When my family’s Christmas cards found their way to your mailbox, you probably smiled, made a temporary comment about how big our kids grew, or complained about the fact that we didn’t speak much too long.
What you didn’t learn from the card was the look on my 11-year-old daughter Viviana’s face when she first saw the evidence. You didn’t hear Vivi sigh and said, “I look fat.”
Then when the ball fell on Times Square a week later, you wouldn’t have listened to Vivi tell me that her New Year’s resolution was to “lose weight”.
I’ve been there every time – and every time before. My daughter’s disgust breaks my heart at her body image – feelings that have been appearing more and more recently.
Vivi is in the fifth grade and, I learn, at the age when “a little bigger” gets “fat”. It’s a cruel fate for children like my daughter – or for any tween who knows exactly what the world sees (and doesn’t) look beautiful.
After hearing Vivi’s response to the Christmas cards, I immediately went into Mitigation Dad mode and said, “Vivi, you look great in all of these! You’re so pretty.”
Her half-hearted smile in my direction served as a virtual pat on the head as if to say, “Dad, I know you think that, but I don’t.”
How can I fix it?
Or should I even try to give Vivi a complex about her looks?
The truth is, I’ve seen this wave coming for a while. Vivi’s siblings are slim, she is less. Like me, Viviana will eat, hungry or not, whenever food is available. Like me, Vivi would rather sink on a comfortable couch than take a vigorous stroll through the neighborhood.
Over the years I have tried very hard to tell her that beauty has nothing to do with how you look. Just like her younger sister, I keep telling Vivi that the only things that make you beautiful are your heart and your brain. It used to make her giggle, now she rolls her eyes in dismissive obedience.
A compliment to Vivi could ease the immediate pain. However, it does not seem to cure the longer-term problem of self-image that lives in it.
In a way, I’m part of the problem – I also have similar body problems. Too often I make fun of how I look in front of the kids. Vivi was already there when I reached for my love handles in disgust. Or when I announce that no pictures of me on the beach will ever get on social media – NEVER.
Yes, I’m confused too.
Maybe Viviana and I can help each other – not just by honestly talking about elements of ourselves that we would change if we could, but by being accountable to each other for things that we could change but not.
While it sounds easy, these conversations are difficult. They require vulnerability, dedication, time and energy.
These talks are risky. You can uncover things that make me uncomfortable. I have to unpack heavy luggage to rebuild my little girl.
Next year our smile will be just as big. However, I hope that we all shine authentically – especially Vivi.
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