A lot has been written about dieting and body image. What interests me is how we develop our body image in childhood and how this image haunts us through life.
Here’s an innocuous example. I am short. Very short. I am less than 5’1” tall. So it would be reasonable to assume that “short” would be part of my innate body image. But it’s not. I am constantly surprised when I stand next to normal sized people and realize how much bigger they are than I am. I believe this is because I grew early and stopped growing early.
So, in my formative years, I was one of the taller kids in the class. When you lined up by size, I was near the back of the line in first grade next to a girl named Liz who grew to be about 5’8” tall. I barely noticed as the years went by and everyone else continued to grow and I didn’t. It didn’t hit me until one day in sixth grade that I was at the front of the line next to my peanut-sized friend, Cathy.
How did that happen? As a result, I have never thought of myself as small. I am still confused when people comment on how tiny I am.
My mother illustrates the more pernicious effects of childhood perceptions. She was adorable as a child but had a thick, black uni-brow. Insensitive parents and family members referred to her as “the ugly one”. At the age of 13, she blossomed into a true beauty. This is not just an adoring daughter talking. My mother was scheduled to go to Hollywood in the 1940’s for a screen test until she got a severe case of Rheumatic fever that permanently damaged her heart. No matter how many people in her adult life told her how beautiful she was, her image of herself was always as the ugly duckling. She always felt totally inadequate physically.
When I was growing up, my insecure mom overemphasized the importance of looks to me. This made me very self-conscious about my appearance. She often told me that she didn’t understand how women who were not thin and beautiful ever got husbands. It’s no wonder that it was only in my 50’s that I felt confident to go out of the house without makeup on – ever! Even to the supermarket. I always wore makeup at home, alone with my husband, until recently with husband number two. It is liberating to be able to finally feel acceptable without cosmetic enhancement.
I believe that the self-image that is imprinted on us early in life stays with us forever. Extended therapy can improve the situation and strengthen the ego. But I think that it’s crucial for parents to make sure that their kids leave home with a positive body image. Too much emphasis is placed on physical appearance early on. So too many children, including me, grow up thinking that being beautiful is synonymous with being accepted, valued and loved.
We all need to feel comfortable in our own skin, whether we’re good looking in a conventional way or not; whether we’re skinny or “big-boned” or whether we are male or female. Neither of my children have serious body issues but I’m not sure if that is because of me or in spite of me. For me, I wish I could “do-over” my childhood and deemphasize the physical. Maybe I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life as obsessed with looking “good” all the time.
NOTE: Ellin is “in the air” today coming back from Los Angeles. I will be fielding comments in her stead. She says she’s sorry, but they don’t give you WiFi in the air. I can vouch for that. We were in dead space while we were coming back from Arizona. It’s one of many “cost cutting” features that makes air travel so much fun these days.