by Evelyn Henry
We were having one of those bathroom chats. You know, where one sits on the throne and the other sits on the vanity or the edge of the tub; where conversations often turn to the most private of feelings, and hearts are won with honesty.
She said "I want to thank you for always telling me that when I was younger, even though you thought sometimes I didn't listen."
I'd just finished telling my sixteen-year-old daughter once again that she was beautiful and perfect just the way she was. I'd done this since she was a baby. And until that moment, I didn't know what would become of it, or how she would turn out. It was a gamble. But one that had just been rewarded. I'd just won the prize that every parent seeks - that of knowing your parenting efforts have not been in vain. Knowing I was not an expert in child psychology, why did I risk this "experiment?" Why did I decide to make a critical emotional and psychological investment in my daughter's life, especially when I was unsure of the outcome?
When she was born, I saw she'd inherited the body shape of all the women in my mother's family - the soft, rounded stomach with the slight abdominal overlap, large hips, large breasts (the envy of the locker room, boys and girls). In earlier times, a woman with this type of body may have been indelicately called a "breeder." Or perhaps in a prouder, gentler time they would have compared her to a goddess, the Venus of Willendorf. I knew then that her body did not fit society's current definition of beauty. I knew what that definition was and didn't expect it to change soon. And I knew the pain that could be thrust upon one by well-meaning friends and relatives whose remarks cut at your soul when you were told to change your body "...for your own good." So I took this psychological gamble with her fate because I wanted to make sure she didn't experience the same thing I did when I was growing up - guilt, fear and shame over something I couldn't help. In my case, the millstone around my neck was genes passed down to me from Scottish ancestors, giving me the sturdy body of a woman if the moors, made to survive the harshest winters, handle the farm work of the pioneer settler, and bear strong, healthy children who were also survivors. To my daughter's gene pool was added the American Indian ancestry from my husband's lineage, which for centuries has produced lovely, sleek, soft round-cheeked Cherokee women of the Tennessee hills.
Yes, from the start, I knew she was in trouble. Because I'd had first hand experience with the strong negative forces of an intolerant, thin-crazed society from my own upbringing. I wanted to spare my daughter the insecurity of never knowing if you're good enough, or pretty enough, or slim enough, or fashionable enough because of her body size and shape. I also wanted her to be able to eat normally, not by some diet rules, but by nature's rules. By the time I was her age I was already well over 200 pounds, constantly manic on the diet/binge roller coaster, hearing the litany of contradictions from the women's magazines - "Lose Weight Fast!" "Thinner Thighs in Three Weeks!" alongside chocolate dessert recipes to win the heart of your man. After countless tries, my metabolism altered itself, and my body ballooned to over 280 pounds. I no longer tasted food or knew what it meant to eat only when I was hungry.
Madonna's bullet-tipped breasts and girdles are kinky recreational attire today. Forced upon me by a weight-obsessed mother, during my teen years, they were flesh-binding agony. I remember the pain. Both from the welts raised by the armored satin and elastic, and the disapproving looks from those I loved, trying in vain to change me into something nature denied. For years my body was never free, nor my spirit. At some point I began to realize that my body knew what was best for me, and starvation was not it. Neither was gorging. I began to question the right of someone else decreeing my worth based on differences in body size. I began to notice beauty in people of all sizes, and realized that only a very small percentage of both males and females met this arbitrary standard set by the fashion industry. Truthfully, I just got tired of feeling inferior all the time. It was time to feel good; time to break up the old order of things - risk a gamble of my own - and fight the negative programming of my childhood.
Now, I no longer gauge my days or plan my life by the scale. I listen to my body - which, after I learned to eat normally, finally leveled out to a weight that was comfortable for me. And despite the dour portents of the image-based weight loss megacorporations who repeatedly drone the same "Big is Bad" line to stay in business, I have never had a weight related health problem.
My own gamble paid off. I guess at some point I figured, if developing a positive body image worked for me, what could it do for my daughter? Should I dare go against our society's definition of beauty, try something new, and tell her she was beautiful? What would it do to her psyche? What risk was I taking? The gamble paid off here, too. I have a gorgeous daughter. She is beautiful in both body and spirit. She's a tall, buxom beauty with long blonde hair and a boyfriend who worships the ground she walks on. She's confident. She's got a mind of her own. She makes good decisions. She's not obsessed with food, as I was at her age. She eats when she's hungry (...if she has time - her schedule is a whirlwind of activity). She sees the small-minded insecure people who degrade others for their own self-esteem, and pities them. She will not allow prejudice of any kind within the circle of life she has created. I'm very proud of her. I have a picture of her on my desk. It's the one school picture she hates. I call it my "last little girl picture." It shows her on the borderline between childhood and puberty. She's wearing glasses instead of contacts, no makeup, no zits, and she's not yet learned to fix her hair in that two-cans-of-hairspray fluffy do she wears today. It's an honest, open face she shows. One that reflects the broad smile and bone structure of those wonderful, womanly Scottish/Indian ancestors. She says it's her worst picture. I say, even then, especially then, she was beautiful, and perfect.
Was the gamble worth it? For her? For me? It could have gone either way. By me constantly telling her how beautiful she was, she could have turned into a snob. Or she could have decided the world was just too confusing, hearing mother's input in one ear and all the media driven diet-till-you-drop drivel in the other, and retreated into schizophrenia. She could have decided to believe either view - the one of a mother with a larger (no pun) vision of beauty, or the narrower view of a society with a very limited concept of beauty. But, like her Scottish ancestors, she decided to choose the high road, to stubbornly insist on her worthiness, and assert herself as an equal to all others. And like her ancient Indian family, she has chosen to believe in both her inner and outer beauty. The gamble paid off, for her and for me. She now has the confidence to make tough choices, uncomplicated by doubt, fear and anxiety over something as unimportant as body image. Now it's up to her. And that's good. Because now I know I've helped her build the confidence she needs to go out and take a few gambles of her own.
Evelyn adds " This story was written about 4 years ago. My daughter is about to be married in November, and she is still the confident, outgoing, beautiful woman I described in the story. I'm very proud of her.
see also Yoni's discussion board on Body shape
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