My tree is not yet on the curb and already I’m over it. If Halloween marks the kick-off of insane holiday decor at CVS, Christmas is the unofficial start date of inane self-hatred campaigns, merrily masked in language about getting healthy in the new year. On December 26th every single year we get slammed with “new year, new you!” marketing that seems wall-to-wall. Magazines at the checkout line, billboards on exit ramps, radio commercials. As added fun, we now have Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to gum up our brains with garbage ads designed to motivate us to hit the gym and bust off the holiday pounds. The most wonderful time of the year hath given way to the most judgmental time of the year. How delightful.
For the tens of millions of Americans—myself included—who have struggled with an eating disorder at some point in their lives, these ads light up all the circuits on the ‘self-hatred’ track of our internal monologues. Estimates on the number of women and men who struggle with bulimia, binge eating and anorexia suggest that one in four Americans will battle with their self-perception and attempt to beat their bodies into submission to fit an idealized shape. The funhouse mirror that is body dysmorphia screws with me more during January than all the other months of the year combined, and I find myself pinching the soft parts of my belly and arms with a bit more disdain than usual.
This special brand of self-loathing was troublesome before I became a mom; I knew I was hurting myself by tuning into these messages, but self-care didn’t feel like a compelling enough reason to throw the TV across the room while yelling expletives and body positive affirmations. All of that changed the day I found out I was having a boy. Our sonogram technician was pushing that god-awful goo covered thingie on my very full bladder, poking my stomach to encourage my precious-but-stubborn baby to roll over and show us the goods. In utero Liam finally cooperated, and the breath left my body as I realized that I was about to become responsible for shaping the worldview of a white male.
Although I’d toned down the radical rhetoric of my undergrad days about dismantling patriarchy, I immediately felt a strong responsibility to demonstrate to my son that women’s value had nothing to do with their looks. While this might seem like a “duh” goal of parenting, it’s actually fairly tricky in pragmatic practice. Some of my earliest memories involve learning to hate my body—some blatant things like friends comparing whether we were wearing size 6 or size 6X, but more often than not these lessons were gleaned from more insidious, seemingly innocuous discussions around eating ‘good’ foods or ‘bad’ ones.
Having taken a number of completely unscientific yet revealing polls among friends, I know I am not alone in having picked up on our mothers’ self-censure; having had a salad for lunch, they had ‘been good’. A few cookies in the afternoon would yield a net zero, thus they had ‘been bad’ that day. I’m among a large number of women who quickly learned that self-worth was determined by the ways our bodies looked and the actions we take that dictate our size. Good people are slim, fit and active. Bad people lack self-control, as evidenced by soft thighs and saggy upper arms.
Avoiding passing on these damaging lessons is a daily practice, one that I struggle with as a parent. Embracing my imperfections is vital to showing my son that all bodies are worthy of respect, that people’s worth—my son’s included—is not tied to their waistlines. I often catch myself sighing into the mirror as I wait for my shower to warm up, or running upstairs to grab a second pair of Spanx before hitting a formal event. Each of these moments is a quiet affirmation that I am not good enough. I might be smart enough, and gosh darn it people might like me, but what does it matter if I don’t have toned abs?
It would be naive, even damaging, to deny that my son can pick up on my self-criticism. If admitting you have a problem is the first step to addressing it, acknowledging that this type of thinking trickles down to our little ones is a necessary pre-cursor to stopping self-destructive messages about our bodies. This year, join me in saying a hearty ‘buzz off’—feel free to use stronger language!—to the “new year, new you” hype. Let’s show our kids that reinventing ourselves means evolving in our thinking, building our character, and increasing our capacity to love…not flagellating ourselves until we fit into a commercialized ideal body type.
You don’t need a new you. What you may need is a new approach to embracing the wonderful, imperfect person you already are. If you can model self-acceptance and show yourself the same love you show your kids, you will be giving them a gift far more valuable than anything they unwrapped last month.
Elizabeth Mount is the executive director of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance.