I remember all too well the age when I no longer loved to swim. I was in sixth grade and there was a pool party hosted by my church and I realized that there was no chance in Hell that I was going to put on a swimsuit when there were boys from my school there. I had started developing breasts and hips and I felt fat. I made up an excuse on why I couldn’t be there until later when the swimming ended.
It didn’t help that I was raised in a strict Mormon environment where the girls were prohibited from wearing two-piece swimsuits lest we temp boys into thinking naughty thoughts and perhaps acting on them. It didn’t help that I was told that my body must be covered or I could be responsible for terrible things a boy might think or do. It didn’t help that I was taught by well-meaning church leaders that somehow my body was shameful. Being a teen and having a body that I no longer recognized was hard enough, those messages were seriously damaging. Coping with tampons, greasy hair, and braces was a nightmare. I was a tall gawky mess. I no longer knew what to do with my hair, how to put on makeup, and lacked the skills for putting together a cute outfit. Nothing looked or felt right and I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.
It was really quite sad because before then, I lived in a swimsuit during warmer months. I loved pools and the beach. I was happy and carefree, just a girl having fun in the sun and water. And then, because of how I felt about my body, it all stopped. Just like that. So sad.
I still struggle with body issues even though I’ve tried really hard to overcome them. Since cancer, I’ve done my best to love my body, flaws and all. I did a boudoir shoot even, walking around a photo studio topless. But still, I look at myself in the mirror and wonder why I don’t look like, well, a list of actresses or models. Instead, I look like… a 48 year old woman.
A few weeks ago, we spent Spring Break in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was hot, humid and perfect. I was so happy to leave behind the cold Utah weather and rest in the sun. It was a really hard few months for me this past November and December, as I struggled with chemo and its horrible side effects. I lost my hair and eyelashes. I threw up every day. During those dark moments, I planned this trip. I wanted to go somewhere that felt healing and Costa Rica seemed perfect. Pura Vida, the pure life.
…And then I noticed my beautiful ten-year old daughter putting on a rash-guard over her bikini every day before we went out to the beach or pool. I was sort of happy about it (less sun on her shoulders) but also baffled. Then one afternoon, I pulled out clean clothes for her to wear that included a tank top. She put it on and then begged me for a different top. It dawned on me what was happening—she was ashamed of showing her shoulders. (In the Mormon religion, “porn shoulders” is not an uncommon term; showing shoulders is immodest in many conservative circles). I was horrified and had a little Mommy-daughter chat.
“What are you worried about?” I asked in private, in as sweet a voice as I could muster. “Do not let the crazy women in our neighborhood tell you to be ashamed of your body. It is beautiful and perfect.” I wanted to find someone to blame this on. I was so angry. How do I handle this? When we got home, I called trusted friends and did a little research. Here’s what I learned:
- Do not harp on their physical appearance
This is a hard one for me because I am too apt at pointing out when my daughters look great and when they don’t. We should do our best to look beyond the physical (unless, of course, they are dressed inappropriately or are dirty). The more obsessed we are with their appearance, the more they will be, too.
- Do not point out imperfect bodies
Be careful about criticizing others in front of your children. Last year, we were on a cruise and there was a woman who was walking around poolside in a bikini. My daughter pointed out that, while she did not have a perfect body, she had a boyfriend and she was having fun. She was right, and I envied that woman’s confidence as I carefully put on my swimsuit cover-up every time I got up from my chair. She owned her body and I so badly wanted to do the same. I vowed to never point out others who weren’t “perfect.” After all, what is that teaching my children, anyway? Nothing positive.
- Focus on nutrition and exercise
Instead of pointing out flaws, focus on leading a healthy life. Encourage them to eat right and exercise. Sign them up for organized activities that keep them moving. Buy them healthy snacks. Eat well in front of them. Talk to them about how healthy habits will help them lead better lives.
- Project a confident image yourself
If we are constantly pointing out our own imperfections, we are projecting those same ideals onto them. Our children watch us and listen, even if we don’t think they do. If we want our children to obsess over their physical appearance, we simply need to let them see us obsessing over our own. Do I excel here? I don’t. I look much different than I did pre-cancer and I really struggle with the physical toll that illness has taken on me—new wrinkles, loss of muscle mass, barely any hair on my head… In my struggle to look more “me,” I’ve gotten Botox, lip-fillers, eyelash extensions, and more. I know that this has not helped my ten-year old as she is starting to look at herself far more critically. Ugh, big fat fail for me on this one.
- Compliment your child for her non-physical amazing attributes
I have always complimented my children but these days, I’m doing it even more with my ten-year old. On the day I realized she was trying to hide her body, I made her look me in the eye and told her how much I loved her, and how beautiful of a person I thought she was, and that she was perfect just the way God made her. I am trying to compliment her on all the awesome non-physical things that make her special—like her brilliance in art, her soccer-playing prowess, and her wickedly awesome sense of humor. I hope it helps.
- Talk to her openly
Keep the lines of communication open with your child. Make sure she can tell you how she is feeling. Listen to her. If there are ways you can help, offer it up. Would a good skin cleanser or an appointment with a dermatologist help? Is she starting to feel moodier than usual and doesn’t understand why? If she needs help with doing her hair or makeup, find someone to help her or get on Youtube and learn together. Get books that help you have discussions with your child about her body and how it changes. For my daughter, her older sister helps her by telling her that she went through the same issues. It gets better.
I have to tell you that this is one of the hardest challenges for raising healthy daughters, at least it is for me. And I really hope I don’t screw this one up.