Thursday, February 4, 2016

Will I Teach My Daughter to Hate Herself?

This is the look of a sunburned 6th grade girl who just got back from a water park field trip, at 
which she wore a T-shirt over her swimsuit the whole time.

When I was 12, I was convinced I was fat. I decided to order a weight loss plan from the back of a teen magazine. For just $10.95--which I paid by mailing an envelope full of dollar bills and change--I received in an unmarked package a little book filled with platitudes. I took it very seriously. In the book was a black-and-white photo of a hippopotamus, which I was instructed to hang somewhere I would see it every day. Apparently, a constant reminder that I was one Oreo away from hippo status was supposed to scare me--or shame me--into losing weight.

The book also suggested taking a "before" picture of myself, so I could record all the imperfections I would soon erase by following that $10.95 advice. I can still remember what I was wearing in the picture: a white wireless bra from Walmart and a pair of purple Hanes Her Way briefs. I assume this image has burned itself on my brain because I obsessed over it so completely. I wanted to change everything in that picture. My thighs were just a little too wide, my stomach wasn't perfectly flat. I can still see how I pressed my arms nervously against the sides of my gentle pear shape.

I hid the photo in my desk drawer and would look at it now and then--a human hippo to provide inspiration along with the animal one. One day, sometime after this craziness started, my mom found the photo. She freaked out. Who took this picture? she asked, pure fear in her eyes. It hadn't occurred to me that the photo looked like a molester's trophy. To me it seemed completely rational to ask my 7-year-old sister to take a polaroid of me so I could fixate on my hatred of my own body and torture myself into changing the way I looked.

It worked to some extent. I went through a phase in which I ate saltines almost exclusively. I wouldn't have said it then, but I was right on the edge of anorexia. I never became the obsessive exercising type, though, so I didn't get the full "benefits" of starving myself (please, make sure to note my sarcasm here). I never got to feel small, fragile, petite--the things I wanted but could never have, the things a woman--a desirable, sexy woman--was supposed to be. I wanted to be light enough for someone else to pick me up. Was that so much to ask?

This yearning to be small started early. Around third grade, I got tall, taller than most of the boys in my class. I also wasn't skinny. I wasn't grossly obese or anything, but I was chubby. These are both common things for girls that age, but between the tallness and the chubbiness, I felt like The Hulk. In fourth grade, I became a bit of a novelty because, as the monster that I was, I could grab those scrawny boys by the hands and spin them around like rag dolls.

9-year-old Adrienne, wearing a swimsuit and getting knocked down by a wave. Classic.

Just as I grew tall early, I also grew breasts early. I've never had to complain about having a flat chest, but the attention I got for my "development" only made me uncomfortable, and it usually came from the wrong types of guys. (That is a storyline that has continued throughout my life. Something about my body type or face really attracts the sorts of rednecks who shout at you from moving pickups.) I wanted an athletic body, even a waifish one. I wanted to be Audrey Hepburn, not Sophia Loren.

I have spent most of my life battling my weight, worrying about my weight, fussing over a body that could just never be what I wanted it to be. I am the kind of person who eats ice cream in secret, because I'm too ashamed to let anyone--even my husband--know that I'm adding more fat to my already fat body. I am the kind of person who turns to junk food for comfort, and then beats herself up for eating the junk food. When someone tells me I'm beautiful, I cringe. It feels like an awful lie, a cruel joke. Who is this person who can't see what I see? What's wrong with them?

When I got pregnant the first time, part of me really wanted a daughter. Another part of me was very relieved when we found out Jack was a boy. That same part of me is very nervous about having a girl the second time around. What will all my body issues do to her? What will she learn from me? Will she see me try on ten different outfits and mumble under my breath about how fat I look in each one? Will she see me eat a bag of chips in one sitting after a particularly hard day? Will food be connected to her emotions the way it is for me? Will eating to feel happy and hating herself for eating become a never-ending loop for her, too?

Maybe she'll get my husband's genes and metabolism, and she'll never have to worry about being fat. But if she gets my genes and my metabolism, the world will be a tougher place for her. Whether we like it or not, girls and women are constantly told how to look, and constantly reminded of how they fall short of the ideal. And an overweight woman is still a pretty unforgivable thing in our society.

I want my daughter to be strong and brave, to go against the grain, to be comfortable in her own body and not let other people's expectations change her or paralyze her. I have not succeeded in doing any of these things. I still fail at them every day. And whether I intend to or not, I am afraid that, no matter how much I want a better life for her, I will still teach her to be like me.


  1. You are beautiful! Body image is so hard. I relate to so much of this post. I think this is such a real and huge concern for many moms. When I was 12 I was also obsessed with being small enough for someone to pick me up! I was definitely not, but looking back I recognize now that there were only two girls small enough to be lifted up by the scrawny 12-year old boys out of the entire grade of 80 kids. This ratio seems to be reflected among my adult friends and colleagues. There are a very few tiny women that I catch myself even still looking at with envy (why?!), but for the most part women are all sizes and all shapes and very few small enough to be picked up with ease by an average man. It's too bad that tweens can't see the diversity of bodies that is ahead of them in life.
    I do think a huge thing is to make sure not to talk badly about your own body in front of your kids. But it's much easier said than done. Everything around us is negative about our bodies. Also enjoy this miracle time where your body is making a human! How much more amazing could you be?!

    1. I almost added something about pregnancy to this post, but decided to save it for a longer discussion of being pregnant. It surprised me to discover that being pregnant is the only time in my life I've actually liked my body. Realizing how miraculous and useful my body was made me forget about the other stuff.

    2. Useful is such an interesting word here! I totally agree that being pregnant can be revelatory and can be such a safe place because your body has one very clear purpose and it's not for anyone else. I think it speaks to the very common opposing societal pressure on girls to have their bodies be "useful" as eye candy to men. I can't tell you how often I felt like I wasn't fulfilling that role and as such was less useful/desirable. I don't still feel that way but I have no idea how to help girls and young women avoid the same problem.

    3. i am writing this through my tears. i could have written almost your entire piece, word for word, about my own life. what's so sad is that i've gone through most of my life making terrible decisions because i hate my body. and even sadder is that i've passed that on to both you and katie. i'm so sorry. but i have every confidence that you will find a way to break this terrible cycle and your daughter will be proud, confident and happy with her body no matter what size or shape. you are so beautiful and so smart and such a good person; maybe i didn't do everything wrong. i love you so much. please forgive me.

    4. You did and still do so many things right. When I think about what kind of mother I want to be, you are always my guide. You should never apologize for something you can't control. Society puts so many expectations on women that are completely unfair, and it's not your fault. I just hope that acknowledging my own struggle will help me break the cycle.