As a mom or dad, your heart swells with pride the day you witness your baby first steps. But what happens when you notice that your little one has begun to follow in your body shaming footsteps and the legacy of your weight watching ways is colliding with their reality?
Ten years ago I sat helplessly by as I watched my beautiful 10 year old daughter, Cara go through an “I hate my fat body” melt-down in Target’s dressing room. That’s when I knew the legacy of my body shame had rubbed off on her.
I was only 10 years old when I was put on my first diet. Discussions about the size of my thighs, calorie counting and weekly weigh-ins became part of my normal routine. The shame and guilt of living under so much scrutiny and control made my hunger burn.
As a result of feeling so trapped and afraid of being caught cheating on my diet, I became painfully resourceful in pursuing my food pleasure by eating in bathrooms, planning tip-toe night binges, hiding candy in my clothes, eating out of the garbage, stealing to finance my after school snacking, raiding the kitchen cabinets of the families for whom I babysat. –All that desperation to eat everything I was told I couldn’t have.
The more weight I gained, the less lovable I felt. I swore my body was the problem.
As an adult in my early 40’s, I finally came to grips with the fact that the shame and contempt I felt toward myself for overeating had nothing to do with the size of my thighs. It came from a deep sadness and a hunger for love. Like so many women I thought I could fix myself and earn my father’s approval, if only I could lose weight.
In her book, Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness, author Margo Maine, Ph.D., explains that the role of fathers plays an important role in their daughter’s ability to be confident. In talking about dealing with the challenge of having a father who is either absent or emotionally unavailable, she says, “A lot of women struggle with feeling a yearning to please their dad who never quite gives them the appreciation they so desperately need. For many women this translates to depression, anxiety and a preoccupation feeling their bodies are the cause of their problems. She goes on to explain how this is not cause for blame, but rather to increase awareness and to teach men the skills to be more nurturing of their kids.
Some experts say that diets reinforce a negative self-image. My experience was that during my 34 years of dieting, I thought of myself as a big fat pig with no self-control around food. Because I had so little self-respect, I was always putting myself down, minimizing my accomplishments and seeking validation outside of myself. I had become my own worst enemy.
From the time my first child, my son, PT (Paul Thomas) was born I was on the lookout for fat. When he started gaining weight at 9 years old, I repeated my father’s’ ignorant & fat phobic behavior, assuming that PT’s size reflected shamefully on me. Despite the fact that I was in my own constant battle with weight gain, I felt embarrassed to be seen with him. I felt the need to explain why he was overweight. I was angry that he was overweight and felt cheated because I had dedicated so much of my own life to the pursuit of thinness. His weight gain made me feel like a failure.
So I looked at his weight issues as a problem that needed to be erased. I commented constantly on his shortcomings, made nasty remarks about his weight, compared him to Cara, his then thinner sister, and in general made him feel terrible because he was overweight. I never for one minute assumed any responsibility for his challenge with weight and failed to see the connection between my weight obsession to get thinner and the hypocrisy of him witnessing my binges. I thought if I was tough on him, like my father was with me, it would motivate PT to lose weight. So I dragged him to Weight Watchers, then took him each week to “Way to Go Kids”, a children’s health/weight loss program. Weekly weigh ins, getting his measurements taken and journaling everything he ate became as ritualized as doing his homework. I’ll admit it. I was insane with fear that he would repeat my mistake by being fat. As a kid, my father made me believe that being fat was the worst thing in the world. For as long as I put him on a pedestal and made him the authority in my life, I was doomed to repeat his thinking.
Looking back in retrospect at how disrespectfully I treated my precious, sensitive boy, I hang my head in shame knowing that I have hurt him in the same way that I was hurt by my father. I was so wrong to have done those things. Despite the fact that I love him so much, I made PT feel like an object. Of the two of my kids, he is the most sensitive and I can see how those years of my obsession with his weight and verbal abuse undermined his self-confidence at every level. I’ve worked hard to forgive myself for those hurts that I caused both of my children, but PT bore most of the brunt of my years of stupidity. In a recent heart-to-heart chat with him, he confided in me that during those years he felt that I treated him like a problem that needed to be fixed. He explained that my obsession with his weight made him feel like an object and he thought that he wasn’t important and didn’t deserve to be loved until he was thinner.
I’ve learned a lot from the mistakes I made with my son. When my daughter faced her crisis, it led me on a journey to discover the value of self-acceptance. I had no idea that it was the key to being more confident. Here’s my tips on how to raise body confident kids:
Explore the Roots of Your Body Shaming Thoughts: When we pack extra weight onto our frames, it is our bodies’ survival response attempting to protect us from a perceived threat. Maybe you’re overweight and it’s been very frustrating for you. Your child has been watching you facing your own challenges with food play out in your life. Maybe it’s been causing confusion for them. Take responsibility for being your child’s role model. Change Begins with You. Know that your thoughts are powerful and what you think in the privacy of your own head is actually shaping your child’s lives every moment. This is because our thoughts are the first step to taking action. Kids will pick up on your vibes and unconsciously develop the same habits as you. If you obsess about your weight and talk negatively about your body or allow others to shame you, police your food or make derogatory comments about your body, you are sending a message to your child that this is acceptable behavior. Resist the urge to shame them for overeating and don’t make them feel guilty about the way they look . If your child senses your rejection and disapproval, they will begin telling themselves a story that if you can’t love them, then they must be unlovable. This is how body shame grows. Children mimic their parents as a way to bond, make them feel safe and connected to us. If you are shaming yourself and others, and they see you doing it, they will take that as license to do the same. If seeing your overweight child triggers overwhelming feelings of anger or shame for you, it’s only mirroring the way you feel about yourself. That’s your cue to give yourself a time out, find a private spot so you can calm yourself down, reconnect with your heart and put a pause on your thoughts.
Get Quiet to Get Grounded: The chronic stress in our lives sets off our body’s ‘fight or flight’ survival response nearly 50-100 times a day. Without a moment of peace, it’s easy to get caught up in the spin and lose your sense of reality. Your thoughts are the best barometer indicating how stressed or relaxed you are. If you’re anxious and overwhelmed with racing thoughts, you can slow yourself down naturally and easily by activating your body’s natural relaxation response. There are several ways to do that which include, practicing yoga, doing tai chi, Qigong, dancing, sex, laughing, praying, meditating, getting a massage, doing charity work and playing with animals. I swear by meditation. My version of it is sitting in silence for 20 minutes at a time. I set my phone timer for 20 minutes and once I close my eyes, I disconnect from everything. It’s so easy. I used to get hooked and frustrated because I tried to eliminate all thoughts. Now I watch my thoughts parading by and within a few minutes I feel separate from them and then I start to yawn. By the time my timer goes off, I feel like I’ve gotten the benefits of enjoying a 60 minute massage or reflexology session. The really great thing about meditation is that the more you do it, the easier it is to see yourself as separate from your thoughts.
Become Aware of Your Thoughts: Most people are pretty hard on themselves, but those who have encountered abuse in their past are extremely self critical and abusive of themselves, forever pointing out their flaws, putting themselves down, and doubting their own self worth. These nasty things you say to yourself aren’t just in your head. They live in your body, in every cell. To break the cycle of body shame in your life and the life of your child, you’ve got to start by first becoming aware of what you believe, what you think and what you have learned from your parents. This may require that you do some deep digging into your roots to determine how you feel about your body and why you feel that way. By pausing when you become aware of a thought that disturbs you, it gives you an opportunity to question it’s validity. Now that you are an adult, you can choose your own thoughts, and toss out whichever beliefs don’t work for you anymore.
Forgive the Past If you were raised to believe that something was wrong with you, the only way that you will be able to free yourself of the compulsion that drives that belief is to stop thinking about it and to substitute another thought. Most likely that will mean that you have to forgive people who have hurt you. Realize that they were also a product of their upbringing and they were only doing the best they could. Forgive those who hurt you. Forgiveness is not condoning someone’s hurtful behavior and it also doesn’t mean that you forget. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself by freeing yourself of the burden of the pain of your past. I finally became free when I liberated myself from thinking and acting like my father. When I stopped giving a damn about trying to measure up and be approved by a very narcissistic man who didn’t have the capacity to love me. When I realized that I blossomed into the compassionate and loving person I am despite his vitriol, that’s when I connected to my own vulnerabilities, developed a deeper sense of self-respect and embraced a more compassionate side of myself.
EFT/Emotional Freedom Techniques or Tap to Feel Better – Take my word for it, a gal who endured a lot of abuse, sexual, verbal and physical. You don’t have to stay feeling like a victim. The good news is that you can change the way you feel about yourself and your body, by processing your negative emotions using a simple do-it-yourself stress relief method called Emotional Freedom Techniques. Based on the science of Acupuncture, EFT is often considered to be its emotional equivalent without the pain of needles. You use your fingertips and tap on certain comfort spots on your body that stimulate a relaxation response in your brain. Anyone can use it any time to take the edge off of any stress, feel better and overcome negative emotions and fears in minutes. By tapping on these points as you let your emotions roll over you, you will process them out of your body and you can be at peace. Tapping has changed my life and I love it. EFT rocks and every week on my coaching calls, I tap with my clients and guide them to use EFT also known as tapping to transform their feelings of shame and sadness to kick butt confidence.
Demonstrate your love – Your child’s overeating is being driven by emotions that overwhelm them. Tell your child about your history with food and weight issues. Suggest that you partner with each other to discover ways to be healthier in body, mind and spirit. Show them how to become their own nurturer by first nurturing them. Shut down and move out of range of all distractions and spend quality time talking with your child. Create a safe, loving, non-judgmental space to talk. Sit down together and look into their eyes, ask them questions, watch their face and be present with how they feel and what they’re saying. If sitting still is an issue, choose an activity that feels right to you. Validate them by having more heart to hearts, giving more cuddles, hugs and kisses, enjoying more handholding and high fives, Show and tell your child they are lovable and that they can trust you. For older kids, it’s often easier to have this kind of talk while driving or some other equally neutral type of environment.
Initiate an Open Door Policy with Food – A dear friend and therapist encouraged me to stop dieting and learn a process called ‘intuitive eating’, a term first coined by nutritionists, Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D. and Elyse Resch, M.S., R.D. FADA, in their book, “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works.” By taking this gentle permission-based approach to food and learning how to eat in response to my body’s natural hunger, I discovered a sense of freedom and reverence for myself that changed my life.
By removing all the restrictions and limitations placed on food, it gives you an opportunity to reclaim mastery over your choices-where you ultimately become the expert of your own body. By making a habit of eating when you’re hungry and stopping before you get too full, you will learn how to distinguish between physical and emotional feelings, and gain a sense of body wisdom. By paying attention to how your body feels after you overeat, and forgiving yourself when you fall into a binge, you will get to the point of choosing a carrot over a piece of cake.
Let Your Child Test Their Own Limits –Resist the urge to make faces or jokes when your child wants peanut butter cups for dinner and popcorn for breakfast. Our bodies are naturally wired to eat for health. If you have any unresolved judgments around certain foods, it will fuel your child’s desire to eat them. When I stopped judging Cara’s cravings for chocolate, her choices completely shifted, moving toward a varied combination of foods.
Get help –I imagine that the idea of putting a stop on all dieting is as terrifying for you as it was for me back in 2006. But you’re no alone. There is so much support and help available to you as you navigate this road of self-discovery. Seek out the wisdom of those who embrace self-acceptance. Coaches, friends, family and other people who treat themselves lovingly and respectfully. The website www.haes.org (Health At Every Size) is a vast resource of practitioners and professionals arranged by geographic area.
Lastly, if you focus on loving your child and treating yourself more lovingly and gently, they will notice you becoming more at peace with yourself. That will give them permission to feel more relaxed with their body. By showing them that you can feel good about your imperfect self, you give your child permission to love themselves too. And who doesn’t want that?
Andrea Amador is The Juicy Woman. Equal parts sweet and oh so sassy, Andrea’s a curvy and confident plus size body image coach/bestselling author who shows mid-life women how to transform their blues and body shame into self-compassion and kindness so they can build their confidence from the inside-out.
Are you stuck in a place of hating your body? Your body is not the problem. Hating yourself is. Put an end to your body wars by learning how to respect and appreciate yourself no matter what! Join author and empowerment coach, Andrea Amador, The Juicy Woman, as she leads you through the foundation principles of her book, “Lovin’ the Skin You’re In” to help you break free of the shame of hating your body, in a non-diet, action oriented environment guaranteed to make you feel more yummy! Click the image below to join Andrea’s Facebook Group, “30 Days to Lovin’ the Skin You’re In.”