The body wars
Recently I discovered I had something very unusual in common with two of my female friends. We were eating lunch together discussing important topics like our favorite karaoke songs and the feud between Jamila Jameel and Kardashians, when our revelation occurred.
None of us had any food issues.
By this I mean none of us dieted, felt guilty about what we ate, or otherwise obsessed about food in any negative way. Even more shocking, all three of us had always been this way.
I’m going to say upfront that we were not three supermodels having lunch. We were of various shapes and sizes, both mothers and not, ranging in age from late-twenties to mid-forties. I feel the need state this, because I think many people still assume wearing a size zero means you have a positive body image. I will also say upfront that I am thin. I came into the world that way and will likely leave the same way—it’s just genetic. People often tell me I’m lucky, but what they don’t understand is that plenty of thin people also have body issues. Just not me. So yes, I am lucky, not for my thinness, but because I’ve escaped that particular brand of self-loathing.
So, we three women of various numbers on the scale paused for a minute to take in the miracle that was having a healthy relationship with food as a female. This is not to say that we were free from insecurities nor adored every inch of our bodies. Collectively we had just never weaponized those insecurities against ourselves in the form of destructive food behaviors.
Then we got sad. We talked about our friends who’ve struggled, waging war on their own bodies. We talked about the wispy girls in high school who sat on benches outside lunchrooms but never went in, the vomit that clogged the toilets in our college dorms, and our Instagram feeds full of moms weighing food and logging calories to lose the baby weight.
Then we got angry. We raged, thinking about how even when they were our own friends and loved ones, we couldn’t save them from their self-loathing and sometimes far worse. About how eventually some of them healed their bodies, but usually not their minds and hearts where the problem lived to begin with.
After, I couldn’t shake the conversation. I kept wondering how it was that I’d emerged unscathed from the body wars. While I’m self-critical in spades, I’ve never hated my body enough to want a totally different one or done anything to harm it. So, I’m not qualified to speak on why some women do. I might, however, be least a little qualified to speak about why they don’t.
First, huge credit to my mom. I never once remember hearing her criticize her appearance nor even really talk about it. If she cared how she looked, it didn’t register with me. She also never pushed me to be attractive. She didn’t do my hair, put me in cute outfits, or anything that signaled I was supposed to look pretty. And let me tell you, I was not. I had acne and glasses and was the latest of late bloomers. Between you and me, I’m not sure whether this was a strategy on my mom’s part, or just the benign neglect parenting style of the 80s. Whatever it was, though, it worked.
Growing up, there was never any pressure around food. We generally had healthy food around, but we were also allowed treats with minimal policing. My mom told me she decided early on that the dinner table wasn’t going to be her battleground. If we didn’t want to eat something, she simply cleared our plates and sent us back outside to play. We weren’t punished or bribed with dessert, she just tried again the next night.
Looking back, I realize my parents were also very careful about where I spent time and under whose influence. I had one friend with older sisters who were really into “makeovers”. I once came home from a sleepover there at age eight with a full face of makeup. My parents didn’t say a word, but I don’t remember ever spending the night there again.
All this to say, what we do and say as parents matters. It did to me, anyway, and helped set me up for a generally positive and straightforward relationship with food and my body. The tricky part, though, is that kids are smart. They know when you’re faking it. Okay, maybe not my two-year-old, who still believes I’m eating the half-chewed bites of grilled cheese he hands me, but pretty soon he won’t buy my fakery either.
So, the best thing we can do to help our kids have a healthy relationship is to have a healthy relationship with it, ourselves. Our kids will get enough external messages about what they’re supposed to look like, and the role food should play in their lives. We don’t need to amplify those at home. They’re listening and they’re watching. Wear the bikini. Show them healthy food can also taste good. Eat ice cream sometimes. Get a therapist. Do whatever it takes to heal your own relationship with food.
It’s a big ask, I know. My friends who struggle in this area tell me exactly how big. If ever there was a mission worth our efforts, though, it’s this one. This is our chance to lay down our weapons and not pass the body wars along to the next generation.
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