This post is participating in the Body Image Carnival being hosted by Melodie at Breastfeeding Moms Unite! and MamanADroit who will be posting articles on themes pertaining to body image all week! Make sure you check out their blogs everyday between April 12-18 for links to other participants' posts as well as product reviews, a giveaway, and some links to research, information and resources pertaining to body image.
I am a naturally skinny woman, daughter of a naturally skinny mother, and mother of an apparently naturally skinny toddler.
So what? Is that a problem? Isn’t that the ideal? Well yes, and no. Yes for the obvious reasons. I have never known outright societal discrimination. I have never been called hurtful insulting names. I cannot begin to imagine how hard it is to be a person of size in this culture.
No for the following:
Being thin is considered an asset. Being skinny is not necessarily. And certainly not when you are the skinny mother of a skinny child. Being skinny puts you at risk of eating disorder/mental disorder stigma. Being skinny with a skinny toddler puts you at risk of whispers, “That woman has an eating disorder and body issues and she’s pushing her neurosis onto her child.”
A little background…My mother grew up during the post WW2 1950s, in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in which there were so many holocaust survivors, my mother grew up thinking that all old people got tattoos on their arms as a matter of course. My mother was chastised regularly by my grandmother that she was so skinny, she looked like she just got out of a concentration camp. Add the fact that the ideal of feminine beauty at that time was the curvaceous, decidedly non-skinny Marilyn Monroe, and it is safe to say my mother had body image issues growing up. Body image issues she did not want to pass down to me. So she never said a word to me about my weight. If I wanted to eat nothing but fruit and cottage cheese for lunch, that was fine by her. I knew I was thin, but by the time I was growing up, thin was “in”. I was lucky I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain a pound. That is, I was lucky until I started being accused of having an eating disorder. When I was 18, I got my first position dancing with a professional ballet company. I shared an apartment with another young dancer who in fact did struggle with anorexia (among other things). People would ask her if I ate, what I ate, and if I kept down what I ate. They didn’t know that every night when we got home, she would lock herself in her room and chain smoke while I cooked and ate dinner, coming out only after I was finished cleaning my dishes.
Fast forward over a decade later, my ballet dancing days long passed, I am still thin thanks to the high metabolism I inherited from my mother. Oh dear, what that high metabolism did to me while pregnant! It totally went into overdrive. Some days I couldn’t go more than a half hour without putting something into my stomach, lest I become painfully, violently ill. I was actually looking forward to keeping about 5 pounds of baby weight on. I wanted my figure to look more womanly and less 12 year old boyish. I was thrilled when breastfeeding caused my breasts to swell large enough to require something more than a training bra (although I have been known to, ehem, indulge in a bit of padding now and again, pre-kiddo of course. What? It helps to fill out clothes, which are designed for women who look like women and not boys, you understand). However, breastfeeding also helped every pound I had gained disappear quickly. By the time my 3 months of maternity leave ended, I was back to my pre-pregnancy weight. Within the next few months I was 10 pounds below my pre-pregnancy weight, where I maintained for over a year. I was so concerned about the weight loss, I went to my doctor to have my thyroid tested. Turns out my thyroid is fine. Everything is fine. I just have small bones and a high metabolism, just like my mother, and my body was (and still is, although to a much lesser extent) burning extra calories creating milk.
I will admit, when it comes to my son I have much more fear and insecurity than I ever had about my own size. Although self conscious about my ribs prominently stickling out, in my dancing days I was vain about my shapely legs and derrière. Plus, as we all know, in general women are rewarded in our society for being thin. Men and boys, on the other hand, are generally not. Skinny boys are called “weak” or “sissy” and are considered easy targets for bullies.
I think I’ve done a good job at nurturing my son’s taste for nutritious food so far. A little too good a job I fear sometimes. I blame it on the daily spinach and kale salads, and daily gallon of super greens I consumed while pregnant. If my little guy is offered a plate with macaroni and cheese with carrots and peas on the side, he might taste a noodle before proceeding to finish off all the carrots and peas. Grilled cheese sandwiches have been tossed on the floor in favor of sliced cucumber and apple. Thank goodness he likes nuts and doesn’t have allergies; otherwise I don’t know how I would get any fat into that kid!
From a nutritional standpoint, this is good (if not somewhat unusual, what toddler doesn’t like mac n’ cheese?!) This might be fabulous were it not for one thing – the nagging worry constantly pulling at me that he is too skinny. I see his ribs standing out clearly and my stomach turns. At every visit to the pediatrician, I wait with anxiety as his weight is compared against other children his age and his percentile read to me. Lowest tenth percentile.
I fear what would happen if his weight would drop even lower on the scale. I fear the words “Failure to thrive.” What would happen? Would they call Child Protective Services and accuse me of starving my child? Of failing to meet my child’s most basic physical needs? And what would I say if that happened?
Can you just imagine me crying, “I try feeding him buttery mashed potatoes and whole milk yogurt! But all he’ll eat is raw vegetables and fruits!”
It sounds ridiculous. I know. Especially coming from me, his skinny mother, who loved snacking on celery as a kid and whose favorite lunch growing up consisted of canned peaches and cottage cheese.
For a lifetime of good health, I think some key things I can do for my child is to encourage both healthy eating habits and a healthy body image. So, I know I need to let go of my too-skinny body hang-ups. My pediatrician is not worried about my son’s weight, as he has consistently gained proportionally since birth, so I shouldn’t worry either. I am starting to relax more when I see my toddler fill up at dinner time on raw sugar snap peas, baby carrots and grapes, pushing away the avocado and hummus wrap or throwing the stir fry as far away from him as his little arms can throw it. I am learning to take a deep breath and try to trust that he knows what his body needs, just as my mother trusted that I knew what my body needed. And when I see his little ribs under his skin, I need only look in the mirror to remind myself that a person can be skinny, healthy, and undeprived all at once.