Care and Feeding

I Constantly Teach My Daughters Body Acceptance—but Can’t Follow My Own Advice

A mother talks to her daughter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Emily McCombs is Care and Feeding’s new weekly columnist. She is currently the deputy editor of HuffPost Personal, where she writes and edits first-person essays. She lives in Brooklyn with her 11-year-old son.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Uhm, help?

I am the mom of two girls, a preschooler and a 9-year-old. My entire life I have struggled with body image issues, and this is something I am trying hard to not pass on to my children. I try to maintain positive feelings and honest conversations around our bodies, even the parts society might pressure us to be unhappy about, like our round, chubby tummies. So far, this seems to be working. My older daughter has gained some weight since the pandemic began but seems unconcerned by it. We do not make a “thing” of it other than to offer healthy foods and make time and space for physical activity. While I am thrilled and proud that she’s in a good mental place about her body, I haven’t really come to accept my own size and shape, especially after two pregnancies and years of breastfeeding. In fact, I am scheduled for a tummy tuck and breast lift in a few weeks. I am unsure how to talk to her about this, especially since it will require weeks of possibly tough recovery that she’ll be around for. After years of talking to her about how great our bodies are as is, here I am taking some rather drastic measures to change mine. I’m at peace with my decision to go through with the surgery, but I still feel like a hypocrite when it comes to my kids. Is there an honest way to frame this that won’t undo all the work I’ve done around body acceptance and positivity at home?

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— Positively Hypocritical?

Dear Positively Hypocritical,

Hello, I’m afraid you’ve reached the radical fat activist parenting advice columnist, who you may or may not want to hear from. Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to criticize you for getting plastic surgery. As much as I believe in size acceptance, I also believe in body autonomy, meaning your body belongs to you and you get to do what you want with it, whether that means gaining weight, losing weight, covering your skin suit with colorful tattoos, getting plastic surgery, and so on.

That said, these decisions are not made in a vacuum, and there’s no such thing as selective body positivity, or body positivity that applies to everyone else but not to your own body. By choosing to alter your body surgically to more closely resemble the type of body that we’ve been told is “acceptable,” you will be reinforcing the cultural message that those kinds of bodies are indeed superior. And actions often speak louder than words when it comes to our children.

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Since you are at peace with your decision, I think the best you can do is to be as honest as you can while being age appropriate. For your pre-schooler, these concepts are awfully complicated, so a simple explanation of surgery (without being specific as to what the surgery is meant to do) and what your recovery will entail might be best for now.

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With your 9-year-old, I would emphasize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with your body (or any body) as it is, but that you have made a personal decision to have surgery because it will make you feel good. Keep it brief and don’t dwell on what you dislike about your body. Emphasize that despite your decision, what’s on the inside is far more important than how we look on the outside. And especially importantly, continue to have these very complicated conversations with both girls as they grow older and begin to have their own reckoning with a world that wants them to hate themselves. Let them know how you hope they will handle this pressure.

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And continue to model doing the personal and lifelong work of learning to accept your body, even when the journey is imperfect. Because plastic surgery may or may not help you overcome your body image issues, but either way a happy, confident mother who feels at peace with herself is the best role model you can offer your girls.

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Emily Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Ex-Husband’s Parenting “Style” Is Turning My Son into a Misogynist: “I openly put monitoring tools on my son’s phone, but he has free reign at his dad’s.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an ethical question about kids using toy guns. I have some serious anxiety—mostly centered on gun violence and my child getting hurt. (I’m talking through this anxiety regularly with my therapist.) My 2½-year-old recently went to a playground and picked up another kid’s toy gun. I had an outsized reaction to this: I gasped and screamed “no!” and “put that down right now.” My kid listened. I told him, “I’m sorry, we don’t play with guns.” I don’t think I handled this situation well. What is the best way for me to address toy guns when I fear guns and gun violence so deeply? And I would never want my child to use a gun, ever. That said, I played with Nerf guns and water guns as a child. Am I being a total hypocrite by saying my kid can’t play with them? If not, how do I explain to my toddler why we don’t touch guns, real or fake, without absolutely terrifying him?

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—Anxious Mama

Dear Anxious Mama,

As the mother of an 11-year-old black son, for whom playing with a toy gun in public is a potentially life-threatening safety hazard as it was for Tamir Rice, I have BIG FEELS about this one. But given that mass shootings have become a terrifying hallmark of life in America today, it’s completely understandable that a parent of any child would have this reaction. It’s not hypocritical of you to want to evolve the rules for an age where active shooter drills at school have become part of the childhood experience.

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Of course, there’s a difference between the way you talk about guns with your 2-year-old than I do now with my 11-year-old. But it’s never too soon to start having these conversations. While not everyone will be on the same page as you, “We don’t play with guns” is a perfectly acceptable boundary to set. Kids—even kids as young as your son—can see and understand that different families have different rules even if they don’t always like it. The key is approaching these conversations calmly instead of from a place of panic and explaining to him in age-appropriate terms why this is one of your family’s values.

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Talking to our kids about what to do if they encounter a real firearm is a whole other incredibly important issue—every year hundreds of children accidentally shoot themselves or someone else after encountering a firearm unsecured in a home. Although it can feel awkward, you should also always ask about firearms before your child visits another home. Check out the American Academy of Pediatrics Gun Safety Toolkit for guidelines on how to have these conversations.

All that said, once my son got old enough to really understand the reasons his father (who I co-parent with) and I didn’t want him playing with toy guns in public, we conceded to let him use a Nerf Gun inside the house only, and for shooting NERF targets, never at people or animals. My reasoning was that I didn’t want toy guns to be so forbidden that they became enticing. He tried it, lost interest in it fairly quickly, and the cat is more likely to play with the foam darts these days. But letting him safely experiment kept the gun thing from becoming a fascination or an outsize issue in our family.

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In a society where guns are both normalized and easily accessible, teaching our kids that gun violence isn’t fun and games is the least we can do.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We have four children under age 16 and, as expected, we made many mistakes with our first. We were pretty militant about no sweets allowed except once a week on “dessert night.” My husband and I had both grown up with parents who made unhealthy choices and it took us a long time to learn healthier ones—we pledged to raise our children in a home full of healthy food. But as a result, we swung too far in the other direction and made sweets seem forbidden and even more appealing. Our oldest just got her driver’s license and has use of our family car to hang out with friends, go to after-school activities, and run errands to help the family (grocery shopping, younger sibling drop-off, etc.). For a few months now, she’s been using the car to ostensibly go to the gym—except we just found out that she’s actually been using the car to go on binges at various fast food restaurants, often hitting 2-3 restaurants in one trip. She’s gained about 20 pounds this year. We are very concerned.

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We took her to a dietician who suggested some small changes and our daughter has been incredibly resistant. She eats healthy enough at home but continues the sneaking around and lying to get unhealthy food. We took her to a therapist but she refused to open up. We’re at our wits’ end. We feel incredibly guilty for creating this environment for our daughter, but we’re concerned about her mental and physical health, and we know a change is desperately needed. What should we do?

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— Guilty in Georgia

Dear Guilty in Georgia,

You may have heard from the previous questioner that there’s a real hardass in town when it comes to these topics. And as a former fat kid who has struggled with a whole host of food and body image issues, this question made me a little nervous. That’s because I know from first-hand experience that nobody ever got healthier from being shamed for what they eat or what they weigh.

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I am not a doctor, but it is my firm belief that no child should ever be put on a diet (unless for a genuine medical condition) or be encouraged to pursue weight loss, and that those kinds of interventions are a one-way ticket to a lifetime of disordered eating and potential weight cycling, which some research shows is a lot worse for your health than remaining stable at a higher weight

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While you’re not specific about what you mean when you refer to your daughter as “bingeing,” if her fast food jaunts are indeed meeting the medical definition of a binge, she could be struggling with an eating disorder, like binge eating disorder or even bulimia, which involves a stage of bingeing before purging. Kids who develop these disorders may be using food and eating to cope with emotional issues.

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I believe the most important thing is to focus on the underlying issues that are leading your daughter to binge, not on her weight or food choices. I know you have your daughter‘s best interests at heart, but pathologizing food and body size are likely to exacerbate the problem, as poor body image is an underlying factor that can make one more susceptible to eating disorders. Even dividing foods into such black and white categories as “healthy” and “unhealthy” may not be helpful. The good food/bad food concept is a major player in restriction and other disordered eating. Nutritionists recommend instead treating all food as fuel for our bodies, with different kinds of foods needed at different times.

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Remember that her issues ultimately may not be about food at all, but about coping with negative feelings, stress, or anxiety.

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A therapist who specializes in and understands eating disorders is essential, even if your daughter doesn’t want to open up at first. A doctor may also consider prescribing medication, either to treat the disorder itself, or underlying issues like depression. Binge eating disorder, if that is what your daughter is struggling with, is a highly secretive disease, because those who suffer from it can feel embarrassed or ashamed of the way they are eating and their inability to control it. And shame is a paralyzing emotion, one that keeps people stuck in self-destructive patterns of behavior. In order to help your daughter recover, work on providing a neutral environment around food and bodies, where she can feel safe to receive help.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m concerned that my 13-year-old daughter has a very hard time making friends and connecting with other kids. She’s an only child and we have always made an effort to sign her up for sports, classes, etc. so that she can be with other kids her own age, but even in those situations she’s definitely a loner. She also has the added issue of being bigger than the other kids, think a 5’10” kid in a room of 5’2” kids, which doesn’t help with her being able to fit in.

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She was excited at the end of the school year to invite a few girls who she is friendly with over for a bonfire, but none of them accepted the invitation. She was disappointed by it, but didn’t seem too surprised. To be honest, it seemed that I took it harder than her. I imagined how much that would hurt me, even as an adult. She started a new school in the fall of 2019, so she’s never had a real chance to connect deeply with the other kids because of COVID. We also live in a rural area, so there aren’t opportunities for spontaneous get togethers or riding her bike over to someone’s house nearby. I feel like she is at the age where her connections with her friends are extremely important. And I want her to be able to connect with others throughout her life—especially since she doesn’t have any siblings. How can I encourage her to make stronger connections?

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— Disconnected

Dear Disconnected,

Fellow tall girl here, and you just gave me a painful flashback to towering over a classroom full of chest-high boys at that age. Still, I doubt your daughter’s height is the primary reason she’s having trouble making friends. It would help to pinpoint what is underneath your daughter’s lack of close friendships. Is she shy or socially anxious? Does she have issues expressing or regulating her emotions, which might make it difficult to connect with others? Does she struggle with social skills like knowing how to participate in a conversation and how to compromise in relationships? Figuring out the why of it will give you an idea of how you can help.

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Alternately, it’s possible that your daughter, like so many of us wonderful weirdoes, simply has a unique personality and doesn’t connect with just anyone. Some kids take longer to find their people. Or she might be an introvert who simply prefers her own company. You mention feeling more upset about the issue at times than she does. If she seems fundamentally happy and like she enjoys life, you may not want to press the issue too hard. Continue to steer her toward classes, clubs, sports, and other activities in areas that are of genuine interest to her not only because she may meet others who share those interests, but because they are fulfilling in their own right.

I also believe one of the most valuable things we can do for our kids is model a healthy social life. What is your own friendship situation? You mention living in a more isolated area – do you ever have friends over or does your daughter see you visiting or spending time with your friends? Do you have a community beyond your family unit? Are you displaying the healthy connections you want her to form? If not, showing your daughter by example the joy of friendship and of participating in a rich social life could go a long way.

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

Recently a friend of a friend’s brother, Morgan, died of cancer. Lately, I have been teaching my 6-year old daughter about death and grieving. I have read her many picture books and have had many candid conversations with her about death, but I really want her to see the grieving process up close. Is it inappropriate of me to take her to Morgan’s funeral as a learning experience?

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