Shaping Our Shadows: The Power of a Parent

We found ourselves established into a new “old,” routine one month at our new duty station. We dealt with the usual not sleeping through the night, getting to know our new surroundings learning process, but nothing seemed terribly amiss.

On a Tuesday in September, my 6-year-old walked to greet me after school with a less than jubilant spring in her step. I asked her about her day, hoping to discover the source for her discontent but nothing out of the ordinary was discussed. We went home and while carrying a basket of laundry to put away I heard a faint sob from her room. I went in and hugged a visibly hurt little girl. Almost immediately she asked me, “Can I please wear a dress to school tomorrow?” Confused I said, “Yes, of course, but why are you sad?”

The next two minutes would have a lasting imprint on my thoughts. “Because when I wear pants with a button (jeans), sometimes my belly hangs over when I sit down at my desk…pretty girls don’t have belly lumps. Dresses don’t let everyone see my lump.”

Immediately my heart filled with sadness and rage…a bully. I’ve never had to deal with a bully, but I felt the textbook rage and urge to show up on the principal’s doorstep. “Who told you about belly lumps?” I asked her.

“You did mom,” she said between breaths.

Mirror Positivity

We call the them the prized chameleons of our military life. The doers and builders of tomorrow, for they already have been so adequately challenged and proven. They accept and find ways to thrive in a life they did not choose, all while adjusting to circumstances and challenges that many others will never face. They are our future and our legacy. They are our military children.

We as parents are well aware of the challenges they face. There are the obvious obstacles — deployments, separation from one or both parents, the heartache of leaving friends and family for a new duty station, and many others that exist in conjunction with this military life. And then there are the silent hardships.

According to research compiled by Common Sense Media, a child advocacy group, the age at which children begin to be concerned with their body image can begin as young as 5 years old. Seeta Pai, vice president of research at Common Sense Media relayed that, “Kids as young as 5 are already expressing a desire for a body that is thinner than their current self or future self.”

The ideology that children are beginning to express concern about how they and others view their bodies may seem quite extreme. After all, we as caregivers have almost total control over the information to which children are exposed. In such circumstances, the old saying, “Eliminate the source, eliminate the threat,” seems to apply unless we, or rather our examples, are the key source for how our children model their own body image.

After talking with my daughter, I realized the discomfort and concern I voiced about my own body were highly reflective about how she illustrated what is and what isn’t desired for any given person’s body type. Immediately thoughts of me changing outfit after outfit, asking my husband if a particular part of my body looked “big” in a number of different outfits, or simply expressing out loud an insecurity I saw while glancing at myself in the mirror, replayed in my mind. She was watching. She was listening.

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I began to tell her how beautiful she was just the way she was. Did she believe me? Would I believe me? Suddenly my superficial struggles were put in their place. A very defining moment occurred for me in the room of a very sad little girl on that Tuesday.

First and foremost, I could no longer preach acceptance and embracing uniqueness if I was not doing those things myself.

Secondly, I now realized how negatively I viewed the service, maintenance and upkeep of my body. I never realized my negative habits were mirrored by children. It had to stop.

Practice What You Preach

Dr. Jamie Howard, Director of the Stress and Resilience Program at Child Mind Institute stated that, “No one is more influential to children than their parents, which makes it critically important that parents teach children that happiness and self-esteem come from being healthy, not from fitting the advertising industry’s mold.” Dr. Howard then went on to identify three key practices parents should adopt to help their children develop a personal positive and healthy body image.

1. Model a healthy self-image

Dr. Howard reinforces  the importance of what I learned from the very telling conversation with my daughter. Body shaming is not a title most of us would attribute to our comments concerning our bulges and muffin tops, but such remarks are the very definition of the term. If our children hear only negative comments about our own bodies they will most likely pick up the same deprecating self-talk.

Instead we should try to take accountability for the condition of our own bodies by expressing change in a positive light. For example: “I’m going to sign up for the next company fun run. Running makes me feel like I have more energy.” We can also verbalize a healthy thought process. For example: “I ate a cheeseburger for lunch so I need make sure I eat vegetables and fruits for dinner.” Thinking out loud in a positive light will help our children model their thoughts in a similar fashion.

2. Embrace diversity in body shapes and sizes

This practice may prove to be our most challenging task. In a world where Disney princesses are seen as the standard for beauty, our children may have a difficult time embracing that the term “beautiful” is very inclusive.

We reaffirm this notion by simply pointing out all of the unrealistic portrayals of characters they see in their favorite television show or movie. We can give real life examples of people we know personally who range in size. We can explain that everyone has a different body type and, consequently, everyone has a different maintenance goal. What is good for one person may be unhealthy for another. Making these comparisons can help our children identify their body type and create a healthy goal to maintain.

3. Focus on health and wellness and less on fear and deprivation

Dr. Howard states, “It’s most effective to tell (children) what to do instead of what not to do.” This ideology suggests positively reinforcing how good something is for us will be more constructive than making a list of foods that will make us fat. Introducing the thought that moderation and balance are important aspects that should govern our health journeys is a great lesson for our children to learn. Educating our children on the effects of our choices in a positive light is key to the success for helping our children build a positive foundation of healthy attitudes.

As caregivers we are trusted with the tasks of helping our children navigate their paths through this ever complicated military life. We must adopt the “practice what we preach” attitude. Our examples will be the ever-guiding light to how our milkids view themselves. This should empower us and drive us to be more self-accepting, all while challenging ourselves to reinforce positive constructs. Doing so will not only cause us to be more positive, but it will lay a foundation for our children to remain positive and accepting of themselves.

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