Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My body is magnificent

Last week, Little Miss made a comment that froze me on my tracks: “My friend Lara said she won’t eat the donuts because it will make her fat.”

Lara is four. My daughter, three. Does it really begin this early?

I wasn’t prepared for this conversation. Because it’s not just about laughing at her remark, calling it silly, tousling her hair and sending her along her merry way. This is only the beginning of a lifetime’s work on body image and the emotions that it conjures. If we, as her parents, do our job well, it would be love and acceptance.

But at the other end of the spectrum is that these innocent statements may someday carry the weight of shame and loathing. And I just can’t bear the thought of my daughter mired in thoughts that make her feel any less than what she truly is. No, not perfect. But perfectly flawed. Like the rest of us.

I know, you’re thinking, sheesh, overreact much? It’s only a donut, for cryin’ out loud, and she’s only three. And maybe I am overreacting. But there’s history behind my fear. My own battle with an eating disorder. It has definitely made me a little sensitive to my daughters’ future in a society that upholds the Hollywood standard of beauty.

My story is pretty typical. It started in college. As a Malaysian student who was new to the American soil and as a lover of food, exploring the new culture through its food became my favorite past time. Cramming mid-terms and writing papers meant late nights, which also became a two-a.m. Domino pizza party between my roommate and me. And there were many nights like that. Foreign to American candy, I, of course, tried everything in the vending machine –Twix? What’s that? Mmm…Twiiiiix…

So, 20 pounds later, I went back home to Malaysia for the summer and naturally, my weight became everyone’s target. Back home, we don’t mince words. Greetings often sound like this: “Hi! Good to see you. Wow, you’ve put on weight!” I wish I was exaggerating but that is, word for word, what most people say to one another, and did say to me. After two months of constant reminders of my weight and without the proper mindset, tools and education, an eating disorder was born.

For three years, I hid that shameful part of me in the dark. On the surface I seemed happy, but I was mostly miserable. That double life was eating my insides (pun intended). It wasn’t until I met the right people who influenced me to exercise and eat right, and what it meant to be healthy that I slowly emerged out of my broken shell. I wanted desperately to be whole again, and I worked hard at it. Eventually, I got the upper hand.

However, even though the act of binging and purging disappeared, that internal struggle didn’t. For years I would continue to be hard on myself about diet and exercise. I had an unhealthy relationship with food – I looked at cupcakes with contempt and agonized over my daily caloric intake. I would also measure my worth by the size of my clothes.

But then one day, it all ended. Something magical happened.

I gave birth.

That was the day that I triumphed – the demons that plagued me all those years were vaporized by this tiny being that wailed her way onto my chest and into my life. There lay this sticky, slimy, thing. This human person against my bare skin, and I thought, I created life.

Slowly, day after day, as I nursed my newborn and healed from delivery, new powerful thoughts subverted old, debilitating ones.

I made this beautiful little creature. This girl in my arms came out of my body.

I would stand in front of the mirror, and look at my belly, not flat but deflated, still saggy and protruding from the pregnancy.

This body.

And I was overwhelmed by a rush of respect and gratitude. For this body. That made this baby.

Holy shit, this body just made a life. A life!!!

It was the breakthrough I needed to break me out of the cycle of years of self-flagellation and shame. My changed attitude also transformed my relationship with food and self-image; Ironically, when I stopped struggling with my weight was when it stopped being a problem. But it didn’t happen overnight. It took 16 years.

16 years.

Think of how many hours, days, or even weeks I had lost in that time engaging in self-destructive behavior and thoughts of self-loathing. And now, when I spy myself in the mirror, I am proud of what I see. Every flaw, every fold, every dimple, every curve. Not perfect. But perfectly me.

My body is magnificent.

Not because it is thin or Hollywood worthy. But because it is strong, it is capable, and it is healthy.
So perhaps now you understand my apprehension in my daughter’s innocent statement. It took years to undo the poison of one summer. What happens when they’re fed this rubbish at age three? I know I cannot protect my daughters from society or even from their own thoughts, but it’s so important to me to build a solid foundation for them so they know what it means to look and be healthy and that their worth is not measured in pounds and inches.

And that’s why I was at a loss at her comment. Because I just wasn’t ready yet. I felt like I needed to arm myself with the right words, so that I could say the right things and steer her towards a healthier attitude towards her own body. But now I realize I was wrong.

It’s not what I say; it’s what I do.

Eat a cupcake. Not five.
Indulge in French fries. Sometimes.
Walk. Dance. Move my feet.
Get popcorn at the movies. Order the small.
Choose whole wheat.
Cook with my kids. Do yoga with them. 
Love my fruits. And veggies.
Bake some cookies.

Dance some more.
Love myself.
And maybe, just maybe, she will grow to learn that her body is magnificent too.

* * *
What are you hoping to change for your kids from your own experience? What is your biggest challenge in raising a daughter? What would you have said to my daughter’s comment?