Some of the most important things I’ve ever learned, I learned from my kids. They may not know that they are teaching me, but when my eyes are open and my heart is tuned toward their hearts, I learn. A lot.
A few months back, I was getting ready for summer. Yes, it’s Florida. I get ready for summer in approximately April. I went to Target to buy swimsuits for both kids (if I’m being honest every single thing my kids wear is from Target because I just don’t have the time or energy to shop anywhere else). Two swim trunks and two swim shirts for the boy. Done. No problem. But for my girl? It wasn’t so simple. I looked through the one-piece bathing suits, and I was stumped. She already has a 5T one-piece at home, but the legs and rear areas are way too big for her. She just can’t fill it out. But, she has a long torso, so she can’t wear a smaller size or the straps wouldn’t fit over her shoulders. I am not a fan of bikinis on little girls, so that wasn’t an option. I decided to wait and look elsewhere to find something that would fit her.
Over the next few weeks, I did what every Mom does when they have a parenting dilemma – I asked my friends. Whether we were on a playground pushing kids in the swings or getting fro-yo or simply dropping kids off at school, I shared this issue with my friends in hopes that they might have some ideas for me.
“I don’t know how to buy a bathing suit for her. She’s so skinny that nothing fits her,” I would say.
“She’s so tiny that I’m afraid anything I buy will be too big.”
“Avery’s a little Skinny Minnie. I don’t know where to buy a swimsuit that doesn’t fall off of her.”
In retrospect, I think I was saying those things a lot, and Avery was listening. I must have said something else about being skinny when we were home alone one day, and she began to wonder about it.
“Mom, how come it is okay for you to call me skinny, but it is not okay for me to call someone fat?” she asked.
I paused. “Uh oh. How do I answer this question,” I wondered. Like a good politician, I decided that if I didn’t know the right answer, I would simply continue to ask more questions.
“What do you mean? Does it bother you when I say you are skinny?” I asked.
“Yeah, sort of,” she said.
I was a little bit stumped. I did not understand how being called skinny could possibly ever be bothersome to anyone. I would love it if anyone in the world thought I was skinny. I would be thrilled if I had trouble finding bathing suits that fit me because I was too thin. I realized that I had to take a step back for a moment and try to see things from her point of view.
“Does it make you embarrassed if I’m talking to people about what you look like?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “And you said that we are not supposed to say that people are fat because we are supposed to care about what’s on the inside, in their hearts, not what’s on the outside, so why are you talking about what’s on my outside?” she asked with sincere confusion.
Yikes. An arrow through the heart. She was so right, and I had been so blind to it. I knew that if she had been overweight, I never would have talked about that to my friends. But somewhere deep down inside, I was actually kind of proud that she is thin (it’s sick, I know) so I talked about it a lot. With all of my own issues regarding weight and size and skinny and fat, I made myself feel a little better by talking about her, as if I’d achieved something of value because my kid tends to be on the thinner side.
“I’m sorry I embarrassed you,” I said. “Would you rather me just not talk about the way you look? Would that be better?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s better,” she said.
I learned a really important lesson that day. Even though I didn’t say anything negative or hurtful, I was off-track. It’s not enough to simply keep your mouth shut when someone doesn’t meet our culture’s ideal body image and praise someone else when they do. If I heap praise on one body type and then quietly withhold my opinion about another, Avery will get the point. Kids are smart, and they pick up on even the subtlest of messages. She will know that secretly, one is good and the other is bad. She will know that she sure as heck better stick with the good one or she will risk losing my acceptance, and I would never ever want her to feel that way.
We never know what it is that someone may feel self-conscious about with their body. One man’s (or woman’s) compliment is another one’s shame. What Avery taught me is that I simply do not need to be making any sort of statements about how anyone looks or what size or shape their body is in. What we look like is not what makes a person who they are. Each of us is made up of a mind and soul as well as a body. Our minds and souls are who we are; our body is just where we live.
I want both of my children to know that they are loved and accepted, regardless of what body they reside in. Do we want to be healthy? Sure. Do we want to pursue a lifestyle that keeps our bodies going for years to come? Definitely. But they don’t need to be straddled with the baggage of a culture that tells them there’s only one good way to be.