I cannot begin to fathom how difficult parenting must be. Not only do I struggle to take care of anyone other than myself (and my skills in that department are questionable as it is), but my mind is boggled when thinking about what lessons I'd try to instill in another human being, versus what lessons I'd hope my kid might figure out as they went along. It's certainly true whenever I think about body positivity and parenting. In a world that, overall, still doesn't promote positive self image, diversity, inclusivity, or intersectionality, how can you possibly teach a little person to feel good about themselves, all while respecting the lifestyle and aesthetic choices of others?
Although I can't speak to the experience of having children, I can speak to the experience of being someone's child. In retrospect, there are so many things I wish I'd been told when I was young. There are so many things I wish my parents had directly said. My father is a tall, large man who always placed utmost importance on food and maintaining a healthy appetite. My mom is a petite, Colombian woman who's always valued slim curvaceousness and family meals. But neither really had the awareness our generation arguably has when it comes to the negative consequences of poor self esteem, or body shaming, or food shaming. In those respects, I'd want to try to do better by my kids. So here are some things I think body positive parents will say.
1. Don't conceptualize what you see in glossy magazines as truth.
I didn't know what Photoshopping was for a long time. It wasn't something we learned about in school, or something my parents warned me about. I took every image in magazines that told me "what beautiful is" as truth because I never stopped to consider that even the humans in those magazines didn't look like their images.
So much of the media that we consume has been altered and tampered with to fuel one person's interpretation of beauty. Kids should know when their imagery has been manipulated. Then they can hopefully appreciate said imagery for the beauty of the photograph, while not conceptualizing the imagery as fact.
2. Just because you don't see one type of body represented doesn't mean it's a bad body.
There are so many bodies that still aren't represented in the mainstream. From POC to fat individuals to queer bodies to disabled bodies, the main type of human we see represented in media is the thin, cis, white or white-passing one. The latter type of human is still beautiful — their bodies are worthy of respect. But there just isn't one formula for a valuable existence.
Make sure your kid knows that if their body type isn't represented on their favorite TV shows or as heroes in the comic books they're reading, it doesn't mean their body is wrong. Tell them their body is perfect, and that the reason they don't feel represented is because social structures tend to operate under very strict guidelines for what is and isn't acceptable. Please tell them they don't have to listen to those guidelines.
3. Health class will very likely mislead you.
If health classes haven't yet evolved by the time your kid is in school, please make them aware of the reality that health is never black and white.
Make sure they know that you cannot ascertain anyone's clinical health by looking at them. Make sure they know that a little fat on their body is no reason for their health teacher to belittle them. Make sure they know that there is a difference between visceral fat (the fat that wraps itself around your organs) and subcutaneous fat (the jiggly stuff you can touch), and that the former is not only invisible to the eye, but that it can be present in all body types, and is far more harmful than the visible pudge.
4. There is nothing you can't wear.
My mom was all about the term "flattering." As I grew older and fatter, her goal whenever we'd shop was to find the clothes that highlighted my curves, but slimmed me down. For years, my fashion goal would be to slim myself down above all else.
Your kid will likely encounter a whole heap of so-called style rules that tell them how to dress their short body, tall body, skinny body, fat body, pale body, redhead body, rectangle body etc. But they should know that those rules are make believe. If ever your kid says, "I can't wear that," simply ask them "why?" And if ever the answer is, "Because of my body," please stop the thought in its tracks, show them images of sartorial rule-breakers killing it, and encourage them to wear what makes them happy.
5. People who criticize your body or choices aren't worth your time.
People who criticize anything about you with the intention of causing pain are never worth your time. If someone thinks less of you because you love that T-shirt with the princess crown on it or that's covered in the various faces of Doctor Who, you simply don't have to let it affect your confidence.
One day, you'll meet people who love everything about you, from your ability to wear all-glitter makeup to your penchant for dressing in outer space-esque apparel. Those people are worth the wait. But the ones criticizing you, and not in a constructive kind of way? They aren't worth a second.
6. You never need Spanx.
The evolution of shapewear suggests that garments meant for sucking, plumping, tucking, and sculpting have been around since the dawn of time (well, practically) — which might lead some folks to believe that shapewear is an essential part of getting dressed in the morning. But let your kid in on a little secret: Shapewear is pretty redundant.
The main thing it's actually practical for is chafing prevention. However, to prevent your thighs from chafing, all you need is modern "shapewear" like Bandelettes. There's no need to suck your body into a sausage wrapping-like corset. Just put on some Bandelettes and roam free.
7. It's OK to want to look different.
A lot of forces will try to tell your kid that there's only one way to be. They should want to shop at X store in order to fit in at school. They should want to weigh X amount in order to fit in with social norms. They should want to blend in.
Please tell your kid that it's OK to want to be different. It's OK to find delight in dressing like they're from another decade. It's OK to see beauty in their fatter body. Or to revel in the wackiness of their outfit. Make sure they know it's their differences that will make them stand out in life. And that standing out is what will draw interesting opportunities their way.
8. Fashion doesn't have to be cookie-cutter.
Just like there's no recipe for what body type any one person should have, there's no recipe for what styles that person should like. I firmly believe that sartorial experimentation is part of the growing up process. Your kid shouldn't feel limited by the current trends or what the popular girl in class is wearing.
I understand wanting to protect your kid by monitoring what they wear. But stifling their preferences doesn't seem like the best course of action. Whether your AMAB (assigned male at birth) kid has taken a liking to dresses, your daughter has found empowerment in a short skirt, or your AFAB (assigned female at birth) kid wants to chop off her hair and sport a tuxedo, please try to find a way to let them. Children are supposed to be discovering who they are, what they like, and how certain things make them feel. It's important that they feel like their parents can support them in that.
9. You can take up space.
If you have a daughter, chances are she'll be conditioned to believe that not taking up space is crucial. She'll be made to feel like minimizing herself, her body, her accolades, and her strength is essential in order to be perceived as respectable or quaint or modest or good. She doesn't have to shrink herself, though. Women don't have to be small — not physically, and certainly not in their achievements.
10. Never apologize for your body.
Your body does not warrant an apology. You are doing nothing wrong. Whether you look nearly identical to the model you're reading about in Teen Vogue or couldn't be further from that, you are doing just fine. Never apologize for being fat. Never apologize for being bony. Never apologize for not having the physical abilities of your peers. Never apologize for not having fairer skin. Your body isn't "too much" or "too little" of anything.
11. Beauty is 100 percent subjective.
I hope that by the time I have children, there is no mainstream formula for what beautiful "looks like." I sincerely hope that my kid does see themselves represented in their action figures or Barbies or Nickelodeon shows. But if nothing much has changed, and the majority of celebrities and "role models" still adhere to one conventional interpretation of beauty, just try to remind your kid that every person defines beauty differently.
Tell them that some people love freckles. Others can't stay away from bright red hair. Tell them some folks love the feel of a flabby tummy, while others feel most at home lifting weights. Tell them they get to define what beautiful means to them.
12. Remember the "in my opinion" disclaimer.
Don't let your kid get away with saying things like, "Fat is ugly," or, "Short hair on girls looks stupid," or, "Boys with six packs are the best." Try to explain to them that those comments might be their opinions, but that they simply aren't universally-held facts. No one person gets to decide what is attractive and what isn't. No one person has the ability to do that for an entire species of humans, all of whom have their own perspectives and take on what beauty is.
If your kid ever tries to say that any one characteristic is inherently bad, make sure to vocalize the importance of adding an "in my opinion" disclaimer to the end of that sentence. Both to prevent them from sounding like an asshole in front of strangers or friends, and to help them on the road to becoming a more mindful, accepting person.
13. Vanity isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Some people might try to tell your kid that to be vain is to be arrogant, unfriendly, or judgmental — and I think this is especially uttered to young girls. There's so much stigma out there surrounding loving yourself that to admit to liking any aspect of your being is often looked down upon.
Try to let your kid know that there's no shame in loving anything about themselves. They are the only ones who will ever have to live in their body. They are the only ones who will ever have to live in their brain. And the ride is bound to be a hell of a lot more enjoyable if they're not forced into self-hatred just to avoid seeming vain.
14. Health isn't a measure of worth.
Something I personally hear from a lot from people who aren't really very body positive but think they are is that "it doesn't matter what you look like, as long as you're healthy." So instead of using body types to shame people, some humans now use health status. Here's the thing: Whether or not you're clinically healthy, you're still a person worthy of acceptance, respect, and the same privileges as anybody else.
Again, make sure your kid knows that a person's health cannot be determined with the naked eye alone. But also try to make sure they know that a person's health isn't a measurement of how well they should be treated.
15. Exercise should be fun.
Most of us know that exercise is proven to lead to a myriad of benefits, including boosting your creativity, memory, and overall mood. It doesn't have to be about weight loss. It doesn't even have to be about changing your body.
Unfortunately, working out is often correlated to weight loss. Personally, I think that takes a lot of the potential fun out of it. Your kid should feel free to move around in whatever way feels comfortable to them. They should feel allowed to swim or run or play outside without attaching those activities to the desire to change. Try to tell your child that fitness can be about fun and actual health, rather than aesthetics alone.
16. Getting to know your body is important.
Truth be told, I didn't know where my vagina was until way past puberty. I could see the labia majora, obviously, and I knew there must be an opening somewhere considering I'd already gotten my period. But I never tried to find it, opting for pads instead of tampons once Aunt Flow came, and always making sure to not look down there whenever I took a shower. I was conditioned to believe there was something shameful about the nude body, particularly the nude female body, and taught that I should do everything in my power to keep it covered and untouched.
Fast forward to this one time when my best friend and I were in New Mexico visiting her family. I got my period at a public pool, and knew a tampon was basically my only choice if I didn't want to stop swimming. But I didn't know where my fucking vagina was. With the help of my bestie and an oversized compact mirror, we found it eventually. And I felt super weird about myself for days.
Please try to tell your kid that there's nothing shameful about their body, including their nude body. We should be allowed to get to know ourselves, in every sense of the word. I mean... How can we actually grow to love our bodies if we don't know how they feel or look or what they actually give us?
17. There are more than two genders.
I truly believe your kid will learn to be infinitely more body positive, both towards themselves and others, if you don't educate them according to the gender binary. Try to avoid phrases like, "That's for girls," or vice versa. And if they want to wear clothes designed for the "opposite" gender, just let them rock it.
Even if we're still operating under a predominantly female-or-male social structure by the time I reproduce, I hope I'll be able to explain to them that the spectrum of gender identity is actually a lot more complicated than "boy or girl." I hope to enlist the Genderbread Person's help. And maybe introduce them to androgynous or genderqueer icons of my own.
18. It's OK to feel bad about yourself sometimes.
In the words of Bustle's own Emma Lord, "You are human and you are fickle and your moods change like the tides. And perpetuating the idea that we have to love ourselves all the time has, in a way, only set us up for more shame in the moments when we inevitably fail to do so."
Not to be bleak, but chances are that by the time I have kids, issues of body image perpetuated by our culture won't have revolutionized all that much. So no matter how much you teach your kid to love themselves or treat their body with kindness, external and opposing messaging will likely find them. You don't want them to feel like they've failed if ever they have a bad body image day, though. They didn't fail. Their culture did. Their social structure did. Try to remind them of those things, but also let their feelings play out in the way they might need to.
19. Autonomy is priceless.
The thing I most wish my parents had said to me growing up was simply that I have choices. I wish I'd known that there were no fashion rules; that a universal ideal weight isn't a thing; that there is no such thing as a "perfect" life; that perfection is overrated.
When I have kids, I want them to know that they control their bodies. They control what they put on and into those bodies. Maybe I can try to steer them in certain directions or input my advice, but at the end of the day, they need to figure some things out for themselves.
All I want to do is make sure they know they're allowed to do so. They don't have to listen to the TV or the magazines. They don't even need to listen to me, because my opinions, preferences, and lifestyle might not be their opinions, preferences, and lifestyle. So I guess I just hope they learn to listen to themselves, for themselves. Maybe saying some of this stuff will help.
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Images: Marie Southard Ospina (1); ABC Family (1); New Line Cinema (2); Paramount Pictures (1); FOX (1); Disney Channel Originals (4); Warner Bros. (2); Comedy Central (1); Entertainment One (1); NBC (1); Walt Disney Studios (2); Nickelodeon (1)