Growing up, I was constantly compared to my super thin sister. Comments were made about the size of my thighs or how thick my ankles were. It got to the point where I wouldn’t wear shorts or dresses (though, to be fair, the dresses were truly a tomboy thing) because I didn’t want people to see my legs. Fat was a word used to describe me on countless occasions.
Not by my peers.
But by my family.
And I believed every word of it.
I was 28 years old before I realized it was a lie. I was working as a first grade teacher at a local Catholic school where a friend of mine from school also worked. My family didn’t have a lot of money growing up so I never saw any of the yearbooks from high school. As a joke, my friend brought in a photocopy of a picture of me during my tenth grade year where I dressed up like a witch for Halloween. I saw that picture tacked to the bulletin board in the office with a sign asking “Can you guess which teacher this is?” I instantly cried.
“What’s wrong?” Renee asked. “I thought it was a great costume. I didn’t even recognize you.”
“It’s not that,” I sniffled. “Look how thin I am there.”
“Well, yeah,” she said. “You were tiny in high school.”
No one had ever described me as tiny my entire life.
I sit here at 40 (almost 41) and I am beyond discouraged by what I see in the mirror, not just because I’m not what I want to be, but because there was this whole other person I denied for years all because of the words of people who were supposed to build me up. And I have to be careful what thoughts I lend voice to.
I hear friends who have daughters always tiptoeing around the issue of their own body image issues. They worry that it will rub off on their daughters and that they will start to see themselves through that warped mirror, too.
“You don’t have to worry. You have boys.”
I’m here to tell you that, just because I have sons, I don’t get a free pass. I am not only modelling the mirror through which they see themselves. They will also judge every woman in their lives by the same standards that I judge myself. If that’s not a tall order to fill, I don’t know what is.
So, how do I go from all these feelings of discouragement, anger and helplessness to being a positive role model for my sons?
First, I have to teach them what is important. My freckled skin, poker straight hair and weight do not define me to them. They have never once mentioned to me that they wish I looked differently. Mostly that is because I don’t concentrate on the physical aspects of people. Of course, I’ve told my sons that they are handsome, but I also tell them that they are hard workers, that they are smart, and that they are kind and loving.
I see that reflected back to me in their behavior when they describe their friends to me. Once, when Jimmy was five, he had accidentally taken his friend Jeffrey’s hat home with him. We raced to the school so Jeffrey could have his hat back before he went home. I had never met the kid so I hadn’t the first clue how to find him in a crowd and Jimmy was no help when I asked him.
“Well, he’s really smart,” Jimmy said.
“Okay, baby, but unless he’s carrying an ‘I’m smart’ sign, I won’t know how to find him. What does he look like?”
“Well, he has a round face and really short, dark hair. He’s also very nice, Mom.”
That’s it. That’s all he could think of to describe sweet Jeffrey to me. When we got to school, I learned that Jeffrey did, indeed, have a round face and really short, dark hair. He was a very bright and polite boy. He was also the only child in the class who happened to be black, but that fact escaped my son.
You see, he saw Jeffrey in a much different mirror than I viewed myself. As a mom, I gave him a mirror that reflects the value in people and not the superficial.
Someday, I hope I can see myself in that same mirror. I hope I can see the value in me without that horrible garbage blocking the way.