I was incredulous.
Not only is my niece a twig, blessed with skinny genes that she definitely didn't get from my side of the family, but she's 12 years old. Certainly, a young girl shouldn't be preoccupied with a dislike for her body, right?
As I assured my niece that she's beautiful and has amazingly toned and thin legs (I admit I'm somewhat jealous of them), I couldn't help but wonder if my negative comments about myself when she's around have anything to do with her claim that her legs are fat.
I like to keep communication lines open with my niece. Though she knows I'm the adult in our relationship, we approach each other in more of a sisterly way. Perhaps because of this, I've felt more free to express my concerns to her when I'm having a "fat day."
But that may be more destructive than I think.
Womenshealth.gov explains that girls pay more attention to what we do and say than we realize. My niece is hearing me say things like "I wish I could lose this" or "I wish I could tone that," and those comments are shaping her body image.
Feelings that may seem harmless are, in fact, creating a potentially unhealthy expectation of what a normal and healthy body should be. She's already dealing with the pressure of media and social expectations, and my apparent dislike of my body feeds into the idea that she's just not skinny enough.
Womenshealth.gov offers the following for building young girls' body image:
• Make sure the child understands that weight gain is a normal part of development, especially during puberty.
• Avoid negative statements about food, weight, and body size and shape.
• Allow the child to make decisions about food, while making sure that plenty of healthy and nutritious meals and snacks are available.
• Compliment the child on her or his efforts, talents, accomplishments and personal values.
• Restrict television viewing, and watch television with the child and discuss the media images you see.
• Encourage schools to enact policies against size and sexual discrimination, harassment, teasing and name-calling; support the elimination of public weigh-ins and fat measurements.
• Keep the communication lines with the child open.