I have a skinny daughter. She came out of the womb as a wiry, nimble sprite. For years she was in the 5th percentile for BMI on the pediatric charts. Her natural tendency for sprinting and jumping led her into a decade-long love affair with competitive gymnastics. As I watched her tumble and fly, I teetered along with a low grade anxiety praying she wouldn't break her neck. Then came the day she had to abruptly stop at age 13 as a result of impact related injuries to her elbows. Broken wings.
Devastated by the loss and plummeting endorphins, she redirected her energy bit by bit. My elfin child, made of delicate bones but thick skin, managed to focus on other sports by the time high school came around.
But the years of conditioning and the 20 plus hours at the gym delayed her puberty. As a result some people think she's a child. At 15 that really makes her mad. Yet to her delight she shot past her older sister by an inch or two -- a seemingly unexpected reward of her retirement.
But she's still skinny.
She recently participated in a study assessing lifestyle and body image concerns. She texted me, "Why are there all these questions about feeling fat? What if you feel too thin?" Of course, her observation was keen. (Science can be biased.) Weighing not more than 96 pounds throughout high school, I felt for her. She inherited my body type and could blame our lineage. Unconvincingly, I remarked that she would feel much happier about her body later in life.
But what about now? "I'm just an awkward person, mom."
"No you aren't," I tell her, "but I get that you feel that way."
I've met countless girls and women over the years who feel badly about their bodies; they are often caught in a vicious cycle of negative social comparison. Some of them inflict self-harm and suffer greatly.
Maybe it's a tired story. We are well aware that poor body image is an epidemic reinforced by social media, ratings and rankings, and cultural images of unnatural beauty standards. But we don't do much to teach kids how to handle the onslaught. We fail to recognize that their exquisite, delicate brains are meticulously paving belief patterns and behaviors that shape their identities and experiences of the world. They can be brainwashed.
Sadly, many parents can be self-deprecating about their own appearance or critical of others. Friends can be over-invested in appearance and downright mean. One idiosyncratic physical flaw or mannerism can indict a kid to years of torment. Children can easily develop a habit of mind that is overly judgmental and disconnected from their bodies and inner spirits.
I've been thinking about what I wish for my daughter knowing that if I tried to have a conversation about body image she might roll her eyes at me. Or else she may quip, "I know I know, mom. Anyways, you are a psychologist. You are supposed to say that."
But I have no script. The body image curriculums I know so well fall far short of what we really want our girls and boys to inhabit when it comes to body confidence. It's not just knowledge, cognitive skills or empowerment. That's too ephemeral.
I believe we need to be more, dare I say it, spiritual.
What do I wish that both my daughters understand -- or embody -- now? I've been reflecting on this for quite a while and what I have discovered is really a wish for all children. Yet, If I were to leave a letter under my awkward daughter's pillow or whisper in her ear, here's what I would say:
My Skinny Girl,
I have a secret to share. It may be hard to understand now, but trust me.
Our bodies are simply physical vessels containing our expansive souls. With that said, your body is sacred so take gentle care of it.
You were born unto this world with a purpose you will yet discover. With that said, dig deep and let your spirit soar.
The mind is both imaginative and tricky; it will tell you stories about who you are that aren't true. With that said, listen to your heart more than your head.
The crafted images we see of what we should look or be like are make-believe and can cause disconnection, shame and loneliness. With that said, don't let others define you.
People can be kind and cruel; mostly they are trying to feel better about who they are. With that said, mindfully gather your tribe of brave hearts.
Don't be someone else's happy pill. Some friends aren't worth the energy it takes to bolster their self-worth at the expense of your own. With that said, compassion is as much about good boundaries as it is about caring.
Being alive means having a fair share of suffering and joy. With that said, it's good to have both thick skin and an open heart.
You are gifted with innate emotional intelligence radiating throughout your amazing body, head to toes. With that said, trust your vibes.
We are not confined to our physical bodies alone, but intimately connected to all of humanity and the planet we inhabit. With that said, go forth with fearless love and kindness.
While this may sound strange or unfamiliar, if you remember anything I say, know that you are a cherished angel. With that said, I love you -- broken wings and all.