The folded laundry in my hands fell to the dog-hair covered carpet. My five-year-old had just pinched her minuscule triceps and told me, “I hate my arms. I hate how my skin wobbles.”
The room she shares with her toddler sister was spinning—a swirl of bedtime stories, crayons and cubbies full of tutus.
Moms and dads try to prepare for the tough conversations they know are surely coming: about death, sex, bullies and lockdown drills at school. But for this particular talk, I thought I'd have more time. I had imagined sitting across a tiny café table with my daughter, maybe when she turned 13, or maybe as young as age 10. We’d have hot chocolate and a heart-to-heart about what it’s like to be a girl and a woman. I’d warn her of the perils of dieting and how some people don’t like their bodies. She’d tell me how she felt about her changing shape, and I’d tell her about the miraculous ways we work and all the gifts she’d experience in the years to come.
Instead, she was only five. Just a little girl. And I felt like I was sinking in quicksand during the most important teaching moment of my parenting life.
As a mom in recovery for an eating disorder, my mission—since the day my first daughter was born—has been to raise girls who never have to suffer from the same mental, emotional, physical and spiritual trauma I have experienced living in my body, tortured by my mind.
At first, I reacted the way most people would, and dismissed her comment as silly.
“Your arms are perfect!”
I immediately cringed at my own choice of words. The word “perfect” is ammunition in the arsenal of weaponry those of us with eating disorders use against ourselves. We are all striving for a mysterious, vague and elusive perfection that is always smaller than what we are today.
Sometimes the weapon of choice is starving ourselves. Sometimes it’s bingeing then purging. Sometimes it’s endless hours in front of a mirror surrounded by mountains of discarded clothes, looking at our bodies from every angle. We suck in our stomachs, flatten our breasts. Sometimes it’s compulsively getting on and off the scale. There is a “perfect weight,” a “perfect size” and a “perfect body.” But the target is constantly moving.
So, I did what people in recovery for addiction—whether it’s drugs, alcohol, food or money—are advised to do: I stopped. I took a breath, and I waited for the right words to come. Words that would replace my sense of panic with serenity and love.
She was waiting for me to say more, because like most things five-year-olds do, this was a test. My reaction would dictate how many times this test would be repeated. She must have heard someone else—a family member or another adult—say the same thing about their arms, and was wondering whether she, too, should hate her arms.
“I’m about to teach you the most important family rule we have,” I heard myself say, my voice low and steady. “In our family, we don’t ever, ever say anything mean or unkind about our bodies, or anyone else’s body. In our house, we love our bodies.” I sat down next to her, on the edge of the bed.
“Your arms are long and strong. They help you cross the monkey bars. They help you give me the best hugs. They help you lift your sister when she falls down. And your arms help you swim, and steer your bike.”
She was smiling now, and I knew that I had succeeded in changing the narrative.
“Let’s go around the room and all say something we love about our bodies!” In the recovery world, this is called contrary action: do the opposite of what your diseased thinking wants you to do. I was a little panicked, because I knew it would be my turn soon, and I’d have to lie. Most days, my body still feels like my enemy, even though the real villain is my mind.
“You go first,” I said.
“I love my eyes!” she yelled.
“I love your eyes, too! They’re like milk chocolate that I want to eat up, and they’re just like Papa’s and Alice’s, and they’re so delicious.”
We turned to my husband, who had been half-listening from the rocking chair while looking for the bookmark in that night's bedtime story. He didn’t feel the weight of this moment the way I did, because he didn’t grow up feeling like his body was wrong. His thoughts about food end when he walks away from a meal, satisfied.
“I love my chest,” he offered, and I said that I love it, too, because it’s so strong, but it’s also cozy enough to hold our sleeping babies when they were naked and new.
I took another breath and jumped in.
“I love my stomach! I love that it is soft from stretching to carry my babies until they were big enough to be born!” As I said it, I realized that my stomach is a miracle. It’s the universe that birthed these little stars.
“And I love Alice’s tummy too,” I said, tickling my toddler. “Because it’s full of spaghetti and blueberries!”
We all laughed at her squeals and squirms.
“Repeat after me!” I said. “I love my body! I love myself! I am strong! I am loved!”
If my daughters have my genes for addictive behavior, maybe these drills will help prepare them; help them to be victors against their inherited DNA.
We wrapped our strong arms around our own bodies—as far as they would reach—and hugged ourselves.
In the days following, I reinforced our new family credo. I suggested that any time my five-year-old hears someone else say something unkind about his or her own body, she should share our family rule. If she’s old enough to repeat the negativity, maybe she’s not too young to create—through repetition—a community of fierce warriors of body positivity.
I can only do my best to shape the environment around my girls to be a safe and nurturing one—I know that so much of the world is beyond my control. But if I can give them the tools to dismantle and deflect all the harmful messaging in our society, they have a fighting chance. The most important armour they can wear is love.
This article was originally published online in November 2018.