If I love my body at 40, will she love hers at 14?

I am the mother of two daughters. My older daughter is drifting slowly toward puberty. The groovy girl dolls have been kicked to the curb. Some girls in the 5th grade are “into” boys, and are “going out” with them. I hear they are talking about “very inappropriate things” that they apparently learned on Glee.

Not coincidentally, I am turning 40 in a few weeks. This means, inevitably, that my body looks different than it did when I was, uh, 20. I’ve been thinking about that lately. Not always in an “I-embrace-my-beautiful-body” kind of a way.

Reading Dianne Neumark-Sztainer’s research (and her book, “I’m, Like, SO Fat!” which I highly recommend) made me realize that there is a connection between these things: Daughters tend to start puberty when their mothers are becoming middle-aged. I’m done being pregnant, and my body has changed because of that.

My daughter and her friends are watching my friends and me intensely right now. How do we talk about changes that are occurring in our own bodies? Are we accepting and appreciative of them? Do we celebrate their beauty?

Recently one of my daughter’s classmates announced that she is going to give up wheat and all animal products. Her reasons vary when you ask her why, but her mom has made these changes, too, in an effort to lose weight. The daughter has now given up everything she used to eat regularly, save a few fruits and vegetables. If she is trying to lose weight, she’s joining the one-third of 5th grade girls in the U.S. who report that they have dieted. ONE-THIRD OF TEN YEAR OLDS.

I’m not suggesting that we mothers should shoulder all the blame for why half our girls hate their bodies (which is about how many teenage girls, statistically, say they are very dissatisfied with their body). The media is an overwhelmingly pernicious force.  Do your kids know that the images they see of women in ads are never real?

We parents need to help our children “re-envision beauty as a creative, dynamic process,” as Connie Sobczak, co-founder of The Body Positive, says. This means embracing and welcoming ways that our bodies change during both puberty and middle age.

What is really at stake here? Why is body image so important?  Obesity and eating disorders are caused by a host of interacting factors; body image is among the most important of them. Self-hatred—which is what intensely disliking your body is—is not a happiness habit.  It is also not a path to optimal health, be it physical or mental.

If girls are to accept the ways that their bodies change during puberty, they need to understand that it is natural for bodies to change over time. I used to be skinny. My stomach was flat. Now, my belly and hips are rounded in a way that is decidedly maternal. I’m not complaining or saying I’m fat; I’m just noticing and trying to embrace the fact that I look like a mom, not a beach-bound movie-star.

There are no big media companies out there pushing the message that maternal is beautiful (or even acceptable).  But it is, of course. Maternity is the greatest blessing of my life. Any and all evidence of it is truly gorgeous, and cause for celebration.

So I am now, officially, making an effort to curb my negative comments about the ways that my body is changing as I age. This includes comments about the wrinkles on my forehead, which really become pronounced when I’m excited, earning me the nick-name “thread head.” I am proud to share this nickname with my dad, who has the same threads on his jar-head.

I think it is hard to embrace this sort of self-love, given the messages all around us. I don’t know men who prefer women with mom-bodies over Hollywood bodies, or women who truly and simply love themselves just as they are. But we need to be—or become—these aging-mom-body-loving women and men, both for our own mental health and the health of our families.

When we cultivate self-love (which is one of the cornerstones of The Body Positive’s program), we are better able to make healthy choices about how we feed and care for our bodies. I’m hoping my pre-teen daughter and her friends have the self-love they will need to make healthy choices around food and exercise, as well as about how they use their bodies as they explore what it means to be “into boys”. Their health and happiness—not just their weight or their appearance—are at stake.

The more we love our bodies, the better we are at nourishing them, physically and psychologically. And when we do that, we open up the possibility for true happiness in our bodies, whether they are changing or not.

 

A sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Christine Carter, Ph.D. is the author of RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. Dr. Carter also writes a blog for Greater Good, which is syndicated on the Huffington Post and PsychologyToday.com. Carter has helped thousands of parents find more joy in their parenting while raising happy, successful and resilient kids. Known for her parenting and relationship advice, Carter draws on psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and uses her own chaotic and often hilarious real-world adventures as a mom to demonstrate the do’s and don’ts in action.