We’re on the cusp of “bikini season,” if magazines in the grocery shore checkout line are to be believed. I’m sure you’re familiar with the wide variety of products — ones that remove hair, ones that firm up jiggly thighs, ones that promise to burn stomach fat — which supposedly get a body ready for a teensy two-piece.
Want to know my secret for getting a bikini body? Buy a bikini. Put it on. Voila.
But, we don’t live in a society that allows people to just put on a bathing suit and not think twice about it. Instead, we live in a time and space where we are inundated with messages of what the “right” type of body looks like. I felt and absorbed those messages growing up, and that was before the 24/7 barrage of media via the Internet. I remember going through my tween and teen years, always giving a second or third glance in the mirror. I never felt 100 percent comfortable in my skin.
My mom influenced me greatly with the way she dealt with body issues. I can still remember rotating trials of diets, from grapefruit and cottage cheese to low-fat, no fat, no carbs, no eggs, high protein, soup and salad, and more. But at the same time, she never once criticized the way I looked, dressed, or carried myself. I never felt like I was too fat or too thin. And while I never felt “just right,” I think a lot of that is due to the awkwardness of the teen years in general. But, looking back my mom’s relationship with diet and exercise — and the way those things were talked about — had in impact on my own body image.
In fact, it wasn’t until I was pregnant and gave birth that I finally started seeing my body as something strong, powerful, and frankly awesome. And so, one very conscious aspect to raising my son is imparting how I use, display and talk about my body. Girls may have higher rates of eating disorders and more body image issues than boys, but I felt it was still important to tackle these issues as the mother of a son. After all, my son is going to grow up to be a man in this society. It would be great if he understood that the images we see in media and advertising are, for the most part, highly unrealistic. Also, boys aren’t immune to the effects of the media’s presentation on acceptable bodies.
So, come summer, I don a bikini, even though my hips sport silvery stretch marks from when I carried my son. And while I have some strong arms and legs, my stomach is a bit soft. But I want him to see that won’t put me off from enjoying myself in the surf and sun. And yeah, I’m that mom that doesn’t shave her armpits and proudly rocks her “pit puffs,” even while wearing a tank top. While my seven-year-old has remarked on the fact that I have hair on my armpits (though he knows I shave my legs, and might deduce I shave my bikini line — I’m complicated in my body hair preferences, okay?), it’s not so odd to him. He doesn’t think it’s weird, gross, or strange; it just what his mom does. Maybe when he reaches his teen years, it won’t seem so strange when he encounters girls his own age who are figuring out their own relationships to body hair.
Partially because of my own experience being influenced by how my mother talked about her body, my husband and I also to be conscious with the language we use to talk about ourselves. After my husband’s last physical, he knew he needed a bit of a lifestyle change. But the words “diet” or “get skinny” didn’t come up at all. Instead, Dad is eating healthier now, and we go to the gym to get strong. We work out, run and play sports to help move our bodies and make sure they last us as long as they can. Isn’t that, after all, what children should be learning about healthy living anyway?
I know I won’t always be able to shield my son from the way we talk about bodies, activity and nutrition in our society. But perhaps I can create a healthier place to start from.
Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamfesto. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter.
[Image of a mother at the beach via Shutterstock]