Creating a positive body image for our toddler daughters

What do our children see when they look in the mirror? How can we as parents ensure that they like what they see?

Anorexia and bulimia, disorders which are most associated with teenagers, are now being diagnosed in children as young as five. Therefore, it is crucial that we as parents encourage our children to love themselves and to define themselves by who they are and not how they look.

 

Being a parent in twenty-first century Ireland seems to be so much more difficult than it was twenty years ago. The media has become much more influential, with young children being exposed to thousands of advertisements relating to body image. However, it is all too easy to use the media as a scapegoat for the rise in eating disorders in young children. If we as parents want our children to develop a positive body image, we must ensure our children know how to love themselves.

My three year old daughter has been defined by her weight and her appearance from the moment she was born. At birth, Alison was 8lbs 4oz, ‘a fine weight’, and her skin was blemish- and eczema free. In the absence of a personality, this is how she was described. From about six months onwards, a phenomenon that psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan refers to as ‘The Mirror Stage’, Alison began to associate her reflection with herself. Henceforth, her appearance became an important part of her identity. She has been told by many people, including us her parents, that she is beautiful. Consequently, when Alison stands in front of the mirror, she likes what she sees.

Furthermore, Alison’s obsession with Disney princesses, especially the heroines of Frozen, Elsa and Anna, has greatly moulded her perception of what defines beauty. When she twirls around in Elsa’s trademark dress, her imagination allows her to become Elsa, Queen of Arrandale with flawless skin, perfectly groomed hair and ridiculously petite physique. Disney is renowned for their formulaic composition of the stereotypical princess, and despite the rise of feminism, Disney princesses continue to equate beauty with being painfully thin and blemish free.

Although USA Today reported in September 2013 that it is the mother who has the biggest influence over their daughters’ body image, responsibility for the development of positive body images lies with both parents. According to an article by Margarita Tartakovsky entitled ‘Dads, Daughters and Body Image’, daughters who have healthy relationships with their fathers ‘tend to be more self-reliant, self-confident […] and less likely to develop eating disorders’. One advantage of having mothers in the workplace is that fathers are spending more one-on-one time with their children. Tartakovsky recommends that fathers use this time to play with their young children, thus boosting their self-esteem, as well as teaching them to question the unrealistic body images presented to them by the media.

As a mother, my priority is to raise a daughter who is rounded, and who learns to love herself as a person, not just in terms of her appearance.  Sadly, not every mother shares my view. ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ is a toddler beauty pageant show in the US, in which pushy mothers shamelessly dress up their daughters in over-the-top costumes, apply makeup and fake tan and train them to compete with other toddlers for a prize. Psychologist  Dr Allan Schwartz has criticised the show, saying that such shows ‘reinforce negative female body issues that result in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia [among children].’ In addition, these pageants serve to sexualise our toddlers, which is unacceptable, argues Schwartz.

Thankfully, it seems that Ireland is not ready for toddler beauty pageants. Voicing her opinion in response to the cancellation of toddler beauty pageants in Belfast and Cork earlier this year, Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald agrees that the sanctity of childhood needs to be protected by the State. In March 2014, the Seanad unanimously passed a motion to ban all child beauty pageants in Ireland. Included in this motion was an appreciation of ‘the difficulties and pressures faced by children and parents as the distinct space between childhood and adulthood becomes increasingly blurred through media, advertising and popular culture’ as well as a belief ‘that every effort must be made to protect children and childhood against sexualisation’. While Ireland may not be ready to embrace the absurdity that is the toddler beauty pageant, it cannot be denied that we have become a society obsessed by external beauty, and if we fail to challenge this,  we run the risk of our children developing eating disorders in later life.

Ultimately, our children are not princes and princesses. They are unique individuals, who need to be allowed to explore who they are, both inside and out. Here’s how we as parents can promote the development of a positive body image, according to Margarita Tartakovsky and Elizabeth Ward, who is a dietician in the US:

  • Be a good role model: refrain from saying things such as ‘I need to lose weight’ in front of your toddlers, and do not openly obsess about your toddler’s weight
  • Encourage a healthy diet;
  • Limit the amount of screen time. Discuss advertisements’ and programmes’ treatment of body image openly and honestly, and point out unrealistic portrayals of body image;
  • Teach your child that everyone is unique, including in their appearance;
  • Spend time playing with your child, which will boost their self-esteem. Exercise releases endorphins which promotes happiness.
  • Focus on other attributes and talents other than appearance.

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs from 23 February – 1 March 2015. For more information on eating disorders in children, visit www.bodywhys.ie.

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A Marriage of Minds

Today, I will celebrate my thirteenth Valentine’s Day with the same person I spent my first Valentine’s Day with. I was eighteen and a complete introvert. I wasn’t in the ‘popular’ group in school, I kept very much to myself, and the only makeup I had was a stick of concealer I’d bought when I was sixteen (in fact, I think I may still have it somewhere). As I smeared it on my face in anticipation of my first ever Valentine’s date, I remember thinking that it would probably be my last, and crying silently in front of the mirror.

Why? Because I had done the unthinkable.

I had fallen in love. This made me feel extremely vulnerable.

I now know that it’s not a bad thing to fall in love with someone, but that wasn’t part of my original plan. When I was sixteen, I had no intention in getting involved in a long term relationship. My dream was, and still is, to become a writer, only I had envisioned a grottier existence with yellowing paperwork and a couple of cats thrown in for good measure. (Think crazy cat lady from The Simpsons). This is what I was working towards. A relationship would be nice, but probably unlikely, given that I was the biggest nerd/introvert in the world, ever. And believe it or not, the words ‘disability’ and ‘sexy’ are not together in the thesaurus.

The story of how JP and I met is embarrassingly cliché, in the disability world at least. I met my husband in a place called Clochan House. For those of you who don’t know where that is, it’s an uber-cool holiday centre with swimming pools, in the centre of Tullamore. (It is not, er, an extension of Tullamore hospital). When I walked in, there he was, quite simply the most handsome thing I had ever seen. He had the widest blue eyes and the gentlest features. And he was approachable, chatty and good-humoured. I knew then, that even if we did not get together, that my life would never be the same.­

It took nearly two years for me to gather the courage to ask him out. We were on a group holiday in another, more aesthetically pleasing respite centre. Having never asked someone out before, I poured my heart out to him like a gobshite. It was something like you’d see in a Disney movie if, after the princess declared her love for her prince, her beloved said ‘okay, let’s give that a go and see what happens’. Sooo romantic. I never wanted the ground to open up and swallow me as much as I did that day. But I’m still glad that I didn’t say something like ‘I want to get off with you’ as one friend suggested (though I’m pretty sure that’s what he heard).

The months that followed were awkward. On our fourth date to the cinema, my mum dropped me off. I had hoped she would stay in the car and do her embarrassing wave and then it’d be over, but no. Instead she walked up to JP outside the cinema, no hellos, no ‘I’m Sarah’s mum’, and said, ‘If you ever touch one hair on my daughter’s head I will hunt you down like a dog and kill you’ and walked off. JP had been holding my hand and he quickly withdrew it. Then we sat in the cinema, side by side, not touching or talking. We didn’t have a date again until before Christmas 2002. This was October. We didn’t even talk over the phone at this stage; all communication was via text. One Saturday, the toe-rag had the balls to come over from Laois to Tullamore after cancelling yet another date, and he later confessed by text! ‘I’m sorry, I’m nervous’, he said. My reaction did nothing to calm these nerves!

After Christmas 2002, the casual relationship turned serious very quickly. It was the year of my Leaving Cert, and from the outside it may seem like the worst time for a teenager to be in a super-serious relationship, but for me, it couldn’t have come at a better time. I was studying relentlessly, killing myself physically and emotionally, and were it not for JP coming down every weekend, I would have ended up in a hospital. We made each other laugh, we liked the same music, we would talk long into the night/morning (sometimes these were like Ross/Rachel style conversations, the ‘where are we?’ conversations). He told me in these early days that he could see us getting married. The closeted cat-lady in me was looking for the nearest exit. In the strangest of twists, he’s the loving, dedicated partner while I’m the commitaphobe.

JP and I did a lot of growing up together. We went out a lot, as young ones do, especially when in the company of mutual friends. My favourite memory is our first holiday alone together to Blackpool, where we stayed in a B and B around the corner from the beach. Of course we totally underestimated how much money we’d need (plus the bank robbed us for each ATM transaction), meaning that we had £10 by the Monday of our holiday. And we weren’t going home till the Wednesday. To my disappointment, I found kicking the wall beside the ATM didn’t help.

So, let me tell you about my husband. JP is quite possibly the most generous guy I’ve ever met, not just financially but in terms in thoughtfulness too. I remember for our first Christmas together, he got me a white gold chain, a beanie teddy and a couple of CDs. I had got him a digital alarm clock. I don’t think he was impressed.

JP is (well, was) a serious Garth Brooks fan. ‘Unanswered Prayers’ is his favourite song. He always wanted to see GB live in Dublin. I’m sure the irony that this particular song is his favourite did not escape him in July 2014.

JP is anal about two things. Firstly, the ‘Coffee-sugar-tea’ containers must be in that order and facing out. Secondly, the dining chairs must be pushed in neatly when not in use. Sometimes, I deliberately leave them out or swap the containers around to mess with his head.

Working sometimes late hours means that JP sometime ends up watching crap on telly to unwind, such as ‘Judge Judy’ and ‘Road Wars’. Well, that’s his excuse for watching them anyway.

JP is the romantic one in the relationship, and I’m the one who laughs at any clichéd attempts at romance.

I am very thankful that John Paul Fitzgerald came into my life and I know how lucky I am to have someone to share all of life’s adventures with. While I’m particularly grateful that he has given us our beautiful daughter, I will always love him for who he is and will always admire him for his blunt honesty and his dedication to me, our marriage and our family.

Happy Valentine’s Day, honey. Sorry about the embarrassing blog but I couldn’t fit all of this into a card XXXXXX

Happy birthday, dear Ali!

My daughter and my proudest achievement, Alison, turned three years old at 11.52am today. It feels weird to be typing that sentence for several reasons. Firstly because up until I had Alison, I was on a mission to prove that I  was severely allergic to small children. I mean, they were cute and all, but I would have bawked at the idea of changing nappies or mopping up vomit. I can’t face cleaning my own. Secondly, because three years of my daughter’s life have passed by so quickly, and although I am delighted to be rid of the nightmares that were colic and reflux (aka, the Spawn of the Exorcist), I know that all I have now are memories, good and bad. Thirdly, because I want to freeze her time right now. I want to always remember her as she is, right now.

Alison Mary is now three. We named her Alison after one of mum’s favourite singers, Alison Krauss, because mum had died in 2009 and I didn’t particularly want to call her Una, plus we liked the name. Depending on what mood we’re in, we call her Alison or Ali. Alison is freakishly tall, and there’s no doubt that she will be taller than me by the time she’s nine. Her hair is grand when it’s washed but turns into a  mat of knots within 48 hours. Cue detangler spray and a lot of cursing from whichever parent has pulled the short straw  to comb out said mat.

Ali is intelligent. Well, I think so, so it must be true. She said ‘hi’ at eight weeks, and could count to five at sixteen months. She knows most nursery rhymes, and she also knows that she can get around daddy easier than mummy. She can count to ten in Irish now, thanks to playschool. She can spell ‘Tesco’, and knows daddy works there. I don’t know much about kids but I do think this is amazing.

Alison is currently a ‘Frozen’ fanatic, and her note-perfect rendition of ‘Let it Go’, complete with actions is highly entertaining. She loves singing and dancing, although I find the bum-wiggling a little disturbing. She also loves costumes (we have a future actress on our hands, perhaps?) , and would be equally happy dressing up as Elsa or Bob the Builder. Ever the diva, Alison loves being rescued from burning buildings (aka overturned toy boxes); the trouble is once you rescue her once, you have to rescue her ten thousand times.  Sigh.

I could describe what it is about Ali that I love so much until I’ve bored myself, but instead I’ll let the following anecdotes give you a better insight into her world.

1. Ali accidently walked in on her daddy while he was using the loo the other day. Next time she went to the toilet, she pulled down her pants and stood beside the toilet.

2. Ali loves sucking her thumb. And the more you tell her not to, the more she does it.

3. Ali doesn’t go to sleep at night until she prays for every single person she knows. Including someone called cucumber. We have no sodding idea who that is. When we ask her, she just smiles. I’m always a little nervous at this point, waiting for somebody to hop out of the wardrobe.

  1. Ali loves teddy bear picnics, at which she is always the guest of honour. She probably sees a picnic fit for a queen; what I see is a pile of toys. ‘Surprise!’ she yells, delighted with herself.
  2. Ali is fascinated with eyebrows and their texture. She loves rubbing eyebrows, and if she rubs your eyebrows, it means she likes you!

I could go on, but don’t worry, I won’t. What I’m trying to illustrate here is that Ali is very much her own person, and each day I fall more helplessly in love with her. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to be her mum. She is so loving, patient (of me), understanding and kind that I sometimes wonder who is the mummy, her or me? Honestly, I think I need her more than she needs me.

So, happy birthday to a truly remarkable child and the best daughter any mother could possibly dream of. I promise to love you and be thankful for you every day, because

Baby, now that I’ve found you, I won’t let you go,

I’ve built my word around you, I need you so,

Baby even though,

You don’t need me, you don’t need me, oh no. (Alison Krauss)

Thank you for bringing so much happiness into all of our lives xxxx