How my toddler taught me to love my body

Today, I came across an old photo of myself in an album that my mother meticulously put together about twenty years ago. I remember when she undertook this project. She wanted to have a dedicated album for each of her three daughters, and it involved hours of lovingly sorting, arranging and reminiscing over every single photograph. She gave me my album to keep when she came for the birth of my first daughter.

In that photo, I’m about eight years old. I’m standing at the shore of the ocean with my youngest sister, aged three at the time. She has a delighted grin on her face as she gingerly treads the golden sand, but you can’t see mine as it’s covered by my windswept, thick, brown curls with copper-tinged ends due to being in the sun for days on end. I’m wearing a bathing suit. My long, strong legs show that I was tall for my age.

All I can remember when I see this photo is the time my preteen self saw it in the album, self-consciously extracted it and hid it away from view.

I look so fat,” I remember thinking to myself. I hated seeing it and certainly didn’t want anyone else to see it. I remember my other sister, two years younger than me, asking me at some point why I hated that photograph so much. I don’t remember how I answered her.

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I haven’t seen that photo since then. And today, I decided to sit down with my 21-month-old daughter and show her pictures of Mama when she was a little girl. This photograph immediately fell out of the pocket at the back of the album where I had placed it for safekeeping and straight onto my lap. It stunned me into silence for a little while as all of the associated thoughts and emotions came flooding back.

Pittee-too!” my daughter cried out in glee, announcing her version of the words “swimming pool”. We don’t have a lot of beaches where we live, so I laughed softly and started pointing out the people and scenery in the picture. And with her innocent eyes, she didn’t see a girl with chubby thighs, a rounded belly, or frizzy, unkempt hair. She simply saw two little girls playing happily in the water.

I looked at her. Quietly and carefully. I watched her peaceful expression as she took in the photo. I pulled her close to me, breathed in the heavenly scent of her hair, and kissed her soft cheek. I thought about how when I look at her, all I see is perfection.

Most people agree that she looks just like her father. But those that observe closely can tell that she has elements of me, too.

She has my high, rounded forehead. I remember noticing it in one of the late-stage ultrasounds when I was pregnant with her. She’s got my big alien head! I joked to my husband.

She has the same slight joining between her eyebrows that I have. I love the way her strong brow furrows when she’s concentrating on something. We both frown when we’re concentrating; it’s just one of those things. I watch her and can see the flickers of recognition and understanding coming over her face as she discovers something new.  I remember how, at age twelve, I was so eager to do something about my “monobrow”.

She has my curly hair. I run my fingers through it when I get her ready in the morning, and love the feeling of every little perfectly formed ringlet coiling around my fingers. Her hair is soft, bouncy and light. I find myself unconsciously playing with it when we’re sitting together, in the same way that my father would play with mine when I was a child.  In fact, he still does it now sometimes. I got my curly hair from him and now I’ve passed it onto her. When I was in primary school, I remember trying to slick it back into a tight bun to make it look as straight as possible, but the frizz always won that battle. I so desperately wanted one of those perfect, straight fringes that went evenly across my forehead. I remember getting a fringe cut at the hairdressers and then being disappointed to find out that by cutting curly hair, it actually springs back a hundred times curlier.

She has my legs. One hundred percent. It actually amazes me how they’re a carbon copy of mine, down to every last detail: the shape of our ankles, the way our knees aren’t perfectly centred, everything. She will probably eventually get my wide hips, too. She has always had strong legs, and people would marvel when she was an infant at how well she could support herself while standing. I love how expertly she can run to chase after something that has caught her interest, squat down to quietly observe a snail that has come across our path, and dance like a ballerina on her tip-toes with real, genuine grace. I remember dreading P.E. day at school because I hated wearing those horrible white shorts which accentuated how much thicker my thighs were than all the other girls. I started wearing swimming shorts over my bathing suit all the time and would refuse to get into the water without them.

She has my big, wide feet. I love how despite their toddler sponginess and roundness, they take her wherever she wants to go. They look like little girl feet now, but I still remember the way they looked when she was first born. So small, so delicate, toes curled in slightly; and when she would sporadically kick them at me I would be reminded of how it felt from the inside. Her favourite shoes are the blue and orange sneakers Papa bought her when he went on a business trip and she asks me if she can wear them inside the house at least twice a day. I remember when my parents bought me some sparkly red Cinderella shoes at age eight and I was distraught to find that they didn’t come anywhere close to fitting. I started to hate shoe shopping because the styles that I liked inevitably never came in my size.

There it was. The realisation that all of the parts of my body that I resented as an adolescent, and some even now as a grown woman, were emblazoned so clearly in my child. The child I see as the ultimate embodiment of beauty and perfection, in every possible way.

Was this some kind of catharsis that the universe had decided I needed to go through? That in a moment, my perspective of these parts of my own body as flaws and imperfections would be completely torn down and replaced with the perspective of an adoring mother beholding how exquisite every last detail of her child was? How is it possible, the universe taunted me in that moment, that you can hate this part of your own body, but then love it beyond comprehension in that of another, when the two are so undeniably similar?

She’s at the age now where she is copying so many of my behaviours. The way she carries her handbag as she pushes her toy stroller. The way she rocks her baby doll when she’s trying to comfort her. The way she makes a surprised face when she sees or hears something that we both know is super exciting. The way she came into the bathroom while I was brushing my teeth the other day, saw the digital scale under the sink, pulled it out and excitedly stepped on it. Obviously, she didn’t know the significance of what she was doing in that small action, but I was completely stunned at the truth behind what “they” say: that our little ones are watching, observing, learning and imitating. Every. Little. Thing. That we do.

One of the craziest things that strikes me when I think about that photo is that I was raised by two loving, supportive, incredible parents, who never made body image a “thing”. And yet this insidious body insecurity that affects so many children, and particularly girls, still managed to weasel its way in to a child’s mind, despite being told that she was strong, smart, beautiful and loved.

Raising girls during a time when there is so much emphasis on the physical, on aesthetics, on narrow, unrealistic and shallow definitions of beauty, is daunting. And with this newfound realisation, I have promised myself to teach her, as best as I can, to see her body as something amazing, and powerful, and strong, and perfect. I want her to see how many incredible things her body is capable of – I’ve certainly learned that over time.

That you might think that you’re not the “athletic type”, but then you train those legs and feet you once resented, through determination and perseverance, to run faster, and further, than you ever could have thought possible.

That you might feel uncomfortable with your changing body as you transform from girl to woman, but then you appreciate every single one of those changes when you witness your body house and grow a baby, who you then nourish with that very same body.

That the sooner you accept that beauty is not about a set of standards to which one must aspire, but about valuing your own uniqueness, and what you do with that uniqueness, how you treat people, what kind of person you become, the easier life gets.

And the reemergence of this photograph which I so desperately wanted to keep hidden, reminded me that in order to do that, I need to be her example. I wanted to hug the young me in that photo and tell her all of these things.

And then I realised that the universe has given me a chance to do that, by teaching those very things to my own little girl.

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