My priority as a parent is to teach my kids about love. How to give love, how to receive love and how to recognize when something disguised as love isn’t love at all. We talk about self-love, too — respecting ourselves, creating boundaries and setting an example for how others should treat us.
It’s a work in progress, and I’m learning some important lessons. For starters, while I might be good at teaching my kids about love, I’m terrible at loving my own body. The kids are at the ages (8 and 10) where body image is becoming a thing. They are increasingly aware of their changing bodies, and they can work their way around the Internet (with its pervasive, distorted messaging). They pick up on everything adults say and take their peers’ comments about skinny legs and freckles more to heart now than they did a few years ago.
After years of body-shaming myself and obsessing over my weight, I decided that I would practice body positivity (often identified by #BoPo on social media), particularly with my kids. The movement is based on the idea that your body is beautiful, no matter its shape, size or number of perceived “flaws,” and that it should be lovingly accepted just as it is. Like the thousands of women proudly sharing up-close (#nofilter) pictures of their wobbly parts on Instagram, I vowed to stop complaining about my weight and moaning about my wrinkles. Instead, I would outwardly embrace every inch of myself, even the things I secretly wished were different. I would be a role model for my kids, to help them develop a healthy attitude toward their own bodies. I hoped that would lead to better emotional and physical health.
But it hasn’t happened. To raise body-positive kids, I had to love my own body, and it was too much to ask of myself. While I’m not anywhere near as dangerously self-critical as I was in my teens and 20s, I’m never going to think every part of my body is amazing, and trying to — or pretending I do — is exhausting. Being unable to pull it off caused me to beat myself up for my lack of love for my “flaws,” which only ramped up the negative feelings.
“If you’re starting from a place of feeling bad about your body, body positivity — a term that has come to be associated with loving our bodies — can sometimes feel like a difficult leap,” says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association. “Many people who struggle with poor body image and eating disorders have perfectionist traits. So it’s a vicious cycle of feeling bad about your body and then beating yourself up about not being ‘body positive’ enough.”
When I stumbled across actor Jameela Jamil’s “I Weigh” Instagram account this year, I realized there was another body image movement out there, and it was something I could really get behind. Jamil’s page is filled with images of women — and a few men — with captions sharing the things they like best about themselves. But instead of focusing on the person’s body or weight, the images celebrate other, more important aspects of their lives: family, relationships, friendships, heritage, achievements, passions and obstacles they’ve overcome. “I Weigh” has been linked to body positivity, but for me, it’s all about body neutrality: freedom from the pressure to love your body, and celebrating all that is amazing about each of us that has nothing to do with the size of our breasts or our jeans.
“The body neutrality movement is a response to the body positivity movement,” says Deborah J. Cohan, professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort. “While body positivity was well-intended — established as a way to notice, honor, appreciate and respect all body types and to eliminate fat shaming and weight-related stigma — it has not come without consequences and backlash.”
Cohan points out that apart from the difficulty of achieving body positivity for some people, the movement has also been accused of denying scientific evidence of obesity-related problems and of excluding people in marginalized bodies (body positive promoters are predominantly white and slim).
Body neutrality doesn’t mean I don’t care about my body. I still eat a balanced diet, work out and try to maintain a healthy weight. I still take pride in my appearance. But I try to have as little emotion as possible associated with my body. I try not to shame my body or to love it. It is what it is. As Cohan says, “body neutrality is about attaching less value to bodies and redirecting energy to other things.”
In terms of how I parent, it means that when my daughter complains about the freckles on her face or my son tells me a kid at school has teased him for having skinny legs, I reframe the conversation. My daughter and I talk about why some people have freckles and some don’t, and how her freckles are a cool example of something she has inherited from her dad. My son and I talk about how his legs are strong enough to win a medal at sports day and swim 200 meters in the pool. We don’t use the words “fat,” “skinny,” “thin” or “big” when we talk about our bodies. I still tell my kids they’re beautiful, but I talk just as much about qualities that aren’t related to their appearance: kindness, compassion, patience, a great sense of humor.
We also talk about how bodies come in all shapes and sizes and are meant to be diverse. I tell them it’s important to accept all parts of their bodies, even if they don’t like some of them. And I’m teaching them that the bodies they see on the Internet and in advertisements, music videos and magazines are often manipulated to look a certain way, which can make us feel insecure or inadequate.
Mysko agrees that it’s important for parents to not overvalue weight and shape. “Kids need to honor and appreciate their bodies, while also getting the consistent message that their physical appearance or a number on a scale does not define their self-worth,” she says. “Talking about bodies in terms of strength and what feels good is an important way to steer kids away from placing the emphasis on how their bodies look.”
Crucially, body neutrality is more comfortable for me than body positivity ever was. And this is at the crux of the issue: Parents have to figure out what approach is going to work for them, because that’s the approach that will work best for their kids.
Cohan suggests that parents “borrow the best that each movement has to offer” — highlighting the self-love and acceptance that is the centerpiece of the body positivity movement while being attentive to issues of diversity and inclusion, and at the same time borrowing from body neutrality in terms of directing energy and commitment to other aspects of their lives.
I don’t love every part of my body, but I value and accept it in its entirety. I do love my kids, which is why I’m teaching them that you don’t have to love your body to have a healthy relationship with it.
Claire Gillespie is a writer living in Glasgow, Scotland. Find her online at clairegillespie.contently.com.