When my first child was a newborn, I kissed her a thousand times an hour and breathed in the intoxicating smell of her head. I was head over heels in love and told her so. I babbled at her morning noon and night.
Oh baby girl, you are soooooo beautiful. What a beautiful girl. Mommy loves you soooo much.
Miranda was just a few days old when I heard these words pop out of my mouth. And once I started paying attention, I realized I said it all the time. Pretty girl…beautiful girl…. And the feminist in me was on alert. Why did I say that morning noon and night? Why was that the compliment that sprang so easily—almost unconsciously from me?
Now, in my defense, I was besotted. And the object of my affection was in fact the most beautiful baby ever born. And I was still overrun by hormones.
Also, she didn’t do much those first few weeks but nurse and sleep and look up at me with those eyes that captured my heart more fully with every passing hour. So I told her how much I loved her. And how beautiful she was.
But I also started to think about everything I wanted her to know. I wanted her to know she was loved—sure. I wanted her to know her mother thought she was beautiful—yes. But I wanted so much more than that for her too.
As she grew, I added new words of praise and affirmation:
Look at you—you are so strong!
Ooo baby girl, you are so clever—you figured that out all by yourself!
You have the sweetest laugh, little one!
That’s a mighty pair of lungs you have, kiddo!
But the b-word still popped out of my mouth—a lot. In addition, everywhere we went, friends and strangers alike would praise her—what a beautiful little girl, what a good little girl. And all of this stirred something big and true in me—something I struggled to find words for.
Soon, I had two daughters, and as time passed, I thought more and more seriously about what I wanted for my girls. I knew that my words had incredible power to shape their lives—for good or for ill. So I paid attention to what I said. I read parenting books which helped me find new ways to communicate, new ways to build up, new ways to make the love I felt visible and useful to my little ones.
At the same time, I knew words were not enough.
I had grown up hearing that I was beautiful—it was one of the few things my parents agreed on. Sometimes I actually believed it. I remember these words my father said to me:
“Being beautiful is the most important thing in the world and the least important thing in the world. It is the most important thing because it will attract people to you; people will see you and want to get to know you. And it is the least important thing because if all anyone likes about you is how you look, then that is not much of a relationship. In true love—between friends or between lovers—the way you look is the very least important thing. They will love you for your mind and your spark and your personality.”
Those were powerful, life giving words to hear when I was growing up, and in many ways I think they inoculated me from some of the more deleterious messages floating about in the wider culture and mass media.
Unfortunately, these words from my father were not strong enough to outweigh the example my mother lived day in and day out. My mother struggled with her weight. I do not remember a time that she was not on a diet. I don’t think I could have put it into words as a child, but I knew my mother did not like her body. In fact, I am pretty sure she hated her body. She and her body were at war, with nary a cease-fire nor truce.
A living example is stronger than anything that is spoken, even when the words are spoken with love and with the conviction of truth.
Deep inside I knew that if my daughters were to have any chance of having a great relationship with their bodies, then I would have to learn to love my body. I would have to model for them what it looks like for a woman to appreciate her own unique beauty, to find her true strength, to enjoy living in a body—to relish dancing real slow, running full tilt, slurping down a fresh ripe peach, cuddling up with a book, holding hands, making love. Slowly, but surely, because I wanted it for them, I made it true for me.