I knew it would happen sooner or later. Kids are curious and vocal, so I can’t say I was super surprised by the question my five-year-old posed to another mom after story time.
“Do you have a baby in your belly?”
She clearly didn’t. I mean, she was wearing an empire waist dress, but she was obviously not pregnant. Also, we’ve got a hard and fast rule about saving your questions/comments about other people’s bodies until we’re in a private place.
The mom (a new and wonderful friend even after the comment, thank goodness) brushed it off with a self deprecating comment about how her belly was just “big” – she’s got a body I totally envy, by the way – and we got on with our conversation. It really wasn’t a big deal, except it was. It is a big deal.
Body image is a huge deal to me, something I desperately want to get right with my kids. I know without a shadow of a doubt that these little souls in my care are completely and utterly beloved by their Creator. I believe that more than I believe almost anything else in the whole world. They are glorious creatures and I will fight to the death for them to know that and hold it as truth deep within themselves.
I feel like I’m in a losing fight, though. I mean, I’m just one person and these sweet babies are living in a broken world, a twisted system that has been screaming the opposite from the moment they were born. My five-year-old girl has already been so inundated with labels, and appearance, and the importance of prettiness…it’s second nature to her and to me, too, if I’m honest.
I also feel like I’m up against a ticking clock. Right now, these kids take my word for Gospel. But that window is rapidly closing and we all know the day will come when my opinion won’t count half as much as the opinions of their peers. And I get that it’s just the way it goes.
I’m also very aware of politeness. I mean, it’s generally pretty rude to make comments about people’s appearance. And the Southerner in me is horrified by the thought of having impolite children.
But, after the episode at the library, I couldn’t bring myself to chastise my daughter because I really didn’t feel that she’d done anything wrong. I refuse to squelch her curiosity and I felt like the whole thing was more of an issue of tact than anything else. Honestly, I had no idea how to broach the subject with her.
Because the whole damn thing is a catch 22, isn’t it? At our house we believe that all humans deserve dignity and respect because they are creations of God. We believe that all bodies are worthy of respect…big, fat, tall, skinny, whatever. Those are descriptors. All bodies are valuable and, because of that value, they are beautiful. But we also believe that words have power. So, even though I know the word “fat” is just a descriptor, and even though I know that I am fat and most days I’m okay with that because the word “fat” in no way negates my value as a human, I also know we’re functioning in a broken system. I can’t very well teach my kids that words like “fat” are just descriptors and send them out to the playground. The first time they describe someone as “fat,” they’ll be accused of being mean and that’ll leave them so confused and hurt.
So what do I do? How do I teach my daughter to love her body and to recognize all bodies as valuable and worthy of love in a world that won’t play ball?
I stewed over this for weeks and finally called my best friend who gave me some good advice, ’cause that’s what brilliant best friends do. Acknowledging the weird double-standard of the situation, we agreed that my aforementioned rule of “don’t talk about people’s bodies until we’re in a private place,” should stand. And then she suggested that I give the kids some options. And it’s brilliant. In my experience, children respond better to alternatives than to just being told to say or do nothing. Teaching kids methods of self soothing as an alternative to violent outbursts is far more successful than just telling them not to get mad, for example. Also, I don’t like the idea of children internalizing things and not being allowed to ask questions. We need more question askers in my opinion.
So, instead of saying, “Is there a baby in your belly?” my daughter can say, “I love the happy colors in your dress,” and then feel free to ask me about the baby thing when we’re one-on-one.When I discussed it later with the kids, it went a little something like this,
We know that it doesn’t matter what you look like, a person’s heart is what makes them beautiful. But not everybody knows that. Sometimes people believe that you have to look a certain way to be beautiful or people sometimes think that there’s something wrong with their bodies. And it seems kind of silly to us because we know that that’s not true, but those people are confused and it makes them sad to talk about their bodies. We always want people to feel loved when they’re with us, so we don’t talk about things that might make them sad or hurt their feelings. If you have a question about someone’s body or how they look, that’s totally fine, but wait until we’re alone and then you can ask me about it without being rude.
And then I gave them some options of what to say instead.
“I love the way your eyes look when you smile.”
“I like your purple shirt; that’s one of my favorite colors!”
“You look really strong/happy/joyful/healthy today.”
“I really like playing with you; you’ve got great dance moves.”
I also think it’s important to consider how to compliment and comment on the person rather than just their appearance.There was a fantastic article by Sarah Powers in the Washington Post on how to compliment little girls that addresses this really, really well. Haley over at Carrots for Michaelmas also has a good post on how to nurture a positive self-image in our girls.
While I certainly haven’t solved the world’s body image issues here, I think I’ve found a solution that will work for our family. We’ve practiced what we might say in certain social situations, but I’m not naive enough to believe that there won’t be more awkward gaffes in our future. And that’s cool because that’s how we learn. Ultimately I just want to raise some decent humans who make other humans feel decent, too.
What are your thoughts on teaching young kids about body image and respecting others? How would you have handled the situation? Lemme know!