Here's How I'm Trying to Save My Daughter From the Body-Image Issues That Scarred Me

POPSUGAR Photography | Jenny Sugar
POPSUGAR Photography | Jenny Sugar

At 10 years old, when you overhear your parents refer to another kid as "the whale," you get the message loud and clear that fat equals bad. My mom and dad were always making comments about how so-and-so "really ballooned up" or how they couldn't believe how so-and-so "got so fat." I felt a sense of sadness every time I heard them say things like that, because it felt like a direct message to me: whatever you do, do not get fat.

My History With Diet and Body Image

I obviously can't blame my parents — fat phobia found its way into my family because it was such a strong message everywhere. As a result, I have been on and off diets and trying to lose weight ever since I was 12 years old. Twelve years old. The age when you should be playing with makeup, going to the movies with your friends, and having crushes. And there I was, writing in my journal that I was 110 pounds and needed to lose 10. That is f*cked up. I was in no way overweight, yet losing weight became my goal.

I remember trying to eat very little during the day, yet restricting my food only led to overeating, and I actually ended up gaining weight in high school. I was still a healthy size, but compared to my thinner friends and the girls in Seventeen magazine, I was thicker, and I felt very self-conscious about it. One memory forever stands out in my mind that made me realize my parents noticed my pudgier size, too. When I was looking through my mom's old photo album, I saw her prom picture, and said if she still had that dress, I'd totally wear it (retro pink and lime green striped!). My dad said, "You'd never fit into that."

When I got to college, I found freedom in the all-you-can-eat dining halls, the candy at every store, the 2 a.m. pizza deliveries, and the fact that I could eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's and there was no one to tell me not to. This was the age before iPhones (wow, am I dating myself!), so there were no selfies or photos posted on social media to make me realize that I had gained 40 pounds.

By age 22, when I didn't fit into the bridesmaid dress for my brother's wedding, my dad said, "Just lose weight." I will never shake that mortifying and overwhelming feeling of shame. I went full-force into my weight-loss journey, restricting certain foods, overexercising, and just saying terrible things to myself. I did lose the weight, but it was at the expense of my happiness. I spent the next 13 years still immersing myself in disordered eating, using exercise as punishment, and feeling like maintaining a smaller body was my ultimate purpose in life.

How It Affected Becoming a Mother to a Daughter

I've slowly been trying to heal myself from the damage that dieting and hating my body has caused me. Now at age 42, I have an 8-year-old daughter. When Sadie was born, I knew that if there was one thing I wanted to accomplish as her mother, it was to save her from the shame, sadness, and pain body-image issues have scarred me with. I wanted to do everything in my power to encourage her to have a positive relationship with her body, to love herself, and to find pleasure in exercise because it makes her feel strong and beautiful. I wanted to help her love food for the simple joy it brings, how it joins our family together, and how it nourishes and energizes her for all the amazing adventures, goals, and plans she has.

POPSUGAR Photography | Jenny Sugar

What I Do

OK, so I know this is a huge undertaking. I mean, how can one person combat the entire world's sh*tty message that looking "perfect" is your life's aspiration? I know it's close to impossible to shield her from this entirely, but dammit, I'm going to do everything I can to try! Here's what I've been doing so far:

  • I lead by example: I now recognize that loving my body, nourishing myself with food and exercise, and doing so in a self-care sort of way is essential. I do my best to model a healthy relationship with food, exercise, and my body.
  • I do my best not to comment on her appearance and instead on her abilities and amazing qualities: I say things like, "Wow, Sadie, you did the monkey bars so fast. You're so strong!" If my parents make comments to Sadie about her appearance like, "Oh your hair looks so pretty today," I quickly share something awesome Sadie did like, "She read the first Harry Potter book in two days!" or "Sadie is so kind; she wanted to stop at the animal shelter and donate some dog treats."
  • I say positive comments about my abilities and avoid negative self-talk: I say things like, "I rowed 2,000 meters 10 seconds faster this morning than the last time I did it!" I also make a point not to talk badly about myself regarding my appearance. If my kids comment about my squishy belly when we're at the pool, I just say happily, "That's where I first heard your heartbeat, and my skin had to stretch so you could grow!"
  • I share my joy of food: I take Sadie food shopping and show her how we pick out healthy things so that we feel strong and grow taller. But we also go to the bakery and eat scones and cinnamon buns! We bake and cook together, and it's a great way for me to show her how healthy food should taste good, to encourage her to be adventurous trying new foods, and to create happy memories around eating.
  • I share knowledge about healthy eating: I brought Sadie to a registered dietitian just for a general meeting to talk about healthy food choices and how to measure serving sizes and to let her know that other adults send the same positive message about food as a source of nourishment and joy.
  • I model and talk about intuitive eating: I feel like Sadie is already a pro at this. She eats when she's hungry, eats the foods she loves, and stops when she's full. I support this by not enforcing the clean plate club, by encouraging healthy choices, and by not making her feel ashamed for wanting to eat an entire piece of carrot cake without sharing.
  • I bring her to my CrossFit and yoga classes: I want to show Sadie that exercise is a huge part of my life, because getting stronger and moving my body makes me feel energized and proud. And the other women at my gym and studio are such awesome role models. She can see that there are all different body types, that having muscles is a good thing, and that challenging yourself and meeting fitness goals is one way to boost your confidence.
  • We're active together: We go swimming, take hikes, ride bikes, ski, snowshoe, go to the indoor trampoline park, and take our dogs for long walks. I want daily exercise to just become a habit out of the sheer fact that it feels good to move your body every day and to be outside in nature.
  • I tell her I love her: Every night at bedtime, we read books together, then turn off the lights and snuggle and talk. We share about our day — anything that was exciting or upsetting — and it's usually a time when Sadie feels comfortable opening up to me. I want to continue to build her trust and the closest relationship I can so that she can always come to me to talk about anything. And maybe her knowing I love her for who she is, no matter what, will help her feel like she can come to me if any questions or issues with body image or diet come up, so I can help her navigate through them.

What I Won't Allow

With all the work I'm doing to build Sadie's confidence and to teach her self-love, I am begging you not to undo all my hard work. I will not allow you to talk badly about yourself. I don't want you saying how fat you feel, squeezing your thighs with a disapproving look, or saying in front of my daughter that you wish you were thinner. I don't want her to overhear you talking about your diet, how you're cutting carbs, how you're not allowed to eat chocolate, or how you were "bad" because you ate cake at a party. Please don't talk about how much weight you need to lose, how you wish you had your 20-year-old body back, or how you wish your old jeans still fit. I will politely shut down that negative self-talk!

I know this is a tough request, because growing up in diet culture and the impossible body standards women are subjected to, this kind of dialogue has become normal. But let's change that. Start talking to yourself the way you would talk to my daughter, or your daughter, or your best friend. Start saying things that make you feel good about yourself and point out the things you're proud of — start the revolution! Because I can't do this alone. If I'm going to help Sadie grow up in a world where she loves her body, I need you to start loving your body first.