Will my struggle to love my body affect how my daughters view themselves?

One woman struggles with body image--her own and that of her girls
By Anam AhmedPublished on 02/12/2019 at 9:00 AM EDT
How we treat and talk about our bodies as mothers has profound impacts on our kids, especially our daughters. Teddy/Rawpixel

After having two kids within two years, my body started looking foreign to me. Carrying, birthing, and breastfeeding children without much of a break in between takes its toll on a mother’s body—and the way she views herself.

My breasts somehow seem both bigger and smaller. When I was nursing, they swelled up to a comically large proportion. Now that I’m done, they hang there like two deflated balloons.

I have a permanent pouch on my belly, making me look about three months pregnant all the time (I assure you: I am not). And let’s not forget about those stretch marks… adorning my hips, stomach, thighs, and breasts, wrapping their spindly, purple selves all over me.

My legs are thicker too because my skinny jeans feel a little snug on my calves. My dainty stilettos don’t fit my once-tiny feet.

When I look at myself in the mirror these days, it becomes challenging to think of this body as one I can be happy with. I’ve been looking at it for almost four years now, since the birth of my first, and I can’t seem to get used to it.

I want to feel comfortable in my new skin. Scratch that. I have to feel comfortable in my new skin.

I worry –daily– that my struggle to feel confident in my body will affect how my two daughters, who are four and two, view themselves now and in the future.

We’re living in an age where the female form is constantly scrutinized from a disturbingly young age. Commenting on how a woman looks starts from the day she’s born. People praise little girls for looking “so pretty” or “so cute” before talking about how clever or funny they are.

My husband and I want to raise two confident, brave, determined young women who feel they belong in their skin. We don’t want them to feel sad about the way their hair curls or the extra weight on their thighs. Instead, we want them to feel beautiful and happy in whatever state they are in –and help others feel that way, too.

Even though I struggle to feel like I belong in my postpartum body, I work hard to convey body positivity to my daughters because I want them to know that no matter how their body changes over the course of their lives, they have the right to feel beautiful, strong, and valued. I’ve started taking little steps –which often feel very difficult– to communicate that message to my daughters. Through this I’ve learned that my daughters are teaching me about body positivity, too.

I was going through some baby pictures one day last year when I realized that I was not in any of the photographs. Every time someone wanted to take a picture, I bowed out of it because I didn’t like the way I looked. Either my hair was too messy or I felt too big or I thought I looked frumpy. When my children look back on those photos, I want them to see their mother, smiling and happy alongside them. So now, whenever there is a photo opportunity, I jump in, flabby breasts and all.

My four-year-old loves picking out clothes for me. I used to worry that the pants she picked accentuated my love handles or that the dress she wanted me to wear made me look pregnant. One day, she picked out a skin-tight, lacy, bright pink tank top and insisted I wear it. I put it on and felt like a sausage stuffed into a too-small casing, bumpy and wobbly all over the place. She made me change my mind: “Mom, I love it! You are so beautiful!”

How could I not feel better about myself after that? From now on, I usually let her pick my outfit when she’s in the mood. I want her to know that the clothes we wear don’t have to affect the way we feel about ourselves, and that beauty comes from within.

As any mother with small children knows, privacy is something that no longer exists once children come along. My girls are with me in the bathroom when I shower, use the toilet, or get dressed. And they are paying attention. Both of them are fascinated by the female form. Instead of hiding my nakedness –which is often my first impulse– I hold my head up high to show them I’m happy with the body I have. They ask questions about why my breasts are bigger than theirs, or why I have hair in places they don’t. I answer candidly.

After I stepped out of the shower one day, my older daughter asked me about my stretch marks, or “purple lines” as she calls them. She wanted to know what they were, and why she didn’t have them too.

Like memories etched into my skin, I showed her the ones I got when I was pregnant with her. These are the ones on my hips and my thighs. Then I showed her the ones I got when I was pregnant with her sister, on my stomach right under my belly button. She touched those and smiled. “I like them,” she declared. “They look so nice on your tummy!” That moment was probably the happiest I’ve felt about my body in the past four years. Not because my daughter thought my stretch marks looked good, but because she made me feel like they belonged to me in a way I hadn’t thought of before.

Slowly but surely, I’m starting to get used to my postpartum body – and I hope my daughters can tell. After all, they are the ones that push to me to love myself more and to be kinder to my body.

I’m far stronger than I used to be, thanks to constantly lifting my girls. The other day I walked home from the park, lugging over 60 lbs of tantrumming children in my arms without breaking a sweat – a feat I never would have been able to accomplish before.

My abs will never be the same, but they have given way to something better, I think. Squishy tummies make for comfortable pillows for feverish heads.

And while I no longer nurse my daughters, they both love to curl up and nestle their heads in between my breasts when they are upset. It’s a place of comfort and warmth – one that didn’t exist in my pre-pregnancy body.

My hope for my daughters is that they feel good about how they look no matter what, and that they help others feel the same. While I may struggle internally from time to time, the fact that they’re helping me see the good in my own body makes me think they are off to the right start.

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