When I was about 12 or 13 years old, we were visiting my grandparents on the Chickahominy River one summer. I vividly remember walking out onto the pier in my one-piece swimsuit, when my Nana saw me and declared, "Why, dahlin' -- look at you! You've got hips!"
In retrospect, I am certain that Nana meant it as a compliment. At the time, I was mortified. Horrified. Wanted to melt into a puddle and slide off into the river and sink deep down into the muddy bottom. At that age, I was self-conscious enough about my body and the effects of puberty (or lack of effects, in some areas) that the last thing I needed was to know that someone else was noticing me -- even if that someone was my grandmother who loved me very much.
Now, more than 20 years later, I'm still afraid that people might look at me in a swimsuit and critique what they see. The truth is that probably no one is paying that much attention to me and that I am my own worst critic.
But I'm trying hard to get over that -- after two babies, I'm starting to realize that I actually looked great in my 20s, so I trust that I'll think I looked good in my 30s when my 40-ish self is looking back at photos. That's the thought that motivates me to put on a bikini when I'm at the beach -- that, plus the fact that it makes my husband very happy to see me in one.
But what worries me even more than how I look is how my body-image issues might affect my daughter.
Right now, Pippi is roly-poly round and absolutely gorgeous -- her toddler belly pops out in front of her, she has tan-lines in the pudgy creases in her forearms and thighs, and every ounce of it is beautiful. She's also completely uninhibited (see photo -- she's preferred to be topless at the beach all week, too) and has no thoughts about what her body should and shouldn't be. I want so much to help her stay like that, to always believe that she is beautiful and that her body is exactly how it should be.
But given that I haven't managed to feel that way about myself in three decades -- and given all the forces around her that will shout about the need to be thin or have big breasts or look a certain way -- how do I teach her to hear a different, stronger voice inside her head?
I think it might start with me, my voice, and the voices of other people who love her. Maybe if her father and I and her grandparents and our friends all talk about being healthy and confident, then she'll have some defenses built up to fight against those other voices.
When she was a newborn, my dad would hold her and say to her, "You are SOOOOOOOO beautiful," in this sweet, sing-song voice. She always smiles at him when he says that, like she knows exactly what he means. Hopefully, when her Nanna and Nonna comment on her pre-teen body one day, she'll smile and say, "Thank you -- I think I look so beautiful, too."