The other day, my 3 year old daughter said to me, “I’m feeling fat, so I need to go take a long walk.”
Is this the start of myriad negative body image thoughts I will inevitably need to address during her life? Maybe she’s just being a word sponge, but I can’t believe she said this at her age. Where she learned or heard it, I have no idea. I just want to make sure I don’t contribute in any way to it.
I’ve experienced my share of body image issues like most of us. When you have any unusual feature (in my case, it’s being over 6 ft tall), your body becomes a point of commentary. And it can become part of your ego, regardless of whether that feature is considered positive or negative. Fortunately, comments made to me are usually complimentary. The other day, a woman in the gym locker room said to me, “Your legs are absolutely perfect. Amazing.” Of note, this woman was herself tall, thin and beautiful. All I could do was laugh. I see my legs (and body, for that matter) as far from perfect – and that’s ok.
“Perfect” is a word we should stop using for many things. None of us can have a truly perfect body, be the perfect parent, the perfect spouse, the perfect doctor. There is no such thing as a perfect home, a perfect job, or a perfect anything. Someone’s idea of perfect (in the case of my example, legs) is completely different than another person’s vision. Maybe you value strength and thus enjoy the look of muscular legs, while another person desires very thin legs. You can soften the P word by saying “this is perfect for me“, but I even have trouble with that. We’re never done learning or improving. Why do we spend so much time comparing ourselves to other people and trying to measure up to some sort of perfection endpoint? Endpoints are for fixed mindsets.
Social media, which is a powerful tool for helping us as physicians reach a broad audience with our message, is also a huge conduit for comparison and the pursuit of perfection. And it’s frighteningly problematic when it comes to our young girls, who tend to deeply value social inclusion and are very sensitive to shaming. I heard an interview with psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who recently cowrote the book The Coddling of the American Mind. He pointed out an alarming trend of increased depression and suicidality among young girls, which has suspiciously spiked with the ubiquity of social media.
I do love my own body, but I didn’t always as a child. I remember wishing to look like “everyone else”, to be shorter, smaller, etc. As an aging adult and physician who sees very broken bodies, I appreciate that my body’s gotten me through some serious health challenges. I would never trade motherhood for a flat abdomen with no signs of a pregnancy. And I believe in striking a balance between accepting ourselves in the present moment while also trying to make improvements. However, my acceptance only came with age and life experience. I know it’ll be difficult to instill these ideas into a young girl’s concrete thinking.
What body image issues have you come across with your daughters, and how have you dealt with them? Do you let your girls have social media accounts? I’d love some positive solutions.