One of the things that I admire the most about my youngest, that I’m sometimes a bit jealous of, is her self esteem. There are times when it can border on arrogance, cute at six years old, potentially problematic as she gets older, but better than the alternative. Multiple studies have shown that seven out of ten teenage girls have a negative view of themselves, believe that they don’t measure up to how they perceive that they should be. Once formed these feelings of inadequacy are difficult to dispel. Despite our best efforts it’s something that I know the teenager has struggled with at times, something that I had vowed to try and do a better job of identifying earlier if her sister ever felt the same.
What I hadn’t realized is at how young of an age I needed to start my vigilance.
Many times these self image problems revolve around weight. Not actual weight, but how the individual perceives his or her body image and shape versus what they believe it should be. When I was sixteen I hated taking my shirt off at the beach because my ribs showed, ten years ago I would have hesitated because of my massive beer belly. I’m thirty pounds lighter than I was then but last year my daughter still asked when she was going to grow boobs like I had. I think it’s a struggle that many of us can understand.
I can understand it, but I was still shocked and saddened last week when the six year old asked if she could go down into the basement and use the exercise equipment there. She wanted to exercise not because she wanted to wanted to jump around with a calisthenic routine on the Wii or practice her ninja moves on the heavy bag, but because she wanted to lose weight.
My daughter is not a small girl. She’s not fat, actually is very healthy. She plays sports, hikes, rides her bike. We try and encourage physical activity and healthy eating as much as possible. When two of her friends came over this weekend, I was very pleased that they spent three of the four play date hours outside.
We try, but the fact is that this kid loves to eat. She had rotisserie chicken, potatoes, and apple for dinner tonight, but the amount of each that she had was both concerning and somewhat impressive.
She doesn’t think that she is fat, is not yet burdened by insecurity or a desire to meet society’s standards. She wants to lose weight, but also to gain muscle mass in her arms, the better to carry her body weight across the monkey bars, one final playground challenge that she has yet to conquer.
She doesn’t think that, and it’s my job to try and keep it that way. My job to encourage exercise and smart food choices, but also self-acceptance and confidence. It’s a job that starts much earlier than I realized it would.