My daughter's first day of middle school is today. 6th grade. Last night she confided that she is nervous and wants to go back to elementary school. She is afraid she will get lost. I am afraid she will get lost too, but in a different way.
I am afraid she will get lost emotionally and spiritually as is so common with girls in middle school. I am afraid she will start to value her looks over her intelligence. I am afraid she will start comparing her body to everyone else and judging herself or others. I am afraid she will find herself lacking from listening to other women complain about their bodies, or listening to other girls going on diets, or from participating in social media full of photo shopped and filtered pictures or by watching tv and seeing the millions of ads telling her what is wrong with her and how she can fix it for only $19.99 a month.
I feel like I am entering a war zone and no one else even knows there is an enemy present. Everyone else is letting the enemy in, even inviting them in, and asking them to stay for dinner. It seems so many of us agree without question that there is something wrong with us and something to be fixed. Go on a diet, get to the gym, facial peels and blemish removal, cosmetic surgery, cleanses, and botox. Everyone is trying to conform to ideals that aren't realistic or attainable, let alone sustainable. It’s insidious, invasive, and feels sadly inevitable.
I will do all I can, however, to not let these things happen. I will talk to her about body image and weight stigma and how privilege works.. I will talk to her about how trying to change your body backfires and how nothing good can come from comparing yourself to others and teach her about self acceptance. I will teach her about intuitive eating and show her how healthism is running rampant in our culture and is actually making people sicker and putting undue stress on our bodies. I will keep the lines of communication open for whatever topic might arise, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. I will help her maintain her individuality. I will teach her to be resilient to the pressures that women face to conform and to play small and to be quiet and be pretty. I will show her the movie Embrace, among others, when it is time. And then I will show her again.
I will give her books to read and articles to help her see how misguided people can be when they think that having the perfect body, boyfriend or wardrobe will lead to the perfect life. I will help her to claim what is hers and not give it up to someone else. I will not let her give her personal power away by trying to please others. I will continue to teach her that she can trust the wisdom of her own body and her own feelings and she doesn’t need any magazine or tv show to tell her how she feels. I will encourage her not to restrict her food or her emotions. I will continue to support her growth and not shame her when her body changes or make her feel even more awkward and uncomfortable then she already might feel.
I will get to know her friends, in person and online. I will attempt to know what social media apps she is using. I will not let her filter her own photos or follow young women who promote thinness and beauty as the only way to be happy. I will not let her think that getting "likes" is more important than being kind and generous and tolerant and inclusive of all people.
I am going to teach her about self care - meditation, relaxation, pacing yourself, taking a break when you need it, self compassion, and mindfulness. Oh and gratitude, lots and lots of gratitude. I am going to encourage her to try things even if she thinks she is going to suck. Everything is a learning experience and failure is a sign of growth, not of weakness. In fact, failure is a sign of strength because it means you tried something. And you tried something that maybe you didn’t know how to do or didn’t know how it was going to work out. Failure should be admired and applauded and not feared.
I am not going to let her forget her worth. I am not going to let her forget that at the core of her being she is a shining star, no matter what happens. She doesn’t have to be the best at anything or get the highest grades to earn my love and admiration. She already held the deepest part of my heart when she was born and I am going to work to remember that and remind her of it often.
It shouldn’t take work to remember something so simple, but sometimes it does. When your neighbor's kid is playing varsity as a freshman, or got into school on a full ride, or continually stars as the lead in every school play, or when you see all the shiny happy faces on Facebook, we might be fearful that our own kids are not measuring up. When other kids bodies or lives seem to fit the societies ideal of thinness and beauty with (supposed) ease and our kids bodies and experiences appear to fall short, it is understandable that we might feel worried or concerned or even embarrassed.
It’s not your fault that you feel that way - our society encourages this way of thinking. But it is wrong to feel like your kids need to look different than they do or need to keep up with what others are doing to be worthy. And once you see that, it is your responsibility to stand up for what is right. And as more and more lights of awareness come on in parents across the country, as they realize that their kids are exactly who they are supposed to be and look how they are supposed to look, the world can take a deep breath and relax. All the fear that your kids are not going to measure up can be released when you stop trying to measure them. Let them be. There is no such thing as perfect.
Our job is to encourage, love, nurture and support, not to judge, shame, and criticize. Everyone’s path is going to be different and will not look like yours or the one you would choose for your child. While there is an inevitable drive to want to keep our kids safe and free from harm and hurt, we can’t make all their choices for them and they will need to experience difficult emotions in order to grow and to learn that they will survive even when bad feelings occur or bad things happen. I am going to tell her everything will be ok, because it will.
So it is with a feeling of bitter sweetness that I usher my girl into middle school today. I am so proud of the person she already is and fiercely determined to not let her dim her light to fit in or please others as she embarks on her journey through life. Loving her no matter what is what I will do.
Let’s help each other help our kids by embracing their uniqueness and individuality and not trying to get them to all look the same, act the same and be the same person, because, quite simply, they are not.