Tuesday 9 October 2012

Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Nurturing A Healthy Body Image

Welcome to the October 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Instilling a Healthy Self-Image
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared confessions, wisdom, and goals for helping children love who they are. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

I believe that being kind and gentle on ourselves is part of being caring about the environment. We are intimately linked to our environment, and if we cannot ethically care for ourselves, we will not be good stewards of the animals and plants around us. Therefore my journey toward a healthy body image for myself and my daughters is part of this journey toward a healthy environment. 

A few nights ago my eight year old and five year old daughters were playing cootie catchers with me at bedtime. They are those fortune teller paper games that young kids play. These ones were commercially produced and had preprinted prompts on them. We were playing Truth or Dare and there were harmless dares like, "laugh like a hyena for 60 seconds" and questions like, "What was your most embarrassing moment?" On one of my turns I chose "If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?" I must have paused because my oldest daughter felt the need to explain it to me: "You know, Mom, like if you wish you had blue eyes or a different hair colour or something."

I really had to think hard about how I was going to respond to this question. Of course there are things about my body, my personality or my life choices that didn't go the way I would have originally wanted. My life as a teenager and young adult would have been a great deal easier if I had an easier time making friends, but for that I would have needed more confidence in myself. If only I had realized that confidence was what made someone truly attractive to others. I might have more confidence if I realized that I wasn't "ugly" and that no, I wasn't actually "fat" (whatever those terms mean). I developed a great deal earlier than my friends which created anxiety about how my body looked compared to my peers (and may have affected my views in later years), thereby challenging my confidence in life. It all becomes a vicious cycle.

Now that I have three young girls, I feel an immense responsibility to educate them about their bodies and help them develop a positive body image. My weight has fluctuated up and down more times than I  can count, and there is a history of weight problems in our families. While I have an ideal weight in my mind, I now realize that it doesn't matter what the scale says, or what I look like to the outside world. It only matters how I see myself and whether or not I am content. As a typical woman I have asked people how I look, seeking external reassurance about my appearance. I often perceive myself as larger than I am and I have yo-yo dieted throughout my youth. I do not want this for my daughters. While I want them to have a healthy body, I also want them to have a healthy mind, and I do not want to pass on my body image issues to them. I want to be a "Do as I do" person.

The first thing I need to do to instill a healthy body image in my daughters is develop a healthy body image in my own mind and make peace with myself. This journey began years before having children when I made an important decision to stop taking hormones for birth control because of the effects it was having on me. In my quest to find alternative birth control methods I found the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler, which is pretty much the bible for women seeking natural birth control. I was surprised how little I knew about my body, despite considering myself an educated person. It was very healing to learn about my body's cycles, and I began to see it as a gift that I have been given rather than a "curse".  That shift in thinking has had the greatest impact upon my own body image because I don't see my body betraying me once a month and I have confidence (and comfort) in natural rhythms. This path also led me to discovering the Diva Cup and Luna Pads, which makes me feel better about limiting toxins in my body and the environment.

I am trying to model a healthy attitude toward menstruation and hope to share what I have learned with my daughters. I believe age-appropriate education begins early and all three of my daughters (ranging in age from two to eight years old) are aware of what happens to my body (and will happen to theirs) and why it happens. I have memories of feeling dirty and ashamed about my monthly periods and I definitely do not want my girls to feel that way. I want them to be proud of what their bodies can do. This is partly why I wanted a home birth with my third daughter; I wanted my daughters to see the power and magic of the female body during birth and have confidence in what their bodies can do. I also did not want them to be afraid of birth, as many women have become. I wanted them to witness first hand a positive birth story to counteract the lifetime of scary birth stories they will hear.

I have had to stop the dieting cycle that works for no one. I know what I need to do for a healthy lifestyle, and this includes making good food choices (local, fresh, whole foods) and living an active life. Generally I feel good about my body size and shape, and while I would be happy if I could lose ten pounds (what woman wouldn't?), I am also fine if this is my body for the rest of my life. I am not actively seeking to lose weight, which is another huge shift for me. Yes, I am seeking ways to be more fit because my mood and overall well-being is greatly improved when I have regular activity. My proudest moment after running my first 10km Sun Run a year and a half ago? When I overheard my girls playing "family" in the backyard - they were exercising with dolls in strollers saying they were mommies taking their babies out for a run. Modelling behaviour at its finest!

I am also working on limiting my negative self-talk. It is such a cliche that we become what we think or say to ourselves, but it is true. I am not a bad person if I eat an extra piece of cake, or if I am the largest woman in the room, and I am not stupid or ugly. Most of this comes from comparing myself to others. My confidence is growing with the conscious internalizing of this. We don't use the words like "fat", "skinny" or "ugly" in our home when talking about people because of the connotations of the words. I have caught myself on more than one occasion with the words, "Do I look fat in this?" on the tip of my tongue.  If I am honest, I would admit to taking my husband aside quietly and asking him this. I am a work in progress, I suppose.

I try to tell my girls that they are smart, strong, kind or creative at least as many times as I say they are beautiful, or praising them for something about their appearance because they are of value for who they are, not how they look. We have conversations about what makes each of my daughters unique; one is empathic and caring, one is imaginative and dramatic, one is independent and strong.

But I worry about how much impact this will have on them. Recently my eight year old and I were talking about a ballet class she took a few years ago and she commented that she felt she had the biggest legs of all the girls in the class. Of course I had the talk about how bodies come in all different shapes and sizes, and that's ok, but it really hit home because I had very similar feelings in my ballet class as a child. I began to equate being big (or bigger than others around me) with clumsy and I never felt successful or happy in ballet, or any group physical activity.

Within the past year I told my five year old that she looked beautiful and she said, "I'm not the beautiful one, E (her older sister) is." People talk quite openly about children, around children as if they are not present and I know that she has heard what people say about her older sister (who people see as more conventionally attractive than her), and this breaks my heart. I worry that no matter what I do or say, they might have their own issues to work through. In the end, perhaps, it is the pain in life that makes us confront what we believe and causes us to grow as sentient beings. There is a happy ending to this one; recently, when her father told her she looked beautiful in a particular outfit she responded, "No Dad, I'm already beautiful."

So how do I instill a healthy body image in my girls? I'm doing the best I can with changing myself so that they can never say that I had a "do as I say not as I do" mentality. They will always have societal influences pressuring them as they go out into the world, but if I do the best I can to be positive and set a good example then perhaps my modelling will have even a small impact on developing healthy attitudes.

I finally answered my daughter's cootie catcher question by saying that I wouldn't change anything about myself. I like me now and if I were different I wouldn't have my life and I wouldn't have them as my children. I hope this was the right answer, and part of me thinks it was, because my daughter responded, "yeah, me too. I like me a lot and I wouldn't want to be anything but me." I know I may have some potentially tough years ahead of me with three girls going through puberty and figuring out who they are, but I hope I am providing them with a strong base at home, and I hope I am ready for the challenge.

I found this in my Pinterest feed after writing this post and it was so timely! I may have to post this in a prominent location in my home as a daily reminder.
The link appears to be expired, but I would like to give credit to the author. 
If you know who created this, please let me know.

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
(This list will be updated by afternoon October 9 with all the carnival links.)
  • Why I Walk Around Naked — Meegs at A New Day talks about how she embraces her own body so that her daughter might embrace hers.
  • What I Am Is Not Who I Am — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama discusses her views on the importance of modeling WHO she is for her daughter and not WHAT she sees in the mirror.
  • Carnival of Natural Parenting: Verbs vs. Adjectives — Alisha at Cinnamon & Sassafras tries hard to compliment what her son does, not who he is.
  • The Naked Family — Sam at Love Parenting talks about how nudity and bodily functions are approached in her home.
  • How She'll See Herself — Rosemary at Rosmarinus Officinalis discusses some of the challenges of raising a daughter in our culture and how she's hoping to overcome them.
  • Self Esteem and all it's pretty analogies — Musings from Laura at Pug in the Kitchen on what she learned about self-esteem in her own life and how it applies to her parenting.
  • Beautiful — Tree at Mom Grooves writes about giving her daughter the wisdom to appreciate her body and how trying to be a role model taught Tree how to appreciate her own.
  • Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Nurturing A Healthy Body Image — Christy at Eco Journey in the Burbs is changing perceptions about her body so that she may model living life with a positive, healthy body image for her three young daughters.
  • Some{BODY} to LoveKate Wicker has faced her own inner demons when it comes to a poor body image and even a clinical eating disorder, and now she wants to help her daughters to be strong in a world that constantly puts girls at risk for losing their true selves. This is Kate's love letter to her daughters reminding them to not only accept their bodies but to accept themselves as well in every changing season of life.
  • They Make Creams For That, You Know — Destany at They Are All of Me writes about celebrating her natural beauty traits, especially the ones she passed onto her children.
  • New Shoes for Mama — Kellie of Our Mindful Life, guest posting at Natural Parents Network, is getting some new shoes, even though she is all grown up…
  • Raising boys with bodily integrity — Lauren at Hobo Mama wants her boys to understand their own bodily autonomy — so they'll respect their own and others'.
  • Sowing seeds of self-love in our children — After struggling to love herself despite growing up in a loving family, Shonnie at Heart-Led Parenting has suggestions for parents who truly want to nurture their children's self-esteem.
  • Subtle Ways to Build a Healthy Self-Image — Emily at S.A.H.M i AM discusses the little things she and her husband do every day to help their daughter cultivate a healthy self-image.
  • On Barbie and Baby Bikinis: The Sexualization of Young Girls — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger finds it difficult to keep out the influx of messages aimed at her young daughters that being sexy is important.
  • Undistorted — Focusing on the beauty and goodness that her children hold, Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children watches them grow, loved and undistorted.
  • Off The Hook — Arpita at Up, Down and Natural sheds light on the journey of infertility, and how the inability to get pregnant and stay pregnant takes a toll on self image…only if you let it. And that sometimes, it feels fantastic to just let yourself off the hook.
  • Going Beyond Being An Example — Becky at Old New Legacy discusses three suggestions on instilling healthy body image: positivity, family dinners, and productivity.
  • Raising a Confident Kid — aNonymous at Radical Ramblings describes the ways she's trying to raise a confident daughter and to instil a healthy attitude to appearance and self-image.
  • Instilling a Healthy Self Image — Laura at This Mama's Madness hopes to promote a healthy self-image in her kids by treating herself and others with respect, honesty, and grace.
  • Stories of our Uniqueness — Casey at Sesame Seed Designs looks for a connection to the past and celebrates the stories our bodies can tell about the present.
  • Helping My Boy Build a Healthy Body Image — Lyndsay at ourfeminist{play}school offers readers a collection of tips and activities that she uses in her journey to helping her 3-year-old son shape a healthy body image.
  • Eat with Joy and Thankfulness: A Letter to my Daughters about Food — Megan at The Boho Mama writes a letter to her daughters about body image and healthy attitudes towards food.
  • Helping Our Children Have Healthy Body Images — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares information about body image, and her now-adult daughter tells how she kept a healthy body image through years of ballet and competitive figure skating.
  • Namaste — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment shares how at barely 6 years old, her daughter has begun to say, "I'm not beautiful." And while it's hard to listen to, she also sees it as a sign her daughter is building her self-image in a grassroots kind of way.
  • 3 Activities to Help Instill a Healthy Self-Image in Your Child — Explore the changing ideals of beauty, create positive affirmations, and design a self-image awareness collage. Dionna at Code Name: Mama shares these 3 ideas + a pretty affirmation graphic you can print and slip in your child's lunchbox.
  • Beautiful, Inside and Out — It took a case of adult-onset acne for Kat of MomeeeZen to find out her parenting efforts have resulted in a daughter that is truly beautiful, inside and out.
  • Mirroring Positive Self Image for Toddlers — Shannon at GrowingSlower reflects on encouraging positive self image in even the youngest members of the family.
  • How I hope to instill a healthy body image in my two girls — Raising daughters with healthy body image in today's society is no small task, but Xela at The Happy Hippie Homemaker shares how choosing our words carefully and being an example can help our children learn to love their bodies.
  • Self Image has to Come from WithinMomma Jorje shares all of the little things she does to encourage healthy attitudes in her children, but realizes she can't give them their self images.
  • Protecting the Gift — JW from True Confessions of a Real Mommy wants you to stop thinking you need to boost your child up: they think they are wonderful all on their own.
  • Learning to Love Myself, for my Daughter — Michelle at Ramblings of Mitzy addresses her own poor self-image.
  • Nurturing An Innate Sense of Self — Marisa at Deliberate Parenting shares her efforts to preserve the confidence and healthy sense of self they were born with.
  • Don't You Love Me, Mommy?: Instilling Self-Esteem in Young Children After New Siblings Arrive — Jade at Seeing Through Jade Glass But Dimly hopes that her daughter will learn to value herself as an individual rather than just Momma's baby
  • Exercising is FUN — Amy W. at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work talks about modeling for her children that exercising is FUN and good for body and soul.
  • Poor Little Chicken — Kenna at A Million Tiny Things gets her feathers ruffled over her daughter's clothing anxiety.
  • Loving the skin she's in — Mama Pie at Downside Up and Outside In struggles with her little berry's choice not to celebrate herself and her heritage.
  • Perfect the Way I Am — Erika at Cinco de Mommy struggles — along with her seven-year-old daughter — at telling herself she's perfect just the way she is.


  1. I love "No, I am already beautiful"! Perfect.

    And I think your answer to the cootie catcher (never heard them called that!) was just right.

    1. Another pearl from my 5 yo when someone criticized her outfit, "It's my personal style." Maybe she'll be ok after all.

  2. You are definitely providing them with a strong base for the journey. And what a treasure that we all get to travel this road together, both daughters and the Mamas that love them!

    1. I always say that becoming a mother has been the best personal therapy ever! So much self-reflection, and it is like holding a mirror up to my own face (and not always liking what I see) when I watch them.

  3. What a heartfelt post! I love how you've described your journey of self-awareness and acceptance - fertility was also an area of real awakening for me. Your girls are blessed to have you - kudos for being such a wonderful model!

    1. Thank you!

      I make it my mission to talk to people, usually mothers, who don't understand why sex ed and talking to our children about their bodies is one of the keys to a healthy body image. I am a teacher, too, and one of my favourite topics with the older elementary students is "family life". It is such a bonding experience and I love helping girls, and boys, feel more positively about what their body is going through.

  4. There is so much of this post that rings true for me. I am 34 and have had four children but only recently have I begun to discover the blessings of my own body. I never realized before the negative associations society places on our periods, or fertility, our womanhood, that teach us to disapprove of ourselves in every way that makes us women.
    Absolute agreement here, we have to love ourselves in order to show our children how to love themselves. Beautiful post!

    1. Thank you!

      Yes, we need to understand about our bodies and how how those lovely hormones inexact with us. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the whole "have a happy period" thing I've seen in commercials recently. One thing I'm definitely going to be doing as each of my girls journeys into puberty is to participate with them in this:


      Talking about their fertility, encouraging gratitude and helping another girl - a win for me!

  5. the body pledge is great!!! I'd never seen it before.
    Is that your three girls in the last photo on the beach? Amazingly beautiful photo. They are so lucky to have each other and you.
    I just laughed out loud at your daughter telling her dad that she's already beautiful. So sweet. and it does go to show that what you're doing is getting through. There will always be things that come up between sisters. It's a unique thing. (I have 5 sisters myself and through it all I love them more than anything.)
    I totally relate to your happiness at hearing them imagination play being fit mommies running... I've had those moments. My daughter things exercise is just part of life. She believes exercising will give her energy because I've always told her I need to do my workout so I'll have energy for the day.
    She never thinks anything about how overweight I am and that it's related to that. I've had my moments of feeling like I don't "look like" I am as strong or fit as I am.
    But I digress...
    Thank you for this post. I'm getting so much out of every one I read.
    mY daughter is only 5, but I want to think ahead for menstruation and other issues of becoming a woman. You've given me some really good ideas.
    lots of love...

    1. Thanks! Yes, I feel the looming Puberty with a capital P coming like a speeding truck, haha.

      The Luna Pads website has some great resources for girls and teens, and really cute fabrics they can pick for cloth pads, etc.

      Here's a booklet for girls:

      Other words of wisdom from my middle daughter: she often wears "unique" clothes combinations and people react to her and say things. Her response? "It's my personal style."

  6. I love that your daughters see how strong you are. My kids have been watching my journey for months now and I can see it changing their attitudes toward their own bodies. :) Great post!

    1. Thank you!

      I don't know how strong I am, but hopefully I at least appear to be strong (and maybe the feeling will eventually come with the actions).

      Isn't it powerful seeing the change trickling down? It inspires me to continue on the path.

  7. I really watch what I say around my kids in regards to exercising. When they ask me why I am going, I tell them it is so I can be healthy and strong and so I can keep up with them. I also have body images. But I don't want that for Sarah. Great post.

  8. Yes, show me a woman without body image issues and I'll give you a million dollars. That's a good way to talk about exercising - being healthy and strong. I also say it makes me feel happier and have more energy, especially because my little H really doesn't like too much physical activity (we are having some serious ballet battles every Saturday morning now, grrr).

  9. This post is rich with wisdom as well as authenticity. I want all of these things for my daughters, too. I want them for myself and all women I know. We are human beings, not human bodies. Yes, we need to be good stewards of our bodies and take care of them, but they are not objects to be tweaked and improved.

    I love how you answered the question. I think contentment is such a great gift and something we want to teach our children to embrace no matter how they look or how much money is in their bank account or where life takes them. I also think that it can be difficult to make healthy changes when we don't really love or accept ourselves.

    As a side note, Taking Charge of Your Fertility is a must-read for all women. I picked it up for a religious reasons, but every woman deserves to intimately know her body and its wonders.

    From this post and, yes, from the glowing photos it is clear your house is one of beauty and love.

    Thank you for the edifying post.

  10. You know, I woke up this morning sick as a dog, aggravated that the internet had been crashed for over a day, and exhausted before the 9:00 bells even rolled around. And what was the first thing I thought when I saw the mirror? All of the things I hated about my body. I know. It's ridiculous. But I so want my waist back, lol.

    This was a very convicting post. Thank you for sharing. I am saving off the pledge. Have a wonderful day!

  11. Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing your story. We are all definitely a work in progress, but you're getting there- WE'RE all working on getting there. The goal is better than yesterday, that's all we can ask for.

  12. A must read article for everyone, very enjoyable.