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A healthy body image can be frustratingly elusive, especially when old habits—and thought patterns—die hard.
I am a mom of two children, ages 7 and 8, who could not be more different in looks and in personality. When asked about nature versus nurture, I always say now that I am a parent that it’s absolutely nature—these kids escaped the womb with the same personalities that exist today. As a totally unfair generalization about two real, live humans who will have the chance to read this in the future, I would say that our son is most like me in personality and looks, and my daughter most certainly takes after my husband. The boy loves to curl up with a book, to draw, to do quiet things; at the same time, he has many friends and is deeply compassionate. The girl child is adventurous, could care less about being a bookworm—she wants to be a star. I love watching both of them in social situations because they could not be more different. I can see the beautiful strengths, while vastly different, in both of them.
As a child, I remember being embarrassed by my body very early on. I learned at a very young age what the word “fat” meant, and I also learned that it applied, in some respect, to me. I am not sure of the exact age this “body image innocence” (as I like to call it) was lost, but I have spent the greater part of my adult life trying to recover from it, only recently making real strides. I think because of my personal experience, I am hyperaware of body image and its impact on children. The “F word” in our house—fat—is punishable by far more than the other “F word” would ever be. I try desperately to protect both of my children from the body image dysmorphia that has unnecessarily and detrimentally occupied so much of my headspace over the years.
Our daughter dances fiercely. She runs like the wind. She flips off the monkey bars with a terrifyingly fast and agile movement that makes my mom-heart fly into a tailspin. I literally can’t look. She is in first grade and she is fearless, strong and athletic. She sees her body as a machine—the way to get where she wants to go, express herself and play sports, and play them well. I am in complete awe of her. If I could bottle her confidence and beauty and literal delicious perfection (in my eyes), I could sell this for more than a bike. I am most in awe because I admire her confidence. And by gosh, I want to protect it like the most precious thing in the world. I was exactly her age when the mean boy on the playground said to me, “fatty fatty two by four can’t get through the kitchen door.” Wait, yes I can, I remember thinking. I can totally fit through the door, you dork face! But it stuck. I was suddenly aware of this description of me. It was a thing, a name, and over the years it became who I was. Fat. Irrespective of the fact that sometimes I was overweight, there were times when I wasn’t; and then the most important thing: What in the hell hill of beans does the measure of the earth’s gravitational pull matter to me? Matter to my self worth? It totally doesn’t matter; yet, it does.
I keep thinking, When will my children lose their body image innocence? I think it’s more prevalent in girls than boys, but I have no scientific or sociological evidence either way—I can only speak to my experience. I do not, of course, want to exclude the potential impact on boys. My son, for example, does sit-ups every morning and declares that he is “working on his six-pads.” So who knows where he’s headed (I jest), but I do worry about both of them, for sure. But I fret more about my daughter’s confidence, especially in this Internet age. I worry about whatever random characteristic of her body that some mean kid decides is “pickable,” whether true or false. How can I protect her?
The truthful answer is: I can’t. As a parent, I can’t protect her from the mean girls or the dumb boys who dig at her. Then how can I empower her? How can I help focus on her strengths, so that if and when someone digs at her, she can throw up her hands and say, “In the words of Taylor Swift, whatever! Haters gonna hate hate hate,” and go back to showing off her mad monkey bar skills without a thought.
I found triathlon when I didn’t know what in the world was happening with my body. I had gained a ton of weight after having two children 14 months apart, sitting all day at a desk or in a car, and eating anything that didn’t eat me—and frankly, being too tired to care or know any better. I started this sport at well over 240 pounds, and I was acutely aware of that. Struggling to run or ride on a bike at that weight is not something you can easily forget. Almost six years later, I am just now looking at pictures of myself and saying, “I am a strong woman. I have a strong body. I am an athlete.” It has sadly taken me 36 years to come to that simple conclusion—something that our children come into the world believing intuitively.
A healthy body image is not everything, but it certainly matters. It’s also something that is really hard to embrace, especially if you have spent a lifetime spiraling in the other direction—fat, weak, fluffy, squishy and not good enough. Triathlon can be an intimidating sport to dive into, especially if we are lacking confidence in the body image arena. Maybe we do feel that we can’t be fast enough, or that we aren’t fit or thin enough for the clothing (God bless it). But finish line after finish line, body image can change; workout after workout, it can get better.
Someone criticized me recently for calling triathlon a “life-saver,” stating that I need to find happiness in my life, in my children and my job—not in a sport. To that I say: Patooey. What greater blessing than to discover the good and the strong in ourselves, however we find it? To be part of a sport that has shown me a path to finding myself and learning how I can improve, and be happier and healthier? To show my children what hard work, sweat, healthy food and competition can result in? I am thankful that through years of hard work in this sport and through the wonderful people I have met, I have learned self-care and compassion towards others—and most importantly, towards myself. I have learned that I have more strength, power and goodness inside than I had grown to believe. I am strong, silly and on my way to bottling up that confidence I see in my children. I still struggle with not using the “F Word” to describe myself. But each time I find it falling from my lips, I realize I identify less and less with that empty descriptor—it is not who or what I am. I am a mother. I am a triathlete. I am many things. And because triathlon helped me realize those small facts, I will say that the sport has been, and continues to be, a life-saver.
Meredith Atwood is a wife, mom, attorney, Ironman, coach and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She lives in Atlanta and blogs at SwimBikeMom.com.