I watched Finley fish the mail out of the mail box. Her face shone with triumph as she leaned her body out of the car window and strained for the mailbox. She shimmied this way and that, until she finally drew back into the car with a grunt and exclaimed, “There.” She surveyed the stack and then passed her hand between my seat and the window to deliver the mail. My stomach dropped and my jaw clenched. Serendipity had just passed a [potent message by way of my youngest and, perhaps most impressionable daughter. Two catalogs side by side, between them they represented the things that taunted and tempted me as I grew up, and the things that most frighten me about raising three daughters.
I am not a small person, nor am I particularly curvy. What I am, and what I have always been, is incredibly strong. Broad shoulders, over achieving biceps, and calves that can carry me up mountains. I loved being able to run fast and whizz a ball from first base to third, but I always envied the daintier girls, always longed to be curvy in different places. Compounding the discomfort about my body was the shame of desperately wanting something else. I have no illusions that I can somehow anticipate the insecurities they’ll have or how their bodies and minds will develop. What I am more and more aware of is that taking a passive approach to addressing body image just isn’t going to fly.
I don’t want to panic, but I do want to let them know that there is a place between thrusting your chest and hips out and lifting tires. It does not have to be either or. You can be irresistibly attractive without doing a full court, push-up press on looking hot and you can be strong without being exclusively a jock. It feels like fashion flirts more with showing your body than it does expressing your personality. What is my role as a parent in encouraging an exploration of both sides, while trying to protect them from the hurt that can come?
I’ve sat with a Victoria’s Secret catalog absentmindedly flipping through the pages. I don’t begrudge those women, or the designers who photoshop them into perfect form, for what they are. They are trying to sell swimsuits, I get it. I also discovered that when I look through them, I cave in. My shoulders slump, I curve my back to try and flatten my stomach, and I conjure the image of my body before or after a shower and know that there aren’t squats or sit ups that will ever make me look like these women. Then I close the pages and understand that it isn’t that I want to be them, but that when I look at them, I actively lower my own grade as far as how I perceive my appearance to be.
It does me no good and brings to mind something my mom used to say to me, “I don’t care who your friends are, I don’t particularly even care if I like them. The only thing that concerns me about your friends is who they bring out in you and how they make you feel. Just promise me you won’t choose to give yourself to people or things who don’t make you feel good about yourself.”
The pages of Athleta, while still representing bodies not identical to my own, make me feel like I belong. The broad shoulders and strong shapes make me think of things I’ve done, times when I’ve been moving my body through the water or over a rocky trail. They remind me of the things that make me happy and all the things this body of mine makes it possible for me to do.
As I look toward fall, when Briar will enter the 4th and 5th grade building and Finley will join Avery in the elementary school, I think that the promise of paying attention to who and what makes you feel good is going to need to be a central part of our conversation. My hope is that as the girls come more and more into their own, they’ll experiment and test, surely developing a few scars, but that at their core they will hold onto their joyous spirits.