"Mom, am I fat?" The words hit you with a thud. And these days, they're coming earlier in a child's life. I haven't heard them yet (thank God) from my 2-year-old daughter, Toby. But I'm doing everything in my power to prevent her from ever asking that question.
For me, it's a special challenge. Early on, I remember my mother, who was always on one diet or another, constantly talking about weight and tugging at her sides in front of the mirror. "I hope you never get these," she would say to me. My stepfather, whom she married when I was 6, was heavy and had struggled with his weight all his life. And he projected that onto me. If I wanted seconds, for example, it was an issue. One time, when I was given a grilled cheese sandwich, I remember saying, "I am so starving; can I have one more?" My mom responded, "I have to ask your dad." I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
When I was 12, my stepfather asked me to strip down to my underwear, and he said he was going to show me where my potential problem spots were going to be. He drew on the outside of my thighs with a black pen where my saddlebags are, then my upper hip. When he went for my stomach, I said, "Stop!" and ran out of the room. I can't even describe that kind of violation.
The number-one thing I don't want to do with Toby is show her I care in those ways. I must teach her, through my own example, how to live an active life; how to eat a healthy diet with more whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables; and how to love her body. Here's how I do it.
I do feed Toby everything: When we eat at home, there is always a variety of foods available to Toby. I enjoy showing her how much fun it is to taste new foods. Just the other night, my husband, Phil, who works with me on the creative end of my entertainment company, and I were having dinner on the porch with Toby. I gave her meatballs, string beans with crushed almonds on top, and fish sticks. On my plate, I had an organic chicken sausage. She got out of her seat, came over to mine, and asked me for some of my sausage. It was a whole new discovery for her. She loved it!
I don't push Toby to join the Clean Plate Club: The club has been passed down from parent to child for generations. Not in our house. There are times when Toby is voraciously hungry, and there are times when she's not. I want to give her the opportunity to tell me when she wants to eat. So I ask, "Is your tummy rumbling?"
I do make sure we stay active together: We ride our bikes a lot. Toby goes on hikes with us. We love to jump around in the snow. We're active not because we want to burn calories but simply because we love getting out there and playing. If we lead a fun, active lifestyle now, Toby will take that with her as she grows older.
I don't hide my body: Because it's taken me years to be comfortable in my birthday suit, I intend to pass along my feelings of freedom to Toby so that my past issues don't become hers. Now after a shower or a bath, I don't run and hide. When I'm naked, I'm naked; I don't make an issue about it. Toby will often come up to me and rub my belly. And then I say she has a sweet belly too. I don't point out that mine is bigger than hers. I'm trying to show my daughter that my curvaceous body makes me feel blessed.
I do massage her: When I change Toby's diaper or wash her, I speak about her body in affirming ways. It doesn't matter where we are. Even if we're out and she gets cranky, I take a moment to massage her little feet.
I often fantasize about bottling up Toby's jubilant positive body image at age 2 in order to offer it back to her at 5, 7, 10, 12, 14, and 16 years old, when the power of peer pressure could easily lure her into believing that her body isn't beautiful just the way it is. While that isn't possible, I'm trying to concentrate on what I can do for my daughter in the present: working every day at passing along the body confidence it took me decades to discover.
Emme is the co-author of Life's Little Emergencies (St. Martin's Press). She is also the host of Fashion Emergency on E!, and she has modeled for Mode, Redbook, Liz Claiborne, and Ralph Lauren. Emme lives in northern New Jersey.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the February 2004 issue of Child magazine.