, you don’t want your daughter to experience that. You don’t want her to have an unfulfilling personal life because of something as arbitrary as her appearance.
And she won’t. Honestly. Yes there are some people who might be rude to your kid because of how she looks, because we in the U.S. have an unrealistic beauty standard based mostly on airbrushed models. There will also be many people who will love her because of her strength of character, her knowledge of young adult fiction books, the way she cries when watching movies where the pets die. You know, all the reasons you love her. Some people will love the things you find most frustrating about her, like when she gets into fights about feminism during Thanksgiving (sorry mom) or her desire to dye her beautiful hair that you love.
What will affect her happiness is frequent negative comments about her appearance from someone she loves and trusts: you.
For a lot of young women, body shaming starts at home, and often it’s well-intentioned. “That style isn’t flattering on your body type,” “your friend looks good, did she lose weight?” or overly enthusiastic reactions to a person’s choice to exercise or diet are all responses that seem positive, but actually reinforce the idea that being skinny is an achievement that all young women should be working towards. When I was a teenager I often felt like my other accomplishments didn’t matter if I couldn’t look good while achieving them. Good grades, meaningful friendships, and an after school job didn’t mean much if I was fat while having them. As a young person experimenting with style and self-expression, hearing that I shouldn’t wear certain styles made me feel like I needed to hide my body if it wasn’t slim. I was afraid of changing in front of other girls in locker rooms, or wearing pants that exposed the shape of my stomach, because it meant others would see how “wrong” my body was.
Often I think others think they’re allowed to comment on another person’s weight, because they care about the health of that person. Parents do this frequently. But health and weight are not intrinsically connected! Fat people are not necessarily unhealthier than thin people. Something that does affect mental health is hearing frequent, repeated criticism about your appearance from your parents, especially when your appearance is linked to your value as a person. Encouraging thinness instead of general health can mean encouraging damaging ways of losing weight.
It can be equally harmful as a young person to hear a parent make negative comments about their own body. Living in a household where dieting is a constant and hearing that a body isn’t good enough, it’s difficult to not internalize that, and apply it to your own body.
Body-image is something that can affect anyone, regardless of gender, but I’m talking to you, moms, about your daughters because body shame is an epidemic amongst young girls and women. According to the NYC Girl’s Project, over 80% of 10- year old girls reported being afraid of being fat. Girls are hearing that being fat is wrong on television, in music, and in schools, and there is no reason for them to be hearing it at home.
I also think that when it comes to body image there are different standards for boys and girls. When teen boys eat a lot they are “growing boys,” whereas girls are constantly policed with phrases like “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.” I’ve been told that needing to nap after getting only 6 hours of sleep is a symptom of my poor diet, but when my brother takes a midday nap he “needed his rest.” This kind of double standard needs to stop.
I believe that parents want to protect their children from the challenges they have faced. When I think about the mothers who have been told their bodies are too large, I am heartbroken. That doesn’t make me any less angry when I hear a mother tell her daughter she’d be so pretty “if only she lost a little weight.”
Let’s not pass along generations of internalized body shame to young women. Let’s end the cycle of self-deprecation, and instead tell our daughters that their actions are more valuable than their looks, teach them to have good mental health as well as physical health, and that there is more than one definition of beauty. Let’s start by learning how to treat ourselves well, and not critiquing other women based on how they look. Let’s train ourselves to believe that all bodies are valid.
Lots of love and gratitude,
A Millenial Daughter