When my son was three years old, he came bouncing into my room as I was bent over my bottom dresser drawer trying desperately to find a shirt that would stretch over my huge cans. I had just given birth to my third child; I had no idea how I looked (who has time to look in a mirror when you have three kids?), and I really didn’t care. I cared that my new baby was healthy. I cared about getting more sleep. I cared about keeping all my children alive. I did not care how I looked in my mesh underpants.
So when my son asked me why my belly was “dripping over my underpants when I bent over,” I was too tired to respond, but I did. I had to. Let me explain.
In high school, I knew this guy — let’s call him Dick — who used to go around and squeeze girls on their arms and legs to see how much fat they had. Then, he would let you know how you rated. Apparently his pinching was more accurate than the latest BMI test.
It bothered me and it affected the way I felt about myself. At the time, I wasn’t exactly healthy. Eating less than 1000 calories a day while you are going through puberty will do that to you. His constant touching and grading my body based on how much fat he could pinch was not the cause for me wanting to lose weight, but it certainly made it worse.
After a few months of going through this daily ritual with Dick, I told him to knock it off. He did, but I feel silly it took me so long to say something. If anyone was to do or say anything like that to me, my kids, or a random stranger standing in line at the supermarket, I wouldn’t be as pleasant as my 16-year-old self was.
I couldn’t help but think of Dick after hearing my son comment on my belly. I knew he was just speaking the truth, and he was only three, but the last thing I wanted was to raise a boy who thought it was all right to comment on anyone’s body. Kids aren’t born knowing this is hurtful and unacceptable. I wanted to start teaching him early. Just like I had to teach him not to pick his nose, or put things in our dog’s ear.
I didn’t say, “That’s because Mummy just had a baby three days ago, and my tummy is stretched out.” That wasn’t the point.
I sat down next to him, pulled my shirt over my engorged breasts and swollen belly and said, “You know, if someone’s belly is dripping down their underwear, they already know, and you don’t have to tell them.”
He looked up at me, then down at my belly,” It’s not now, Mama. It’s not drippin’. I like it better when it’s not drippin’.”
Oh, please don’t let me raise another Dick.
I sat there and looked at my son and told him we don’t make comments about other people’s bodies. Ever. It hurts their feelings and makes them feel bad. And really, what someone looks like doesn’t matter. We should pay attention to how they make us feel, not what they look like.
Of course, that conversation was pretty short. He had a new car to go ram into the wall and crackers to eat. I have had many conversations since that day with both my sons and my daughter about our bodies, other people’s bodies, and their dialogue on the subject, but that conversation was the most important one yet. He still remembers it, and a few weeks later, I watched him start to make a comment about someone’s teeth…then he looked at me and stopped himself. He had been listening to me that day.
He is now a 13-year-old boy and I am pretty sure he doesn’t walk around the halls of his school touching other girls and acting like Dick. But if he does, I hope I find out about it. I also hope the kids he is saying stuff to make it so he never opens his mouth about their bodies again.
Talking to our sons about body image — their own, as well as others — and how to treat people with compassion is a long conversation. It doesn’t end when they run out of the room after we tell them their comments can hurt others.
We keep at it with gentle reminders, checking in, and setting an example by not commenting on other people’s bodies, or our own (something that is a struggle for so many, including myself).
Our words can have a tremendous effect on our children, and it’s our job to teach them that their words can also have a major impact on others.
In some ways I am thankful my stomach was “dripping over my underpants” that day. It certainly reminded me that it’s never too early to start talking about body image with our children. And it’s especially important not to forget to talk to our boys about it.