In all honesty, I don't think I'd ever want to be a kid or teen again. I do, however, want to have my own kids (who will inevitably/lamentably become teens) someday, and I hope to have been able to discover some ways to teach your kids to be body positive by the time that happens. Despite having more than one qualm with the whole "being an adult" thing (why can't the universe understand there is no age limit to tutus?), I regret just how much I disliked myself in my younger years — how much I would pick apart at every feature and wish I could look more like Ballerina Barbie. All the black on black and loose-fitting sack dresses don't feel like they had much to do with finding my own style or expressing myself. They just feel like they were about hiding my body, which is something I'd basically spend the decade between 10 and 20 doing religiously.
While I wouldn't say that I've ever known a relative of mine to be truly attune to notions of size acceptance or size inclusivity, there are definitely some general life lessons I picked up from my family along the way that can be adapted to body positivity.
My mom, for example, grew up in Colombia where aspirational beauty is all about the Sofia Vergara aesthetic. It's a culture taught to value traditional femininity, and in which "traditional femininity" generally means curves in the "right" places, dresses that accentuate those curves, and nails that match the dresses that accentuate those curves. But it's also a culture that values confidence and a sense of pride in oneself (beyond a sense of pride in one's appearance). It's a culture that values public displays of affection and a hearty plate of frijoles, ground beef, and pork rinds.
I don't have kids, and I don't know what kind of parent I'll be if/when I do have them (not to mention the fact that there are as many ways to be a parent in this world as there are humans). But I can only hope that body positivity is something I can extend to them. Here are 11 ways I will try to do that.
1. Let Them Go Through Whatever Stylistic Choices They Need To Go Through
I'm pretty sure we're supposed to look back our photos from teenage-dom and think, "WTF was I doing?!" That's part of the whole experimentation thing, right? Rather than making my kids feel peculiar, unattractive, or "less than" for wanting to be singlehandedly responsible for the emo revival, I hope to be able to express that any style that makes them feel comfortable and at peace in their bodies is the right style.
Whether that means a mullet haircut or Clueless-esque skirts, or piercings up the whole side of one ear, they should feel free to change their look and explore fashion in whatever way feels right. There's nothing quite as frustrating or as body negative as being forced into a frilly dress when you only feel at home in trousers.
2. Be Silly Around Them
I don't want my kids to have just one fixed idea of what a grown-up looks like or what it means to be responsible or smart or funny. I don't want them to think that the fact that they have a goofy grin or a double chin makes them any less beautiful. And I definitely don't want them to think there's only one way to be beautiful in the first place.
Allowing yourself to let loose in front of your wee ones feels important, because not being afraid of "unflattering" photos or duck face smiles might just help them see that it's OK to be or look silly. We all have angles and poses we prefer in photos, I'm sure. But not being afraid of the weirder ones can't hurt on your journey to loving yourself in every light and from every position.
3. Don't Let Them Think Anyone/Anything Is "Out Of Their League"
My mom is never afraid or nervous about talking to anyone. On a cruise vacation when I was 18, for instance, we stumbled upon this handsome young fellow selling Turkish Delight at a market. I was so smitten, awkward, and embarrassed (of how I looked, no doubt) that I begged her to go in the other direction. I can't quote her verbatim, but I have a slight memory of her telling me I was being ridiculous, walking up to the guy's stall, striking up a conversation about dessert, and asking him for a photo for "the memories."
If there's one relationship tip she's always had for me, it's that the whole "out of your league" complex is a myth. Attraction is subjective, and just because you think someone looks "prettier" than you consider yourself to be doesn't mean that said person will dismiss you in the blink of an eye. Nor does it mean you're even right about that to begin with.
4. Never Assign Moral Value To Weight
While I hope to have learned way more about actual health and nutrition by the time I have kids (not BS information that tells you BMI has anything to do with your health), I will never make my kid feel guilty for eating — and I'll never let them see or hear me suggest that such guilt is normal.
I want them to know that whatever the number on the scale, their integrity, morality, sense of self, cleverness, and overall personality will never be compromised. I want them to know that it's OK to eat something even if the Nutrisystem lady on the TV says otherwise. I want them to know that food can be responsible for sincere joy and that anyone who tries to tell them otherwise doesn't have their best interests at heart. And I want them to know that exercising can also be responsible for sincere joy, usually when it's not linked to dieting.
5. Or Suggest Specific Body Types & Features Are "Bad"
Having a big nose isn't "bad." Having no love handles isn't "good." I genuinely believe we need to stop assigning moral value to aesthetic traits and characteristics if we ever want our kids to have healthy relationships with their bodies. By perpetuating the "thin is good, fat is bad" mentality, we're ultimately implying that thin people are superior (morally, physically, and sometimes even intellectually) than fat people, and that's bound to lead to a lot of confusion and unjust assumptions about people's characters.
Ultimately, I just hope my kids realize there is no wrong or right way to have a body.
6. Demonstrate A Healthy Relationship With Mirrors
It's crazy how much someone's interactions with mirrors and other reflective surfaces can say about how they're feeling about their bodies. Just think about it: When you're walking down a city street filled with store and restaurant windows, how often do you look in that window to catch a glimpse of yourself? Most of the time, I don't think this is about vanity or feeling cute — but about making sure we look "OK."
I remember spending (literal) hours in front of mirrors as a teenager. I would analyze my body from every angle whenever I had some time at home alone, and make mental notes of everything in need of changing. I hope my kid never does this. I can only hope that by feeling positive about myself when I look in the mirror, they will learn to do the same.
7. Express That Weirdness Is A Good Thing
If I can teach my kid that the things they think make them "weird" are likely the things that make them interesting and beautiful, I think I'll feel pretty happy. I'll tell that that they can turn their weirdness into a road map — that they can use it to meet like-minded people who see the appeal in everything deemed abnormal by current trends or current culture. I'll tell them that it's the weirdos who've made history. And that there's no reason to feel body negative about peculiarities, starting with the fact that those peculiarities are usually defined by the media (a rare source of body positivity).
8. Let Them See Me Feeling Myself
If your kids see you showing genuine love for yourself and your body, chances are they'll learn that doing so is not only normal, but good. If I'm feeling particularly cute in an outfit or love the way I've done my wakeup or woke up feeling on top of the world, I hope to express those positive self-affirmations in front of my kids.
Self love isn't vain: It's just a surefire way to make existence in a world that isn't conducive to body positivity just a little more enjoyable. By prioritizing self care, self love, and mental health, I hope that the children I have someday learn not only to feel good about themselves, but to take care of themselves in the way they need as individuals.
9. Explain Early On That Sexuality & Gender Aren't Binaries
Feeling like you don't fit into a heteronormative, male/female-guided world can arguably be responsible for more body negativity than just disliking the arch of your nose. Growing up, pink was definitely for girls while blue was for boys, and women were meant to be swept off their feet by dudes who embodied machismo.
It's impossible to know what kind of kid you'll have, and that includes their sexuality and gender. I never want my kids to feel like they don't belong should they not subscribe to a binary. It's important to know from a young age that gender and sexual identities are vast and complicated, and that most people seem to fall somewhere on a spectrum (even if they don't like the idea of admitting as much). Whether they like girls or boys or both or neither, I just want my kids to know it'll always be OK.
10. Make Sure They Know It's OK Not To Feel Confident Always
While I can hope that by the time I'm ready to have children, social stigmas surrounding body image might have changed at least a little for the better, these things take time, so I have my doubts that notions about aspirational or "ideal" beauty will have vanished in the next decade. This means there will likely still exist forces — like the diet industry and even the sartorial world — that encourage one image of aesthetic acceptability. When you live in that kind of world, you're bound to not feel great about your body at all times.
Every ounce of my soul wants my kids to have heathy, positive relationships with their bodies, but I know that reaching a point of body positivity is never a linear or simple journey. Nor is it something you arrive at only to feel good about yourself for the rest of eternity. Some days will be better than others, and that's pretty normal. Instead of letting my kids feel guilty for being human on the bad days, I hope to be able to guide them to feeling better — whether that means going out for ice cream or taking a walk in the fresh air or marathoning Gilmore Girls.
11. Travel Whenever Possible
I've been incredibly lucky when it comes to travel in my life, mostly because my mom made sure I did it as frequently as possible from Day 1. Witnessing other cultures and lifestyles besides your own is such a crucial part of understanding body positivity, IMO. When we travel, we see that those notions of "aspirational beauty" shift country to country. We see that what is portrayed as beautiful in one country, in one town, in one household, or in one head might be the exact opposite of what's portrayed as beautiful in another. From my experience, this helps us realize that there is no such thing as one definition of beauty. Everyone has their own — and that's just as it should be.
In a way, it seems a little weird to imagine the lessons I'll teach my kids when I don't feel particularly close to having them and can't yet relate to the experience and tribulations of being a parent. Though I've never had a child, however, I've been a child. So these lessons are ones I wish I would've known myself — and ones I can't help but feel would benefit a kid growing up in the same bizarre-o world the rest of us inhabit.
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Images: Marie Southard Ospina