“Mom, can you touch your two middle fingers under your thigh and you two thumbs on top?”
I already knew there was no way my hands could make a circle the size of my thigh and still be connected, but I was flattered my child thought there was a chance I could do it.
“Nope, see? I can’t do it.”
“There’s a girl in my class who can do it, so we were all trying to do it too.”
Though I’ve never met her, I instantly envision a petite little girl. How do kids think of these things and why was this a “game” they were all playing in class?
A couple minutes later, I hear the shower turn on and from the door I hear:
“Mom, when they saw I couldn’t touch my fingers around my leg they laughed and said my legs were jiggly.”
I looked around the corner and saw the tears mixing with the drops from the shower. After holding in the feelings from earlier in the day, they were finally said out loud and with them fell tears of sadness and insecurity. I expected this day to come with my daughter, but I was less prepared when the conversation I was having was with my ten-year-old son.
I knew what I said next was so important. I paused. My brain whirled through every article and book I had ever read on body image. Seeing his heart broken face, I had to say something, so I told him I had a great big hug waiting for him when he got out. I told him to finish up and we’d talk when he got out. I had bought myself a couple precious minutes to figure out how to say more than “kids are dumb”.
Boys and body image is a topic we don’t often talk about, but we should. There is a lot of discussion and resources available for how to talk to our girls about body image, but not so much when it comes boys. The images boys grow up with are centered around physical muscles and strength. Halloween costumes come with built in six pack abs and clearly defined muscles. Video game graphics sculpt characters into beyond human proportions where bigger muscles mean a stronger character that wins more games. Professional athletes star in commercials where they are working out and pushing their body to the max. These messages can be confusing for our boys leading them to believe they need a perfectly chiseled physique to be a successful, powerful man. We know that’s not true, but if we never talk about it, do they?
My son got out of the shower, dried off and got ready for bed. As promised, I gave him a big hug and felt him lean in a little more than usual. We started talking about body types and how the differences in people’s bodies actually give them their own unique strengths. We talked about how his legs may look “jiggly”, but those muscles have helped him beat out a close play at first base or leap into the air to catch a line drive that looked like it was over his head. We talked about appreciating our body for all it does and that not everyone is so lucky. We also talked about how this is the one body we get and we must take care of it by eating the right things and exercising. And of course, we can’t worry about what anyone else says or how anyone else looks but we should be proud and appreciate who we are. I was careful not to talk too long, we said what we needed to say and then moved along to something more lighthearted. It was a good start to a very personal topic and now that I have a glimpse of what is going on inside his head, I’ll watch for other opportunities to bring up body image in everyday conversation.
It’s easy to slip into the role of parent martyr and think about what I might have said/not said or done to lead to influence his feelings around body image. It’s hard for us to even recognize it’s happening because body comparison is so automatically ingrained in our culture that it infiltrates without truly realizing it. It’s sad to see how kids focus on how we are different instead of how much we are the same. They focus on what they don’t have, instead of what we do. We can help our own children see things differently, if we keep talking about these harder topics as a normal part of our conversation and discussion.
I started writing this blog five years ago because I felt there were important topics parents weren’t talking openly about, this week’s topic included. What I didn’t expect was the challenge I would have in both starting the discussion and protecting the privacy of my kids - after all they did not ask for their stories to be shared all over the internet. Prior to writing this week’s blog, I asked my son for permission to talk about our conversation explaining that I thought it would help people. Obviously, he agreed. I hope his bravery in sharing his story encourages you to have a difficult conversation of your own, because it’s through sharing that we learn how to better support ourselves and each other.
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I started writing this blog because I wanted to have deeper conversations beyond "How are you?", "Busy", with other parents. Over the years I've shared personal stories, articles, authors and topics to facilitate conversations with parents about the joys and the challenges of parenting.