With my mini-me.
I never worried about my body or my weight when I was younger. As a child, I was blessed with a naturally fast metabolism. My mother made sure that we made good food choices most of the time, but we also indulged with the occasional ice cream, cookies, or french fries. It didn’t seem to make much of a difference what I ate – I remained naturally slim. My childhood concerns were the typical innocent ones – I worried about spiders, the dark, and making friends. Body image was never one of my concerns.
When I entered ninth grade, I went through a growth spurt, growing four inches in one year to end up at my current 5’4″ height. My weight barely changed a pound, and at just under 100 pounds, I personified lankiness. A competitive gymnast at the time, I struggled with the new height, having to adjust how I performed many of my skills. I had just start to get things under control when I started 10th grade and went through puberty. In the span of 12 months, I added over 20 pounds to my frame. I can still remember how shocking that change was. It felt like I was gaining weight by the day, and I went from being extremely skinny to more of an average size. I hated my new curves, blaming them for the extra weight that I now had to accommodate. Both my new height and weight now put me into the “larger” category for a gymnast and I began to feel self-conscious. It didn’t help that many of my teammates were younger, and naturally smaller than I was. For the first time in my life, I was self-conscious about my looks.
If this was a teen novel or an after-school special, I would now tell you about how my newfound concerns led to an eating disorder. I am fortunate that my story never followed that path. I did, however, spend many years disliking how “large” my body was. I would look at photos of girls in magazines, or my teammates, and wish that I could be as skinny as they were. I wished away my curves more times than I can count. My close friend and college teammate struggled with disordered eating for several years. I watched her grow smaller, and while I worried about her health, I also secretly felt just a bit jealous, wishing that I could have the willpower to become that thin.
I majored in exercise science for my undergraduate degree, so I spent many hours reading about proper body composition and nutrition. I took multiple courses in fitness and strength training. My minor was in human behavioral development, and so I explored the psychology behind child and adolescent development. I know all of the facts and theory behind body image. I know that actresses and models portray unrealistic ideals, that most photos in magazines are airbrushed. None of it has really made a difference in the way I view myself.
On my good days, I am proud of my body. Over the years, I trained myself to become someone who can go out and run 10 miles without batting an eye. I’ve overcome numerous surgeries and injuries, survived a twin pregnancy, and worked hard to become the person and the athlete that I am today. I’m proud of that, just as I’m proud of my strong legs and my healthy heart. On my bad days, however, I still find myself wishing that I were a bit slimmer. That I could erase the stretch marks that were left behind after carrying my twins. That I were naturally tiny, like many of the amazing women that I currently run with. It’s an ongoing internal battle.
My daughter is now seven years old. From the day she was born, people have told me that she looks just like me, a compliment that I appreciate. We are similar in more ways than I can count. I look at her, and think she is absolutely beautiful. She’s also kind, strong, and determined, and I am so proud of all that she has already accomplished in life. At her young age, she could care less about her appearance. It’s a daily challenge just to get her hair brushed before she leaves the house. I love her innocence, but I worry for her future.
I don’t want her to grow up to be self-conscious, the way that I am. I want her to be proud of her body, to know that there are so many more important things in life than what size you wear or how perfect you look when you step out the door. I work overtime to try to instill this confidence in her. I watch every word out of my mouth, careful to never criticize myself or my appearance in her presence. I boldly set aside my cover-ups at the beach, even when I’d feel more comfortable keeping my flawed skin under wraps. I celebrate when she joins me for a run or some strength training, marveling at how good it feels to work hard and build strong muscles.
I can’t say whether it will make a difference down the road. I just hope that through daily modeling, and numerous conversations, she’ll grow up knowing that to be strong is to be beautiful. To be flawed is to be human. And that above all, it’s what you find inside a person that determines how truly beautiful they are.
May she always be this joyful and confident.