I was an average kid who grew into an average teen. I think it was the first year of high school when I really started to be pretty certain that I was, in fact, terribly overweight. I’d had an inkling that this was the case in primary school, but it seemed less important then. By the time I’d figured out where to get the bus from, I’d also learned that I was at least 2 clothing sizes too big. I was very tall for my age, but this seemed irrelevant at the time.

first time

I saw this e-card floating around online and it brought back a flood of memories of myself; quite young and utterly convinced that I was far too fat. This was something I obsessed about quietly in my head for years, though it occasionally spilled out of my mouth here and there. Among girlfriends, it was not at all unusual. We would all moan about how fat we were, make half-arsed attempts at reassuring each other and then the cycle would start on some other perceived flaw. Boobs too small, bum too big, crooked teeth- whatever.

When I was 15 or so, I had a boyfriend who must have been sick to death of hearing about how fat I apparently was. I remember a time when I was moaning, yet again, about my fat belly when he suggested I could try crunches or sit-ups if I wanted a flatter tummy. He probably thought he was telling me what I wanted to hear, since all attempts to reassure me that my body was fine were falling on deaf ears. I remember being utterly crushed and trying desperately not to show it, changing the subject and saving the tears and further self-loathing for a more private moment. To give you some perspective, this photo was literally taken a few weeks after that conversation:

self esteem

At Cable Beach, Broome, apparently waiting for Greenpeace to roll me back in.

I was a size 10-12 and 176 cm tall (that’s a smidge over 5 ft 9 inches in the old money) and weighed less than 70kg. I was right in the healthy weight range and I look at this picture now and wonder what the hell I was thinking, because that kid had nothing to worry about.

I would love to be able to go back in time and sit myself down for a chat. Firstly to let me know that I was not, in any way, the whale I thought I was. To tell my young self to pull my head out of the sand and get a little perspective. Then I’d ask the young me if being fat was really such a terrible thing?

“Fat” is not the worst thing in the world. It’s just a shape, a size, a number. It can be changed. There are far worse things to be than a bit podgy. Size does not and should not define a person. I would rather be fat than unkind, disloyal, cruel, bigoted or dishonest. Of course, our health is important. But being larger doesn’t necessarily mean being unhealthy and when it comes to other people, we have no way of knowing the status of their health and shouldn’t make assumptions.

As a parent, I am trying to make sure our kids grow up with far better self esteem than I did. I hate the thought that they might become hypercritical of themselves, like I was. The best thing I ever did in this regard was to stop beating myself up over my size, because it’s really hard to teach your kids to have good self esteem if your own is dragging in the gutter. I’m not the skinny kid in that photo any more. I’ve had two children, I’ve lived through times of enormous stress, times where I didn’t have a lot and the occasional times where I’ve had too much. It all takes it’s toll and changes you. Accepting yourself, I think, is the first step to encouraging great self esteem in kids. Along with that, these four things are what I try to focus on in my parenting:

  1. Demonstrating body acceptance. It’s not enough to accept yourself- you have to show it. For example, I currently have a bit of weight to lose. It’s not a huge deal, just the result of having a baby and a body that clings to every calorie while breastfeeding. I’m getting there slowly but I’m not terribly concerned and the kids know it. They’ve seen the stretch marks and wobbly bits and I’ve done my best to make it clear to them that I’m not overly bothered because this is what having children does to a body; it changes it. Expecting otherwise is unrealistic for most people.
  2. Discussing what’s trending. This is making time to talk about crazy fads like the so-called “bellybutton challenge” (where you are supposed to put an arm behind your back and reach around your side to touch your navel to show how thin you are) or “Kylie Jenner challenge” (sucking a shot glass over your lips to get a full, pouty mouth- often resulting in bruising, blisters and torn mouths) as they come up and about how unrealistic or unnecessary they are as well as other appearance fads as they emerge.
  3. Praise is not appearance focused. I don’t think there is anything wrong with appearance based compliments from time to time. Say you are going out to a wedding or party; telling your child they look great is perfectly fine. But this shouldn’t be the sole focus of any kind and positive words you have. Focus instead on their efforts, their achievements, their skills, their good qualities and interests.
  4. Being aware of their media consumption. Are they reading magazines and if so, are those magazines sending positive messages? Who are they following on instagram? What are they googling? Watching on YouTube? Unless you are aware of their influences, you won’t be able to discuss it with them.  It also means discussing the expectations, particularly on women, to look and dress in certain ways and to behave in certain ways and how the media they consume plays a big role in this. It’s a great vehicle for talking about the double standards we often see within our society and it’s not only girls that need to be aware of these things. As far as traditional media and social media go, I think the best thing you can do is to give your kids a critical eye to view it all with. Get them thinking.

This is the challenge I’m setting for myself- to raise kids that don’t harbour the same level of loathing for their appearances that I did as a kid, not to mention the level of judgement on the appearances of others- because I know high school was full of that, too. This is no easy task, but I have to try. I want them to have good self esteem, to value themselves regardless of size or weight or appearance.

What do you do to boost your children’s self esteem and self worth?



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