Two things happened yesterday within ten minutes that stopped me in my tracks – not in a world news, earth shattering way, just little things that made me stop and think.
We were out on the green (that is where I live now) and my eight-year-old was running up and down the road. She wants to get fit, she said. That sounded fine to me – I didn’t pass any remarks. She swims, plays hockey, does a sports class after school and PE twice a week, so I suspect she’s already a lot fitter than I am, but hey, I’m not going to discourage her. After a few minutes, she came up to me and said, “Do my thighs look thinner now?”
My mouth opened, but no words came out. By the time I managed to splutter something in reply, she was gone, running down the road again.
Where had that come from? I’ve always made a very conscious effort to avoid any kind of body image comments at home. I’m not naturally prone to commenting on how I look or feel myself on any given day, and tend not to get too hung up on it, but even on the “Oh my God I probably shouldn’t have eaten ALL the easter eggs” days or the “That’s what three babies in five years does” days, I never, ever say anything out loud.
No-one has ever been on a diet or heard the word diet, and there has never been a suggestion that what you eat impacts weight. Yes, I encourage them to eat healthily, and they get treats at weekends only, but there has never been a hint that that there’s a link between food and body size. So where had she got the idea that she needs thinner thighs?
Still thinking about it, I went inside to check dinner, and a minute later, my six-year-old came in. She looked sad, and I asked what was wrong. “Robert said my hair is horrible because it’s red,” she said. She was talking about a boy from a few streets over – I’ve changed his name.
“Well Robert is an idiot,” I said. The words jumped out of my mouth before I could think. For years, I’ve banned the kids from using the word idiot, and it probably wasn’t the most constructive reply. But I guess when someone upsets your child, your gut speaks before your brain engages. I told her he was silly and immature to say something like that, and that of course her hair is beautiful. She went back out to play.
I stood in the kitchen feeling so sad for her. In the bigger scheme of things – compared to what will potentially happen in the future – it’s not a big deal. But all her life, I’ve been telling her that she is beautiful, and she has absolutely no idea that there’s any kind of stigma about red hair. Until today.
At bedtime, I caught up with the eight-year-old, to ask where the thigh comment had come from. Was it from TV or books or school? The answer made me smile. It was an infomercial she had watched on TV when we were away for the weekend, and there wasn’t the usual 400 options of kids’ programs to choose from. An infomercial for some kind of exercise machine that helps you burn fat from your thighs apparently.
So I explained that that’s for grown-ups who want to lose weight but not for kids. That she’s perfect as she is, and that right now she needs to be growing, not shrinking. She accepted this, but still pinched her thighs and wondered if maybe they shouldn’t be a bit thinner. This is of course not the end of it – this is really just the start of perhaps decades of self-criticism and comparison, and a desire to be what TV and magazines tell her she should be. All I can do is keep talking – and keep her away from infomercials.
I went next to kiss the six-year-old goodnight. “Mum?” she said. I knew what was coming. “Is my hair horrible?”
I told her that her hair is beautiful. And that sometimes when people are cross and want to say something mean or get attention, they focus on whatever stands out about a person. I told her that when I was young, I was the smallest in my class and wore glasses, so I was called “titch” and “four eyes”. I told her that when they’re being mean, people focus how people look – whether that’s height or size or skin colour or hair colour, and that it’s silly, but it’s what people do. I reminded her that dozens and dozens of friends and strangers have stopped her on the street to tell her she has beautiful hair, and to think about that, rather than one mean comment from today. She nodded. But she’s human – like all of us, I suspect she’ll focus on the one negative comment.
These are not big moments really. I guess they’re inevitable turning points in life and part of growing up – and perhaps we were lucky to make it to eight and six without worrying too much about appearance.
And I know I can’t fend off the media images or protect them from taunts – I can’t control the outside world. My influence is on the inside world only. But if I can keep listening to them, if they keep telling me when they’re worrying about thigh size or hair colour, and if I can work on their building their confidence, maybe it will turn out OK. To me, confidence is the life blood of wellbeing and the heart of contentment, whereas beauty is, of course, only skin deep.