Teaching My Daughter That Skinny Doesn’t Equal Healthy or Beautiful is Tougher Than I Thought

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“High five for mommy! 104! I haven’t weighed that since I saw Pearl Jam,” exclaimed the svelte adorable mom to her toddler who cheered along, from her perch in the supermarket cart. I stood beside her, as I grabbed my own cart, and watched her triumphant cheer — which may have caused me to throw up in my mouth. Did I really witness that? Are we not more evolved?

I found the scene so upsetting on so many levels. Was it the fact that this fit chick who was taller than I am (5’6″ or do I claim) weighed 104, a number I haven’t seen since since I saw The Bangles? Or the awareness that this little girl was receiving a message that could change or define how she sees herself in years to come? Or was I simply annoyed she got to see Pearl Jam?

Of course, this immediately led me to that introspective place all moms go:

Have I said things to my own daughter that would lead her to believe she needs to be skinny to be happy? I mean, if I’m being honest, I’m quite sure I’ve asked my hubby a thousand times if things make me look fat, and I mean anything: “Does this new dress make me look fat?” “How about this new toothbrush?” “How about the cat? Does she make me look fat?”

As a gen Xer, I recall the age of fad diets and fad workouts. I remember my own mom, who was always a bit overweight, trying so many different things — to no avail. I can picture Jane Fonda and how she rocked her sweatband with the old “drive the bus” maneuver, Richard Simmons getting obese people to sob incessantly while explaining his “Deal a Meal” plan, and Susan Powter and her crew cut yelling that everyone should “stop the insanity” while touting the benefits of eating like a gazillion baked potatoes a day.

I was in college when Kate Moss brought us the “waif look,” and I embraced the way my double As added to the whole “heroin chic” thing I had going on. Look, if that’s what it took to see Marky Mark without his Calvins, I was in. Yes, I got the messages that the magazines, the stars, and the gurus were delivering — loud and clear. I needed to be thin … nay, to be skinny. If someone were to say I looked like I should put on a few pounds (out of concern), I’d have done a cartwheel on the spot (heck, I’d still do one). Look, I said I would be honest with you, and I am.

That said, I feel that I’ve gone to great lengths to focus on health when it comes to body image as far as my kids are concerned. We are huge fans of The Biggest Loser and I’m always so careful to describe the contestants as beautiful from the start of the process to the end. My daughter seems to be on board, telling me how attractive she thinks so and so is (while so and so still weighs 300 pounds). I focus on the fact that being so overweight can be terribly detrimental to your health, hoping that she will want to be in shape for the right reasons. And I never use the term “skinny.”

Which is why I was so surprised the other day when my 8-year-old daughter asked for fried dough at a carnival. It wasn’t that she asked for something void of anything healthy, she does that all the time, it was how she responded when I said, “No, I think you’ve had enough junk for one day.”

“Mom, I’m skinny, I can eat junk sometimes without you having to worry about it.” I couldn’t figure out where this reasoning came from. Had I ever given the impression that my attempts at keeping us healthy was about maintaining a certain weight? Had I somewhere along the line done the triumphant mommy dance over a pound or two (without even getting to see Pearl Jam, no less)?

Maybe I had, maybe she’d heard this at school, on TV, in a movie, from a friend, during a clothing campaign. That talk will be out there, tween stores will have little models wearing padded bras in their catalogs, the messages our kids receive won’t always be in line with our own, but you can count on them to be blasted from every magazine, billboard, and TV show.

As unexpected as her statement was, it was the perfect opportunity to reiterate my message: that skinny doesn’t necessarily = healthy or beautiful (no matter what my own screwed up inner psyche has to say about it). So I did, and I’ll continue to do so because I have to make sure the positive messages drown out the negative ones. I owe her that.

14 thoughts on “Teaching My Daughter That Skinny Doesn’t Equal Healthy or Beautiful is Tougher Than I Thought

  1. Alesha

    I feel the same way that you do. I too have grown up with such an spot light on weight and how you look. I watched my mother try every diet under the sun….even though she did not need it. When i had my girls I was determined to stop this cycle. The word diet and fat is not allowed in our house. They know at an early age that exercise is for being healty not losing weight. I loved your story and can so relate mama.

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  2. sparkling74

    The media will always favor skinny to death over fit for life. It’s a reality I don’t think any company will ever change for us, no matter how hard we try. I never say skinny, I always say fit. Because fit is what it’s all about. If you’re fit, you’re healthy, right? The benefit might be that you’re the skinny weight you want or maybe you aren’t super skinny but you can bench your own weight, so those muscles are a good thing! Fit is what’s sexy, right? Right?

    And I cringed when she said Pearl Jam because I never liked them in college!
    sparkling74 recently posted…OMG These Pickles Taste Like PICKLES!My Profile

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  3. cherie

    I was always a little overweight??? Thanks pal… I understand exactly what you’re talking about, skinny was in during the sixties, who could forget Twiggy. I even cut my hair like her and wore my makeup like she did and I was skinny then… But you are right healthy does not equate skinny.

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    1. Jenny from the blog Post author

      African Americans certainly have a healthier outlook on weight and curves, just think while we’re trying to take it off you’re trying to put it on… At least you get to drink a milkshake without guilt!

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  4. Kelly Fox

    It seems like it should be such an easy lesson to teach, but all of the external influences indeed make it so harder. I’ve been struggling to get the Grandmas to understand that “Oh, you’re so skinny!” is not a compliment I want them giving my daughter. I give them alternatives like “healthy” or better yet something not even focused on her appearance. It’s an uphill battle, but we’ll keep going…
    Kelly Fox recently posted…Confessions of a Crappy Tooth FairyMy Profile

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    1. Jenny from the blog Post author

      I’m having a similar problem. One of her grandmothers was talking to me about this article and explaining to my daughter, “You know how everyone thinks skinny makes you prettier, smarter …. and on and on and on.” I gave her a death stare. “No she doesn’t know that, I think you missed the point of the article … now please stop.” It was not our best moment.

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  5. Ribena Tina @ ribenamusings

    104!!! I don’t think I have been that since I was 10!

    I think a lot of what our young children experience out of the home and by watching TV shapes them, sometimes more than we do, when it comes to weight issues.

    I am only 5 foot 2 and overweight, I yoyo and because I am a all or nothing person, when my mind clicks into being health conscious I am full on. However, my daughter has always been taught that it is a health issue rather than a need to look thin. I don’t want to be thin, I want to be healthy and that is how my daughter determines whether she needs to lose some weight.

    Like you we love the US version of The Biggest Loser and have watched it from the first season and I believe that has gone a long way to helping my daughter understand that health is more important than how skinny a person is.
    Ribena Tina @ ribenamusings recently posted…Time – where has it gone?My Profile

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  6. Stephanie

    A beautifully written post, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I have two daughters, 8 and 6 years old, and I really feel that this topic is important, we talk about it a lot at home and I’m grateful for any input from other moms. I’m teaching my girls that we need to be kind to others and we need to be kind to ourselves. I’m telling ya, love and kindness can change the world 🙂

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