A Painful Childhood Memory Casts Light on My Quest As a Mother

6 Sep

Do you remember the first time you felt less than perfect? I remember it well. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade. The apartment complex where we lived had a pool and I was there splashing around in the cool water on that blazing hot day in Oklahoma.

Another two girls were there enjoying the pool, as well. I had seen them here and there at the apartment’s playground. However these girls never spoke to me. They were tied together at the hips and seemed only interested in boys and each other. They both reeked of lofty pre-teen coolness. Their confidence matched their long, lean, and tanned frames.

I had no idea what it really meant to be jealous. All I knew was that they were not like me and that’s what made them so fascinating. They looked like sisters with their honey blond hair, green eyes, and matching black, yellow and pink suits with holes cut out in the middle showing off their flat bellies. (Nod if you remember those hideous suits from the 80s.)

I was standing on the edge of the pool, plugging my nose with my fingers, trying to work up the nerve to jump in the deep end. They were there jumping in and out like Greek Olympians. At one point they were playing just a few feet away from me. I couldn’t help it, I was blatantly and wistfully staring at them.

They ran over to their mothers, who were larger more developed cut-outs of the girls. Both moms were smeared in baby oil, reading cheap drug store novels, drinking soda and adjusting their tiny, string bikinis to avoid tan lines. How strange to have mothers who wore bikinis and read paperback books with bare-chested men pictured on the covers, I thought to myself.

I wasn’t allowed to wear a bikini and my mother would certainly never wear one, either. My mother, after all, wore long denim skirts, read the Bible and played guitar. This other version of a ‘mother’ was confusing to my 10-year-old brain.

That was the first moment I felt it – the painful awareness of being less than perfect. In a flash it washed over me, and my fascination with these girls turned into my own self-loathing.

Just then the young girls seemed to notice me staring at them. One nudged the other and walked over to me. She scrunched up her nose, puffed her stomach full of air until it rounded out just like mine. Then she lowered her chin to her chest, bowed her legs and mockingly plugged her nose. The other girl pointed her finger in my direction and through her laughter said, “Now you look just like her.” Her friend responded with, “I just need an ugly swim suit!” Squeals of laughter ensued at my expense.

That was the first moment I felt it – the painful awareness of being less than perfect. In a flash it washed over me, and my fascination with these girls turned into my own self-loathing. I looked down at my stomach, pooching out like a little melon underneath my light pink, butterfly printed suit. My short white legs were framed at the hips with the pink ruffles that were sown into the lower half of the suit.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to immediately go home and throw my suit away. This bathing suit was meant for babies. Why can’t my stomach be flat? Why can’t I get tan and tall? Why can’t I swim without plugging my nose? I held back the tears and felt humiliation creeping up through my stiffened body. I walked over to the other side of the pool and never looked their way again.

As an adult standing back surveying this childhood memory, I can see the painful value of that particular experience. I now understand the dynamics of what occurred on that summer day in Tulsa by the pool. However, as a child experiencing that moment, all I felt was inadequate and desperately hurt.

In reflection, I understand those girls were not children, not in the way that I was. My body, unlike theirs, still reflected that I was a child –  with its distended belly, chubby thighs, and flat chest. Unlike these girls, I hadn’t started puberty and I wouldn’t for at least another few years. I had no idea what puberty even was.

Today, as a mother of a daughter, I look back at that memory and ask what it can teach me. What sits inside those recollections that will help me empower my own daughter with the tools she needs to thrive as a young girl?

Today, as a mother of a daughter, I look back at that memory and ask what it can teach me. What sits inside those recollections that will help me empower my own daughter with the tools she needs to thrive as a young girl? What can I teach her to prevent the power of negative objectification from shaping her emotions about herself? What can I teach my daughter to prevent her from mistreating others who look differently than her. (I remind myself not to cling too tightly to my own childhood memories. I don’t want to project my experiences of being the underdog on to my daughter.)

I have another memory that also shapes me. Several of us high school girls were getting dressed in the locker room after gym. Beth was standing near the mirror, enjoying her reflection. With a sweet smile on her face, she said out loud to all of us, “I love how I look! I’ve always been happy with myself. I don’t know why, but I dont’ really struggle with being insecure.”

I practically had to pick up my jaw from the floor. Who says that out loud? What would give her the right to say such a thing? How cocky! How annoying. I literally rolled my eyes to the back of my head when she said that. Of course, she felt that way, I thought to myself. Look at her, she’s gorgeous! If I were that pretty, I would probably feel that way too. For some reason, I still felt like that ten-year-old at the pool with the round belly and chubby thighs. How would I ever break out of that insecurity?

Personally, it took time. It took claiming my body as my own through my long fitness/health journey that began 8 years ago. It takes practice, it takes training my mind in the same way that one trains their body. I will not give space to dark thoughts of myself. This is not who I am. I am loved, I am cherished. I am valuable just as I am.

Today, I see Beth’s statement differently. What a victory to be in that stage of life and feel so loving towards yourself! What can I do so that I can encourage my daughter to love herself and be confident in her own skin?

In light of these questions I’m reading a book called 101 Ways to Help Your Daughter Love Her Body, by Brenda Lane Richardson and Elane Rehr. I’m really enjoying this book. Not only is it insightful for me in my own quest to love my body, but there’s a lot of great tips in there that I hope to put into practice for Zoe.

Put a Nice Mirror in Your Daughter’s Room

One simple tip is to buy your daughter, at the appropriate age, a nice full-length mirror. Put the mirror in her room, and make sure that the lighting is gentle and soft. (Who doesn’t love a well-lit mirror! Imagine the lighting in a high-end dressing room!) This will allow her the space to explore her new, changing body in the privacy of her own room, and it will also give her the chance to see her outfits in the morning before school under a more flattering perspective.(Rather than a hard to see bathroom mirror that’s usually under harsh lighting.)

Send Your Daughter to School With a Blush Bag

Another tip Richardson and Rehr offer is to send your daughter to school with a “blush bag.” This bag is a small, cute pouch filled with emergency items that your daughter can keep in her locker that could save the day. In it you might place pads or tampons, travel size deodorant, a tube of concealer, a small bottle of gel or hair spray, a comb, q-tips, safety pins, breath mints, needle and thread, spot remover, and a roll of quarters. (I’m sure the idea here is to adapt the blush bag to fit your child’s needs.) I like those suggestions. I think I would have loved a sweet little bag like that for my locker.

Some of the Chapters in the Book Focus on the Following Topics:

  • Give her permission to love her body.
  • Model a healthy body image.
  • Don’t make aging sound like a curse.
  • Come to terms with any envy you may feel about other women’s bodies.
  • Understand where your body ends and hers begins.
  • Strengthen her against the power of advertising.
  • Take time to learn and teach on early puberty.

This book has certainly got me thinking. It’s never too young to consider how to approach this with our children. (Boys need to learn how to value themselves as well. Another book I’m reading is Raising Cain, Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.) What practices have you adpopted to help your children learn to love their bodies?

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8 Responses to “A Painful Childhood Memory Casts Light on My Quest As a Mother”

  1. Elisabeth Cogdill September 6, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    With having 4 girls, I think I need to invest in this book. And this post was great. I remember my first, less than perfect girl moment as well. I have come far from that!

    • Joy September 6, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

      I’m a long ways away from that ten-year-old too, thankfully! But I’m grateful for that ten-year-old – she helps me remember that I will need to approach my daughter’s pending adolescence with understanding and sensitivity.

  2. Heidi September 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    Joy, thank you for sharing this – as always, your posts are thought provoking. I just ordered a copy of the 101 Ways off of Paperback Swap (hooray, love that site!) Having three boys and three girls I know no matter how we treat them at home, society is going to influence their views of themselves. I pray our efforts will cushion that. We are daily trying to give them a message of how strong and amazing and capable their bodies are, how unique and special, and how they need to nourish their bodies with good food and exercise. I want to believe that the more comfortable I am in MY skin, the more comfortable they will be in theirs. I have hope. :)

    • Joy September 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

      Absolutely! I hope to model appropriate behavior and loving self-acceptance to my own kiddos. I know we can’t prevent every dark thought from blazing through their minds, but I definitely don’t want our home life or my actions to teach or foster dysfunctional thinking!

  3. April September 8, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    I have always been VERY conversational with my kids. If they are too young to understand something, I honestly tell them “That is not something that is appropriate for us to discuss, when you are older, (or we are in private) I can tell you more about that.” As a result, my kids talk to me. They know they can count on me for honest answers to their questions. In the case of my almost 13 year old daughter, we are dealing with self image issues. She, like me, has a thick frame. She is gorgeous, and curvy. Which kills me since she still seems so young to me. She sees her frame as perfectly acceptable, but always nit-picks about a few small things. I always have the same answer. “You are beautiful, but more importantly you are smart, and kind, and always the first person to stand up for someone who is being mistreated. If you don’t like the way your abs look then choose to eat as healthy as possible, and continue to exercise. Right now you are still young and your body is not a ‘finished product’ but now is the best time to live a healthy lifestyle and promise yourself that you will continue it.” I think that girls will always compare themselves to the “ideal.” In my house we have magazines and art, and classic books that paint the “ideal” as something more like a size 16 Marilyn Monroe, and classic renaissance women who had a maternal, beautiful, full-figure. It isn’t perfect, but I want her to know that women are beautiful for lots of reasons, and in lots of ways. Size negative 2 and tan isn’t the only way to be “pretty.” We also spend some time looking at pictures of girls who have gone from hollywood thin to anorexic bone-bags. (Think Callista Flockhart and Nicole Richie.) We discuss how that is neither attractive nor healthy, and always keep the goal of health at the forefront of the conversation. As a result, my daughter has chosen to forgo the occasional soda and chooses juice, or water, plays several sports, and focuses on being strong instead of skinny. Her strength gives her confidence, and she knows that muscles are way prettier than stick figures.

    • Joy September 8, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

      Love hearing your thoughts, April! Thanks for taking the time to share. I appreciate your experience and perspective!

  4. Heidi October 6, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Joy, I got the book and I am LOVING it so much – my husband was happy to see there’s a special section for dads as well and he’s putting it into practice right now. :) While we already do many of them, there were some very thought provoking new ideas as well. We appreciate the suggestion!

  5. Amy November 8, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    This made me think of one of my favorite quotes:

    “That feeling you get when someone teases you is called insecurity, and it is directly caused by the insecurity of the one trying to hurt you. Like water, insecurity seeks itself to find the quickest path downhill. You can try to dam it up or divert it but it is part of life. Just try not to drown in it, or drown any others.” (www.sweet-juniper.com)

    I don’t have a daughter (yet? knock on wood), but I think it’s an equally important lesson for boys as well!

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