Sometimes the best advice about body image, exercise and diet comes from people who are complete amateurs. Forget doctors, diet book authors and body image gurus. If you want pure, unencumbered joy and pride in your body, then just watch a four-year-old child.
While body hatred has become widespread for adult women — and increasingly men — we only need to look at children to know the difference between what’s natural and what’s culturally imposed nonsense.
On that note, this is what my daughter has taught me about my body.
1. You can observe differences in people’s bodies without it being a judgment about their characters
The other day my daughter Violet commented that my bottom was too big for the toilet seat.
As you might imagine, I was horrified by the statement. Then I realised that she was merely observing that, unlike her bottom that almost falls through the hole in the seat, my bottom does indeed protrude over the sides.
Similarly, when she asks something like ‘Why is that man fat?’, as she did while standing in the bank queue recently, she was expressing the same level of curiosity as if she were to ask why he was wearing a red t-shirt.
Fortunately, having learned from the toilet seat experience, I was ready with a response. “Everyone is different,” I told her. “Just as people have different heights and different skin colour, they are also different weights.”
And, having yet to be poisoned by our fat-phobic society, that was all the explanation she required.
Children notice differences in people’s bodies and appearance but we’re the ones who teach them to attribute value judgments to those differences. When we teach them to judge other people, we are also training them to judge themselves.
2. Children move because they want to, not because they feel they must
Dancing, running, skipping, climbing. If there’s an opportunity for Violet to move her body, she will.
Unlike most adults, she doesn’t exercise for instrumental reasons; because she needs to burn off the piece of cake she just ate, for example or because she wants to fit into her skinny jeans. Exercise for children isn’t about calculating calories. It’s just inherently enjoyable.
I can’t remember the exact day that exercise became a punishment and therefore stopped being fun for me. But I do remember all those times I sat on the sidelines and watched rather than played.
Watching Violet I’ve learned to enjoy moving again for no other reason than I can.
3. Children are continually amazed at their bodies
Children love being naked, and marveling at how their bodies are growing. They’re fascinated at all the things their bodies can do, and when they look in the mirror they are proud and awe-struck by what they see.
There’s no pinching or poking bits of skin, or grimacing at how poorly they fail to measure up to some external standard of beauty. Violet doesn’t want anyone else’s’ body — or body part for that matter — other than her own.
The idea of wanting Pippa’s bum, Angelina’s lips or Miranda Kerr’s legs would set her off into excited giggles at the silliness of wanting such a thing.
It is liberating and soothing to remind myself that “you get what you get and you don’t get upset”.
4. Children dress for their own enjoyment rather than to impress others
While many children have very firm opinions about what they want to wear, they are often oblivious to dressing up to please other people.
Violet dresses for herself. Often she’ll wear her best dress to bed for no other reason than she likes it. And quite often she’ll wake in the morning wearing a different outfit than the one she wore to bed.
While most of us would think that there’s no point wearing a nice dress if nobody else is going to see it, children are oblivious to being watched or judged.
They know fashion should be about individual play and creative expression rather than seeking the approval of others or conforming to a certain style.
5. Children are in tune with their natural appetite
While breastfeeding I was repeatedly told that babies can self-regulate their appetites. We trust babies to feed when they are hungry and stop feeding when they are full.
But as soon as they start on solids, adult ‘experts’ teach children that they are not capable of regulating their own bodies at all. We demand that they eat just one more spoonful, shoveling in the mashed up vegetables even though the child is clearly communicating they don’t want any more.
As they age we tell them they need to eat all their dinner before they get desert or if we think they have eaten more than the recommended quantity we will deny them food even when they tell us they are hungry.
Before long, parents are replaced by magazines and diet books as the gatekeepers of appetite, and like us, children start eating according to external rules or emotional factors and forget how to read their own hunger and full signals.
Perhaps it’s time we realised that we had it right the first time round and we need to learn to listen to our bodies again in order to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full.