What my daughter taught me about body image


Photo: Getty Images. Posed by model.

Sometimes the best advice about body image, exercise and diet comes from people who are complete amateurs. Forget doctors, diet book authors and body image gurus. If you want pure, unencumbered joy and pride in your body, then just watch a four-year-old child.

While body hatred has become widespread for adult women — and increasingly men — we only need to look at children to know the difference between what’s natural and what’s culturally imposed nonsense.

On that note, this is what my daughter has taught me about my body.

1. You can observe differences in people’s bodies without it being a judgment about their characters


The other day my daughter Violet commented that my bottom was too big for the toilet seat.

As you might imagine, I was horrified by the statement. Then I realised that she was merely observing that, unlike her bottom that almost falls through the hole in the seat, my bottom does indeed protrude over the sides.

Similarly, when she asks something like ‘Why is that man fat?’, as she did while standing in the bank queue recently, she was expressing the same level of curiosity as if she were to ask why he was wearing a red t-shirt.

Fortunately, having learned from the toilet seat experience, I was ready with a response. "Everyone is different," I told her. "Just as people have different heights and different skin colour, they are also different weights."

And, having yet to be poisoned by our fat-phobic society, that was all the explanation she required.

Children notice differences in people's bodies and appearance but we’re the ones who teach them to attribute value judgments to those differences. When we teach them to judge other people, we are also training them to judge themselves. 


2. Children move because they want to, not because they feel they must

Dancing, running, skipping, climbing. If there’s an opportunity for Violet to move her body, she will.

Unlike most adults, she doesn’t exercise for instrumental reasons; because she needs to burn off the piece of cake she just ate, for example or because she wants to fit into her skinny jeans. Exercise for children isn’t about calculating calories. It’s just inherently enjoyable.

I can’t remember the exact day that exercise became a punishment and therefore stopped being fun for me. But I do remember all those times I sat on the sidelines and watched rather than played.

Watching Violet I’ve learned to enjoy moving again for no other reason than I can.


3. Children are continually amazed at their bodies 

Children love being naked, and marveling at how their bodies are growing. They’re fascinated at all the things their bodies can do, and when they look in the mirror they are proud and awe-struck by what they see.

There’s no pinching or poking bits of skin, or grimacing at how poorly they fail to measure up to some external standard of beauty. Violet doesn’t want anyone else’s’ body — or body part for that matter — other than her own.

The idea of wanting Pippa’s bum, Angelina’s lips or Miranda Kerr’s legs would set her off into excited giggles at the silliness of wanting such a thing.

It is liberating and soothing to remind myself that "you get what you get and you don’t get upset".


4. Children dress for their own enjoyment rather than to impress others

While many children have very firm opinions about what they want to wear, they are often oblivious to dressing up to please other people.

Violet dresses for herself. Often she’ll wear her best dress to bed for no other reason than she likes it. And quite often she’ll wake in the morning wearing a different outfit than the one she wore to bed.

While most of us would think that there’s no point wearing a nice dress if nobody else is going to see it, children are oblivious to being watched or judged.

They know fashion should be about individual play and creative expression rather than seeking the approval of others or conforming to a certain style.


5. Children are in tune with their natural appetite

While breastfeeding I was repeatedly told that babies can self-regulate their appetites. We trust babies to feed when they are hungry and stop feeding when they are full.

But as soon as they start on solids, adult ‘experts’ teach children that they are not capable of regulating their own bodies at all. We demand that they eat just one more spoonful, shoveling in the mashed up vegetables even though the child is clearly communicating they don’t want any more.

As they age we tell them they need to eat all their dinner before they get desert or if we think they have eaten more than the recommended quantity we will deny them food even when they tell us they are hungry.

Before long, parents are replaced by magazines and diet books as the gatekeepers of appetite, and like us, children start eating according to external rules or emotional factors and forget how to read their own hunger and full signals.

Perhaps it’s time we realised that we had it right the first time round and we need to learn to listen to our bodies again in order to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full.


Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 30-Something and Over It and 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking. www.kaseyedwards.com


4 comments so far

  • Thanks for the article. I agree with you and my two preschoolers certainly relish their bodies and what they can do. I heard it described as "being your body". What struck me was how young kids are when they start to be influenced by what they 'should' do. Around two, my eldest was hyper-aware of the colours she should wear, brands (like Dora) and had a idea that some things were "boys things". It didn't come from home as we've always been very neutral on this stuff and avoided passing judgement either way, but the influence of childcare, extended family and no doubt some tv, was significant at such a young age. It drives me crazy how many Australians say things like "boys are so different from girls" usually not long after complimenting a boy for being so strong and a girl for looking lovely. Hello people we all have a lot more influence over kids ideas than we take credit/responsibility for.

    Date and time
    September 18, 2013, 7:47AM
    • Thanks for a great article. I was recently in the changing rooms of my local swimming pool when a little girl asked her slim, attractive mother, 'how much do you weigh Mummy'. Her mother replied 'too much'. I almost turned around and said to the woman 'dont say that in front of your daughter!' What we say affects our kids, and it's a not a good idea to teach young girls that it's okay to be constantly dissatisfied with your body! I am in my late 30s and I wish I could go back and tell my teenage self to love her body! Love your body, it's such a waste of energy to do otherwise!

      Date and time
      September 18, 2013, 11:57AM
      • thanks for the article!

        i might add that i sometimes speak what i observe, other people then sometimes interpret my observation as my being judgemental.

        it's excellent that you point out the difference.

        Date and time
        September 18, 2013, 12:02PM
        • Fabulous article! What a wise mother you are, and how lucky little Violet (lovely name) is to have you. Happiness always...

          Date and time
          September 18, 2013, 3:05PM

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