Unlike a lot of parents I’ve talked to, I am not afraid of Bean’s Teen Years. I’ve spent my entire adulthood working with adolescents in some capacity or another, and I’m confident that I can support my daughter as she navigates the complexities of high school, peer pressure, setting goals for her future, and making smart choices. My husband and I have both made our share of dumbass choices as teenagers (sneaking out past curfew and “borrowing” my boyfriend’s parents’ car to do donuts in a school parking lot during a snowstorm, for example), but overall we did things that were good for ourselves and the community, treated people with respect, and avoided risky behaviors like unprotected sex or binge drinking.
But if there is one thing that made my teen years (and beyond!) emotionally or psychologically difficult, it was my relationship with my body. I hated my weight, my hair, my clumsiness, everything. Since I never had any body-positive role models as a kid or teenager, I never talked to anyone about how terrible I felt. It wasn’t until I became more seriously involved in feminism that I started to fully love and embrace my body.
I don’t want that for my sweet Bean. Anyone who has raised a child knows what I mean when I say my daughter is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. Just the thought of her growing up thinking “I’m ugly” makes me tear up. And the fact that little girls are having negative body images at younger and younger ages is frightening to me.
So from the moment I knew I was pregnant, I’ve been intentional about body-positive parenting.
I wrote about this a little bit in my Queer Parenting post last month, but today I want to get more in-depth about this subject. Not only has BodyPos parenting been good for Bean, but it’s also helped me feel confident again after pregnancy, PMDD, and medication all left their own marks on my body. Plus, body positivity helps me be a better special educator, one whose students with physical disabilities can feel comfortable and confident in their unique bodies.
Much like the queer parenting entry, I’ll divide this one up into a few big habits for easy reading. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so please share your own BodyPos tips in the comments!
Habit #1: Body-Positive Media
Historically, there hasn’t been a whole lot of children’s media featuring characters who have – let alone enjoy – diverse bodies. Fat characters are often ridiculed (seriously, Peppa Pig, leave Daddy Pig’s wonderfully round tummy alone) or are rewarded for losing weight. Disabled characters are typically shown as conventionally attractive people who happen to use a wheelchair, and/or are the subject of “inspiration porn.” And we’re all familiar with the old trope of evil characters being ugly and good characters being beautiful (*coughcough* Wizard of Oz) – or even worse, an ugly character being redeemed through a makeover.
But this is changing! Books like I Love My Hair encourage Black girls to love their natural hair; El Deafo (for middle grade readers) tells a story of struggle, self-acceptance, and confidence after acquiring a disability; Morris Mickelwhite gently affirms a little boy who wears dresses. Another book we read regularly is Brontorina (pictured above), the story of an Apatosaurus who dreams of being a ballerina. Although she is a wonderful dancer and her classmates are enthusiastic about her involvement, her long neck and tail cause a lot of problems in the studio. She’s told she is “too big” to be a ballerina – until a classmate’s mom gifts her a dino-sized pair of ballet slippers, and everyone realizes that there’s no such thing as too big to dance. That featured page brought me to tears the first time I read it.
For TV time, I particularly love Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. They have multiple episodes that focus on loving and caring for yourself. In Same and Different, we meet the character Chrissie, an elementary-age girl who uses crutches to walk. Her disability is discussed matter-of-factly and in positive terms, without any “oh how inspiring” foolishness. And for the rest of the series, Chrissie is just another character doing cool stuff, like riding horses and volunteering in Daniel’s class. Daniel Tiger episodes address body image and physical differences, the emotions associated with changing our appearance, and ways we take care of our bodies (more on that later!).
Bean isn’t much of a movie person, but if we can get her to watch a movie it’s usually a Miyazaki movie. Fine by me! Studio Ghibli films feature strong heroines, healthy family dynamics, and loving elders. Bean’s absolute favorite is Ponyo, in which a little goldfish uses magic to become a little girl and join her friend Sosuke. I mention it here because in one scene, Ponyo describes her mother (who is some kind of goddess of the oceans, I think? It’s never really explained) as “big and BEAUTIFUL!!!!” This is now a rallying cry in this house. Not only is it super adorable when Bean yells it as she looks in the mirror, but it also helps ME feel big and beautiful, too.
We also listen to affirming music. Bean loves music, and we have family dance parties on the reg. One favorite around here is Laura Mvula. Here, get yourself some of this black girl magic:
I’m so glad that I get to share music like this with Bean! Music in which women express pride in being themselves? Videos in which people of color are depicted as diverse and happy? What more could a body-pos mama ask for? If I’m having a tough day, I’ll play this song and dance around the living room with my precious daughter, and everything will feel right in the world.
Habit #2: Self-Care and Healthy Habits
Like a lot of parents with multiple responsibilities to juggle, it can be a struggle for Miles and I to make time for exercise and other kinds of self-care. But we absolutely get active as a family! We go for nature walks and hikes. We run around the park or play on the playground together. Visits to our favorite swimming hole are regular weekend outings in summer, and when the weather’s crappy we’ll visit the trampoline park. So while Bean’s mommy isn’t a half-marathon runner any more, she still sets an example for having FUN while being active! A fun and varied exercise routine is a great way to LOVE our bodies, and I want to pass that on to Bean.
Healthy habits are also set at the dinner table. But before I give any advice, you should know that I never really have to try very hard at this. Karma says I totally deserved a picky kid, aand yet Bean is the least picky eater I have ever met (she asked for a salad for dinner tonight, and will gladly nosh on banana peppers and miso soup. I lived on applesauce and turkey dogs for like 4 years. What even is this superhuman who eats beet pesto?). I take no credit for this awesomeness. I just do my best to do the things that doctors and health counselors say instill positive eating habits and protect against disordered relationships with food down the road.
But self-care is not just about whether we exercise and eat right! It’s also about hygiene, internal wellness, sleep, and mental well-being. We talk about all of these as being ways to love our bodies and selves. If Bean’s battling bedtime, my first response is “you’ve had a big day, and your body needs lots of good rest so you’ll have energy to play tomorrow.” I take medication for my anxiety and PMDD, and make no efforts to conceal this from Bean (or anyone). My medication helps me. Counseling helps my husband. Bean is growing up knowing that caring for our mental health and finding safe, responsible, and positive ways to cope with emotional distress is a way we love ourselves.
Habit #3: What we say… and don’t say.
I saw a meme on Pinterest once that said “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I don’t know if I believe that entirely (even though I sound like my mom a lot, I don’t exactly hear her in my head), but just in case it’s true, I’m doin’ my best to be a kind and affirming voice.
This is hard, because as you may have noticed in last week’s post, I am a deeply sarcastic and snarky person. And while I hope that Bean grows up with a wicked sense of a humor and a love for cynical comedy, three years old is proooobably a little too young to instill such values.
So we try to limit Body Talk around the house. We talk about healthy habits. We talk about self-love. We talk about clothes and nail polish (I’m not a makeup person but omg I love nail art) and hairstyles as options for making our bodies look how we want. We look at photos of ourselves and say how great we look. But we don’t make value judgments about bodies because being attractive/thin/nondisabled/feminine/etc is not a moral imperative. We don’t point out “funny looking” people. We don’t complain about our self-image around Bean. And we never talk about size and fitness as if they are related.
This has gotten tougher lately. If you didn’t realize, three year olds ask a lot of questions. Questions that were easy to answer (“Mommy, why do you have breasts?”) have been replaced with more uncomfortable ones: “Daddy, why do you have long hairs in your ears?” or “Mommy, why do you have a big tummy?” We don’t like these questions very much (hey, everyone’s got their insecurities), so we’re teaching Bean to ask if it’s okay to have Body Talk. When she comments on our looks or bodies, we say, “That’s Body Talk, hun. Remember to ask if it’s okay to have Body Talk before you ask a question like that.” She’s pretty good about asking first these days, and OMGGGG is that a relief! It’s one thing to ask Daddy why he’s hairy, but it’s another thing to ask a friend who used to self-harm why her legs have so many scars — or even worse, walk up to someone in the grocery store and demand “WHY ARE YOU SO UGLY?” (Yup. Someone did this when she was 3. Was it me? I plead the 5th.)
Habit #4 (Say it in a Tina Belcher voice): Butts
Bean will often ask for “naked butt time,” especially on days when she’s had a couple of potty accidents. Unless someone besides me and Miles is in the house, Bean is allowed to wear as much or as little as she wants. It’s her house. Why should she be forbidden from going nude in her own home?
Bean has seen my naked body as well. Who hasn’t gotten out of the shower only to realize all their clean underwear is still in the dryer? Or been stopped in the middle of getting dressed because you heard your toddler climbing furniture? Who doesn’t wake up and decide pants are for the birds? Point is: Nudity happens. Sometimes it feels nice to be naked. It’s all good. As long as we don’t touch! Consent is a big deal; we do not touch each other’s bodies (especially naked ones) without asking.
That said, there are many times when we do not go nude. Naked butt time is not appropriate around dinner guests. Droppin’ trou in the middle of the busiest park in town is ill-advised. But we can stop those things without body-shaming! My go-to line is “our bodies belong to ourselves. Not everyone deserves to see our naked butts.”
Cuz damn if that ain’t right. Y’all can’t HANDLE our fabulous heinies!
Habit #5: Selfies, and lots of ’em
What parent doesn’t take a million snaps of their kiddo? Bean loves it when we take pictures, and I love taking them with her. Selfies are such a fun way for us to enjoy our image. We make silly faces. I make unflattering poses. And we have a blast being ourselves. Isn’t that what body positivity is for?