Due to the vulnerable nature of this writing, this piece is published with explicit permission and blessings from my brave and generous daughter Arayla, who after reading it shared her hope that our story might serve in some small way~ especially other mothers and daughters, in navigating the steep challenge of healthy self- image and radical self-love in our culture.
One of my most treasured delights as the mother of my beloved daughter Arayla, (newly 12 years old,) is the incredibly sweet experience of going clothes-shopping together. It’s true~ I find these times we share to be among our most intimate, fun, mutually cherished opportunities, during which I’m granted the honor and power to actively nurture her tender, blossoming self-image in a concentrated way. There’s a story I want to share with you from one of these shopping adventures. But first~ a necessary preamble.
As a woman who grew up in this image-fixated culture, and who was born into a long line of particularly image-fixated women, wherein physical beauty and especially the necessity of thinness was seen to be of upmost importance in life, I suffered quite intensely in my teens and early 20’s with body dysmorphia and eating disorders.
When I became pregnant with my first child at 30, upon discovering that I was indeed carrying my long-awaited daughter into the world, I was thrilled beyond belief. But I was also overcome with fear, as I imagined what painful tendencies this beloved female child might inherit from me alongside biological genetics. What if my daughter received the self-destructive, self-rejecting body imprints I myself had been passed in this lineage and culture of thin-obsessed women?
My maternal protection for my unborn daughter motivated me to do my best to clean up whatever subtle presence of body-rejection still lived inside me. As a well-trained energetic healer, I set to work shielding my unborn daughter from any unresolved, body-loathing tendencies she might somehow absorb, through psychic osmosis, in my womb. “It ends with me…” I whispered with firm resolve towards the listening ears of this toxic mis-perception within me, determined to fully resolve this issue, once and for all. I stretched to embrace my rapidly expanding pregnant body with joy and pride, replacing old habits of fat-phobia and body-rejection with new mantras of loving slef-embrace.
After she was born, I watched my daughter closely as she grew from baby to toddler and into her little girl years. I reveled in the innate freedom and innocent joy she obviously experienced inside her own body. Self-embrace and love for her own body was clearly an inherent given; a natural by-product for her of having a body. I was so delighted and inspired to experience this innocent truth vicariously through being her mother.
Yet I also noticed the insistent emphasis and value our world placed on the physical appearance of my daughter. When well-meaning strangers would exclaim “What a pretty girl you are!” or “Wow~ look at those gorgeous eyes!” I was right there in my new-mother vigilance, to quickly translate the image-praise into affirmation of her innate soul-worth. I would whisper into my daughter’s ear: “They can see your beautiful heart, Arayla!....Your gorgeous spirit is shining through your eyes!” Or I would say outloud: “Yes~ she IS so beautiful. AND so very smart!”
Naively, I imagined that if I did my best to de-emphasize image, (which granted, was difficult for the inherently image-conscious woman I had become) while modeling self-love and body-acceptance, frequently voicing appreciation for my own aging woman body, my sweet girl would remain psychically unscathed in her own precious body-perception.
As she grew older, began attending school, seeing movies, was exposed more and more to the world beyond the sheltered cocoon of our family life, I still hoped that her self-perception would remain anchored in a foundation of essential self-embrace. I continuously imagined that in being her mother, the woman she still looked up to most, I could protect her self-perception from being twisted and trampled by the external world; a world that insists on valuing a woman’s appearance above all else, while holding feminine beauty to a very narrow set of unrealistic and rarely sustainable standards. If I taught her to rejoice in herself, her spirit, her body, her personhood, just the way she was, she’d be more than fine, right??
So you can imagine my devastated horror, when at the tender age of 10, I heard my perceptive, wise, radiant daughter begin to share deeply troubling sentiments such as: “I’m so FAT. I hate my butt! It’s too BIG. And I hate my belly too. It’s so UGLY! My face is so round. I just want to be skinny, Mom! I HATE the way I look!!” This painful confession coming with tearful wails from my sweet girl, who also happened to be naturally tall and strong and slender! This coming from my beloved child who just one year prior had been fighting for her life in the ICU, whose precious body was thankfully, above all else, healthy and alive!
Well, I was shocked and heartbroken to hear these body-rejecting words come out of Arayla's mouth. And I’m not proud to admit that my initial response to this deeply tender, vulnerable exposure from her wasn’t skillful in the least, but rather triggered in fear and anger. Of course I wasn’t angry at her. But I was enraged and horrified to hear her express these feelings.
As crazy as it might sound, I somehow took these feelings of hers personally, as though they were a direct assault to my own idealized image of successful mothering. For her to be voicing the very thought-forms I had so hoped to shield her from was painful proof that I had failed her! But aside from this somewhat narcissistic reaction, hearing this from her also truly scared me. I had personally watched too many young girls turn to anorexia, bulimia or compulsive exercising, as a way of battling their blossoming curves, vehemently rejecting the promise of an uncontrollably wild and messy womanhood brewing under the surface of their changing skin.
And I felt renewed anger at our culture! What is this skinny-idealization indoctrination anyway? This that blatantly insists in a myriad of ways that beauty for women is to stay small, lithe and girl-like; that anything too big, too strong or too loud; too round, too radiant or wildly feminine; too MUCH in any way~ must be rejected, starved, toned, tidied, hidden, stifled, diminished, apologized for?! How could this not make the pre-teen years the ideal environment for fostering eating disorders and self-negation? As the little-girl body and personality disappears and is rapidly replaced with something altogether unfamiliar~ bigger, messier, moodier and uncontrollable~ something our culture tells us we would never want to be, our girls are filled with a deep, inner self-conflict.
I felt so personally triggered by Arayla’s painful confession, and horribly exposed in my reactivity, that with my face flushed and heart pounding, I quickly excused myself from her bedroom before I said something I wouldn’t be able to take back. I ran to my own bedroom and closed the door, curling up in a ball on my bed and weeping deeply. I writhed in the pain of reaction, feeling all the sadness and anger and terror of not being able to protect my beloved child from this deeply familiar, insidious flavor of first world suffering.
After giving myself ample space to grieve and feel my personal disappointment and sense of defeat about this, I realized that while I had perhaps failed to immunize my sweet girl against self-hating thoughts and toxic cultural conditioning, I was also uniquely suited to support her in navigating this infection. Perhaps what had taken me many painstaking years to unwind and reveal to myself, I could support her in discovering with much greater ease? After all, more than most people, I truly understood the mechanism of this unique form of suffering~ the way it worked, the emotional and mental paths it traveled, the depth of damage it could wreak~ as well as the blessed remedy and potential cure.
I also realized, not for the first time~ that as much as we might wish to protect our young from suffering, our children come to this world with their own fierce lessons to learn; their own life hurdles, challenges, tendencies and wounds to resolve. And as their parents and stewards we cannot~ nor should we even try~ to protect them from their own learning, no matter how deeply painful it is in moments to witness their pain.
Arayla’s exposure of these self-rejecting thoughts initiated an essential transition in the nurturing quality of our mother-child relationship that has continued to evolve over the past two years. I’ll tell you, it has not been easy. To the contrary, it’s been by far one of the steepest learning curves I’ve embraced in all my years of motherhood.
Whenever these difficult thoughts and feelings have arisen for her and she’s been guided to share them with me, I’ve had to learn to simply hold space for her expression, letting her unravel and release what is clearly too painful to hold all on her own. My instinctual desire as a mom to “make it better” has had to be replaced with a spacious trust in the process. Rather than trying to take these hard feelings away from her, or fix them, or replace them with better feelings that aren’t so triggering for ME to witness, I have had to learn to just be quiet and present with her as these feelings move through. And no matter how hard it might be for me to witness my daughter’s angst, I’ve discovered how rewarding it is for both of us when I can find a courageous willingness to simply be with her in all of it.
Arayla has been teaching me so generously, the way she always has, how to mother her through these rapid changes in her being. Whenever I have slipped, by subtly trying to fix, negate, deny or in some other way take her experience away from her, she has let me know immediately by getting even more inflamed, insistent and upset in her expression. And so I’ve had to learn that what she needs most of all from me in this passage, is just to hold space, witnessing her with emptiness and quiet strength, empathy and deep love; holding vigil for her storm to pass. Like a mean fever, it seems to need the chance to burn all the way through.
Usually, after the storm passes, once she is emptied of all her difficult feelings, and deeply met in her pain, Arayla is tenderly open to a new perspective. As the trust and intimacy between us deepens and grows, I am granted new opportunities to invite, reflect and nurture self-love within her.
She lets me hold her and kiss her damp, tear-streaked face, while I say things like: “Oh how I wish you could see yourself through my eyes… because if you could? It would truly take your breath away.” Or quietly empathize, “We all have moments where we wish something was different about us. We all have parts of our bodies we wished looked different. It’s such a painful feeling, isn’t it, to not love some part of ourselves?”
Most powerful is when she lets me cuddle up next to her with my hand on her heart~ and speak to the unbelievable beauty and brilliance of her BEING. Even deeper than the exquisite beauty of her body and her image, this true gorgeousness of who SHE IS. And still other moments, where we have pondered together the temporary nature of the flesh~ how much our bodies change throughout our lives, with a mysterious expiration date somewhere ahead.
Lying close together, cuddling in her bed in the timeless dark of bedtime space, we look at how the primary purpose of our bodies is truly not to look a certain way in our clothes, but rather to house our bright spirits! We talk about the deepest reason for incarnating: to receive a vehicle through which we can learn and live, shine our love and share our gifts with the world; which is why it’s such an important honor~ to care for these precious, temporary bodies, with true love and respect.
And so yes~ back to my original inspiration for writing this piece: Our cherished mother-daughter shopping dates, and a sweet story to share in this vein.
At the start of Arayla’s 6th grade school year, she had a rapid growth-spurt, and suddenly none of her jeans fit her. Well~ as everyone who wears jeans know, the feeling of jeans suddenly being too tight around the middle, or hard to pull up over our hips, is really not a great sensation. She came out of her bedroom one day before school, clearly miserable, tears flowing down her sweet face, unable to comfortably button her jeans, insinuating this must be due to some newly developed flaw of her body, and I said: “Oops! Did we wait too long to get new jeans for your beautiful growing body?”
A couple days later, as we approached the Mall entrance, Arayla sidled up close next to me, grabbing my hand, and said: “Mom? I was wondering if maybe we could try something new this time shopping? If it would be ok?” Curious, I said: “Sure Babe~ Like what?” Carefully choosing her words, she said: “Well I was just thinking maybe instead of coming into the dressing room WITH me, maybe you could wait outside the room? And I could try things on by myself, and then come out to show you?”
Inside myself I made careful note to myself: She’s naming a boundary~ celebrate this! Outloud I simply said to her: “Of course my Love~ that sounds like a great idea.” She squeezed my hand joyously, jumping up and down a little with excitement, saying: “Really?!” And then she added, tenderly: “I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings~ did I Mom?” I pulled her close to my side as we walked, kissing the top of her head, exclaiming: “Are you kidding me? I love it when you name your boundaries. You’re growing up~ that makes perfect sense you would want some space in the dressing room.” Arayla beamed up at me: “Thank you, thank you!” This seemingly small boundary had clearly taken some courage for her to ask for, and felt somehow significant for me to honor.
So after we selected clothes for her to try on, I dutifully sat outside the dressing room door, cozied up next to the mirror. I must admit~ it was a change! Gone were the days of taking the clothes off the hangers to hand to her, helping her pull shirts on over her head, my hands and eyes all up in her business. I realized as I relaxed on the floor outside the dressing room that I rather enjoyed the liberation of this new arrangement!
And when Arayla would come out modeling some clothes, I would ooze appreciation, “Wow! Look at you!” but then ask her questions like: “How does that feel on your body?” Hoping to encourage an inside-out perception, I wanted her to feel good in her clothes, rather than basing her choices solely on how things look.
When she would ask me questions like: “Do these make my butt look too big?” I would get the chance to say: “I think your butt looks totally gorgeous in those jeans. But how do you feel? Can you move comfortably? How do you feel when you sit down? Can you still breathe deeply and freely?” She would check it out, crouching down in a squat, bending over, feeling how the clothes moved with her. And more and more often she would smile as she twirled around, pleased with how she felt as well as what she saw in the mirror, and say: “I feel really beautiful in these Mom. Can we get them?"
And so~ this is why I find shopping with my pre-teen daughter one of the most wonderful ways to nurture her self-appreciation and blossoming body-love.
Maybe it was foolish of me to think I could protect my children (both my daughter and my son) from the onslaught of distinct, gender-specific expectations they are given from the culture we live in, from media, from the mad soup of collective consciousness. I mean~ talk about osmosis~ perhaps it really is unavoidable at some level?
But the opportunity we have to meet our children, right inside the dangerous impact of all these damaging messages and imprints, and feel that pain with them, simply bearing witness, is immeasurable indeed. To then earn our children’s trust enough to skillfully suggest a different possibility, infused with the conviction of our own self-love, laced with the invitation to adore ourselves just the way we are, is one revolutionary way we can turn the delusional poison of our collective into healing medicine for our collective.
Teaching our children self-love in all its forms is one of the most powerful ways we can guide them. And yet one of the most honest, and commonly overlooked ways to do this, is to first be willing to hang out with them in the painful reality of self-judgment, self-rejection and self-hatred. Think about it~ what better way to deepen in our own self-love, but to compassionately shine the light on the very ways we don't fully love ourselves? The ways we habitually reject ourselves, judge ourselves~ seeing ourselves, our bodies, and our lives through shaming, critical eyes?
From a ground of spacious inclusion for these ways we habitually reject ourselves, we can reflect the deeper truth of essential self-love: a love for no reason other than the deepest truth of who we are. We can also invite self-love as an aspect of self-awareness in how we show up in the world; how we choose to relate with others; opportunities for kindness and empathy, courage, honesty, and perseverance.
We can teach our children about the fiercely inclusive and unconditional nature of self-love~ how our inevitable life experiences of mistake, failure and challenge provide us with endless opportunities for self-embrace, right alongside our successes and accomplishments. And we can inspire self-love in our children by carefully nurturing self-image; sharing our birthright to feel really good inside our own skin; to truly love our own bodies, these temporary vessels~ messy and fleeting and holy, just as they are.
Encouraging self-love in its many forms is one of the most profound powers we are given as human beings; as women and men, as parents and teachers, grandparents, aunties and uncles, stewards and mentors in this world. Grace willing, self-loving children grow into healthy, self-loving, self-respecting adults. And from true self-love, this which is informed by the shadowy underbelly of self-doubt and self-denial, comes the ability to live powerfully loving, creatively inspired and generous lives.
May we all be committed to nurturing self-love~ within ourselves, our world, and the lives of our dear ones we are blessed to so intimately touch.