I’m a mom of three boys, 8-year old twins and 23-month old Jax. I’m a conscientious parent. I research issues before making important parenting decisions; I buy organic; I cook from scratch. When praising my boys I comment on their effort and not their intellect. I choose my words carefully because I know that words matter and that kids can decipher the meaning behind the verbiage. But not until recently have I considered how my own body image might impact my boys’ view and treatment of women.
Of course, as a mom of boys, I have the responsibility to teach them to respect women. I know this. Because my husband and I chose traditional roles (see Momma You Matter for that back story), we’ve been very conscientious about teaching our sons that women play important roles and do amazing work both in and outside of the home. While I spend most of my time at home with my children, I emphasize the importance of my work as a college professor and the value of what we provide families through Jax in the Box. We talk about women as leaders, as strong athletes, as fully capable.
But a recent experience prompted me to consider the impact my own body image has on my boys’ perception of women. Intellectually I know that young girls are bombarded by media messages about how their bodies should look, what they should wear, and that the combination of these things contributes to their perception of their value in the world. But, I have boys, and these issues just weren’t on my front burner. Until last weekend. A longtime friend was commenting that his very average sized 10-year old daughter was acutely aware of her body size and appearance. That got me thinking about what contributes to these little girls’ body image issues — and what my role might be.
If I’m going to be honest, I have to admit that I talk about my body in front of my boys, and usually not in a positive way. I don’t do it often, and I don’t dwell on it. But, after my third baby, my body isn’t the same (and probably never will be), and that’s been a hard pill for me to swallow. So, I ask my whole family if my outfit looks okay, and I roll my eyes when, at the end of the day, my distended belly (due to diastatis recti from pregnancy) makes me look as if I’m still pregnant.
Like many women, I’ve been conscientious about my body for well over half my life. I’ve never been overweight (save the freshman 15 I was carrying briefly as an undergrad) — I’m just short with a Mary Lou Retton shape (big thighs, short legs, short torso). And that’s the point here: I’ve never been overweight. But somewhere along the line I got the message that I should be skinnier and prettier. That if I accomplished that, I would be a better, more valuable person. Age and maturity have quieted those messages to be sure. But, I believe I can do more to prevent your daughters from internalizing these messages through my words and actions in the presence of my sons. To that end, these are my promises to your daughters.
I promise to emphasize health over body size.
Healthy comes in all shapes and sizes. We talk a lot about making healthy choices in our house — about eating whole, healthy foods and getting plenty of exercise. But I promise to talk less about how healthy choices prevent us from being overweight, and more about how good choices lead to better overall emotional and physical health. I’ll talk about endorphins being released in our brains, about decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes, because I don’t want my boys looking at your healthy daughters and making the assumption they make poor food choices because they don’t fit their friends’ or the media’s criteria of skinny.
I promise to stop talking about my dissatisfaction with my body in front of my boys.
Because really, I have little to complain about. But, our culture reminds me often that I’m not perfect and I allow that to get to me. I don’t want my boys to learn that a flat stomach, a cinched waistband, and a number on the scale is what women should strive for. I will talk about how strong I am. About how far and fast my legs carry me on my daily runs. About how strong my arms are from lifting their baby brother. I want my boys to grow up being attracted to women who are proud of what their bodies are capable of and less concerned about their size.
I promise to dress respectably and in ways that do not emphasize female sexuality.
This one isn’t a stretch for me, but I commit to being more conscientious of my choices. While I don’t deny that God intentionally made us with attractive curves, I think that grown women do a disservice to young boys and girls when we dress in ways that intentionally draw attention to our bodies. Now, I wear swimsuits (and would even wear a bikini if I were confident enough), “skinny” jeans and tailored jackets — I’m not over the top here. But, I promise to provide a model of tasteful, respectable dress so my sons won’t expect your daughters to dress in ways that compromise their true value by drawing attention to their physical bodies and detracting from their inner beauty.
I promise to talk about your daughter’s character and not her appearance.
Instead of commenting that my sons’ girlfriends are “cute,” I’ll emphasize their mature character, strong value system, and achievement motivation. In doing so, I’ll model to my boys that character and behavior matter first and foremost. I’m not naive; I know that looks are part of what attract people to each other. But I want to teach my boys to look first for your daughter’s enduring characteristics that have eternal value versus fleeting attributes like physical beauty.
I promise to model a strong, healthy marital relationship.
Because my sons will someday be your daughters’ husbands, I commit to modeling a marriage based on mutual respect. While my husband and I are affectionate in front of our kids, their dad emphasizes my character above my physical attributes in front of them. He says things like, “look how well your mom takes care of us” way more often than “doesn’t your mom look nice today?” While I think both comments are indicative of a healthy marriage, I want your daughters’ value and security in their relationships with my sons to be tied to things other than the current state of their physical body.
Men affect how women view themselves and their bodies. I am raising my boys to become men and have a role to play in the impact they have on your daughters’ body image. My promise to you is to take that role seriously.