It started with this bedtime conversation my nine-year old daughter and I had recently.
Anna: Mommy I weigh too much. I weigh like 70 or 80 pounds. My belly pokes out. It’s not flat like yours.
[My heart sank and then I said what most parents say.]
me: Anna you’re perfect just the way you are. If you want your stomach to be a little flatter, we can incorporate more fruits and vegetables, and cut back a little on the sugar. I’m really glad you told me about how you’re feeling. Together we can make some healthy shifts that will make you more comfortable.
Anna: I’m never going to throw up. I’m going to eat what I want to, and be normal. I don’t care what people say about me. Sticks and stones. I just want to have a happy life.
me: Were you thinking about throwing up?
Anna: No, I’m just saying.
me: Okay, good. There are a lot of solutions to what you’re feeling, and that’s not one of them. It’s really dangerous. Let’s keep talking about the healthy the changes we can make, and how you’re feeling.
Anna: I said sticks and stones, but words actually do hurt.
me: I know. Being a kid is really hard. But the way you feel about yourself is so much more important than anything anyone else can say about you. Let’s stay focused on that, and the rest will fall into place.
Anna: I don’t want pancakes for breakfast. Can we have fruit instead?
me: Absolutely. That will be great for both of us.
I was choking back the shitty lump in my throat when I left her room. I remember the first time I felt fat. I was 10. My ballet teacher poked me in the stomach and told me to “hold it in.” I was average looking for someone my age (Anna is also), but it crushed me. I never forgot it. I never will. I still hold in my stomach when I’m walking around the house in my jammies thirty years later.
I don’t want that future for Anna. I want her to be happy and at ease with herself. I don’t know how to make that happen. My own self-image is not where I’d like it to be.
I grew up with show business on both sides of my family. My grandmother was a jazz singer – as was my mother for a while. My grandfather and uncle were/are professional musicians, and my father was the drummer for Ringling Bros. Circus. I spent most of my childhood surrounded by the glamour of nightclubs, and half-naked showgirls and aerialists. Everywhere I looked were the one-percenters of youth and physical beauty. That was the standard.
It’s a hard shadow to live in. I guess it’s the same for kids who grow up with parents, grandparents and great-grand-parents with Harvard degrees.
In our family you can never be too young, too fit or too pretty. Appearance is paramount, and it’s a life-long quest. The grandmother I mentioned above will be 93 this weekend. She’s still trying to lose 10 pounds. When she’s not lamenting her weight (which is totally healthy), she doesn’t want her photo taken because she’s “old and wrinkly.” My mother barely weighed 100 pounds until I was in high school, but she was never satisfied either. Today she makes the same comments her mother makes almost verbatim. Truth: they both continue to be stunningly beautiful women well into their 70’s and 90’s respectively.
When Anna was born I vowed to do it differently. I stopped talking about weight. I stopped talking about aging. I stopped verbally associating either to beauty, or the lack thereof. I’ve considered my messaging on these topics the way a national brand evaluates its content for air.
I thought being totally positive about Anna’s appearance and completely neutral about my own would protect her from the obsession with beauty that runs in our family, and through our culture. I believed ignoring that dark thread in myself would make it disappear.
It didn’t. I feel fat and old a lot of the time – I just don’t say it out loud (except on my blog because that’s obviously the best place to keep a secret). The shame of having those hateful thoughts about myself is far worse than any physical flaws I might imagine.
It’s not an eating disorder that gnaws at our peace of mind – it’s a perfection disorder. I color my grey, use the best anti-aging products, get manicures and pedicures regularly, and wax 85% of my body. I have a Botox bruise on my forehead as I type this – even though I swore over a year ago I would never put another needle in my face. We’re having a family reunion this weekend. I need to look my best.
On good days I’m able to comfort the part of me that’s afraid of not being pretty enough, or young enough, or thin enough. I see the insanity of it. I can focus on how lucky I am to be healthy. I can see the qualities I have that truly make a person beautiful: integrity, fortitude, empathy, generosity, love, intelligence, and humor.
On bad days I judge myself against photo-shopped teenage supermodels who eat cotton balls and tissue paper instead of food. That is the fare for those at the long and empty table of vanity.
I hoped keeping these broken thoughts to myself was enough to guarantee Anna would have a healthy self-image. I thought if no one knew, especially her, it wouldn’t matter. But how could I think she wouldn’t one day notice the lengths I go to behind closed doors striving for physical perfection?
The conclusion I arrived at after that bedtime conversation is I will never be able to teach Anna to feel good about herself by regurgitating the healthy truths I’ve read in books and magazines along the way. I have to teach her by example.
Crumbling under my own criticism never would have been enough to get my attention. That’s normal. It’s our legacy. But the thought of my daughter having this same twisted relationship with youth and beauty is all the motivation I need to make a change.
I will always spend a lot of time and money maintaining myself – I’m okay with that. But I’d like to get to the place where I’m doing those things out of love instead of fear. A place in my mind where those rituals feel like I’m taking care of myself, not running from the Age Monster.
As with most things, attitude is everything, and I’m ready to change mine. For me, and for Anna.
Maybe it is for you, too.
There is beauty in beginning.