I love food.
I mean, I’m just not one of those people who sees food and thinks about the energy it’s going to give me, the nutrients, the vitamins, etc. I once had a coworker who would bring approximately ten peanuts to work every day along with a quinoa and spinach salad (no dressing). She explained that she needed a little extra protein from the peanuts. She just saw the peanuts as protein. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve shoved a handful of peanuts into my mouth not thinking about the number of peanuts and mostly hoping to emulate peanut butter with my aggressive gnashing. I see food and think about how good it will taste, how much of it I can eat without feeling sick, how happy it will make me.
Admittedly, I recognize I have some issues with food. I find emotional comfort in it, and I play a dangerous game of feast and famine more often than I like to admit.
But, here’s the kicker. All my actions are being unconsciously scrutinized by an ever-present gaze—my seven-year-old daughter’s.
My Body in the World
I have spent my entire life struggling with food, berating myself for wanting to eat, punishing myself for eating, and finally over-indulging as a way to cope with the berating and the punishment. Some of this is because I live in this world as a female. A lot of this is because I was born into a body with natural curves.
As a senior in high school, I began the exhaustive process of binging and purging. After years of bullying based on my weight, comments on my body, and the general tone of the trademark Cosmopolitan culture, I found the sweet spot of excessive calorie limitation. The restriction was intense but effective. The restriction was effective but not sustainable, leading me to, as an adult, have an unbalanced and unhealthy relationship with food.
Being a parent, I spend a lot of time reflecting on the world in which my child and I move together. And the thing I find myself most often concerned with is food and body image. How do I effectively instill positive habits in my daughter without cornering her into fear and guilt for eating and general deprivation from food that she wants? How do I help her navigate a society that will, inevitably, scrutinize her body? How can I help her understand that it’s important to nourish her body with nutrient-rich foods, but that it’s also okay to eat a doughnut?
Food and Children
It seems simple to instill these directions. Eat whole grains, lean protein, fruits, and vegetables. But, have you ever met a child? Most children, or at least children that I know–specifically, my child–are picky eaters. This doesn’t come from a lack of trying. When my daughter was a baby her favorite food was butternut squash closely followed by sweet potatoes and avocados.
That didn’t instill anything in her long term, as much as I wish it had. She won’t touch those foods now.
Not to mention, we are constantly surrounded by food – unhealthy foods due to the amount of processing they’ve gone through.
We have a Michael Pollan quote on our refrigerator, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” These three rules explain, essentially, how we need to be fueling our bodies and with what. But it still is much more complex than that. (And writing this, I feel as if I need to move the quote somewhere else on the refrigerator–so I see it more regularly, so my daughter sees it, too.)
There are many articles written now about the way in which we label foods, and how foods no longer should be given moral indicators like “bad” or “good”—those words create a dichotomy between morality and nutrition: the two are not synonymous.
All of the semantics surrounding food and nutrition and the human body are something to be reexamined and refined. Foods are often gendered: men eat steaks, women eat salads, men eat more, women eat less. These are all things that, impact our psyche and shape the way we study our own actions when it comes to eating.
The work that my daughter puts in on the soccer fields and in the dance studio is not beneficial to her because it will “make her skinny,” “thin her out,” or “give her a good shape”; the efforts she puts into being a goalkeeper and into being a dancer is making her strong. She is building muscles that make her body powerful. The fruit she consumes as an afterschool snack isn’t the “good” choice because of its low calories; it is a positive choice because it gives her nutrients that fuel her body.
Our Bodies in the Spirit
As a mother, that’s my job, right? I’m to teach her how to navigate food. But, at the end of the day, it isn’t just about that. It’s about loving your body in all forms and at all stages: when you’re putting healthy food into it, when you’re putting sugary cookies, when you’ve lost weight and gained muscle, when you’ve lost muscle and gained weight, and everything in between.
At the end of the day, I struggle, ultimately, because I struggle to love myself: not just my physical being but my heart, my mind, and my soul. I think often of how I don’t want my child to feel this way, how I want her to be in awe of what her body does. This Scripture comes to mind: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:13-14).
I wonder then about the gift that is my body. The way my heart beats, the way it pumps blood to my fingers and toes, and how, when I look at my child, I am in awe of her. Not in awe of her for the things she says or her accomplishments, but in awe of her because she exists. Her small body works daily to keep her alive, to keep her running on the soccer field, to keep her doing multiplication problems. And that is amazing.
Ultimately, I want my daughter to understand that her body does amazing things and that her body is an amazing thing. She is fearfully and wonderfully made, just as I am.
Through these verses and through this realization, I try to lessen the weight I figuratively carry, the burden and the shame associated with eating and body image, for I want for myself what I want for my own child. I want her to see her body in all the various stages it will go through in life and I want her to see what a remarkable thing it is, what a wonder it is.
I like to use words like strong and powerful when I speak to my daughter about her body. Sometimes, I take her face in my hands and look at her, take in each freckle, take in the color of her eyes, and the new teeth emerging from her gums, before saying, “Look at your face. You have a face. You are amazing.” Now, she perhaps thinks this is silly, maybe even a little annoying that I would stop her in whatever she is doing to tell her this. But it is true. She is amazing.
Aren’t we all? The existence of our bodies. The existence of our beings.