What Does Healthy Look Like?
When I posted the first profile for The Layers Project, Sandy reached out to me feeling frustrated. She shared that recently in shul on Shabbat a male acquaintance was casually observing her three year old daughter and said, “Sandy, I’m going to call child protective services on you. Your daughter is too skinny. Do you even feed her?” Sandy felt that casual remark was like shrapnel shot at her. By the time Sandy got to me, she was angry and energized, “I have dealt with these comments about my body and size all my life. Now directed at my daughter, it is time for me to speak out. It’s enough.”
Sandy has always been petite. “I have spent all my life being the shortest and smallest anywhere I went.” While her peers grew and developed, she always received negative comments about her size from family and friends. “You’re so little, why don’t you eat anything? Why are you so skinny? You would look healthier if you would even put on ten pounds.” By eight years old, she realized that “there was a difference between my body and what was considered to be a ‘healthy or good body.’”
Sandy’s grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. As it was for many survivor families, food meant survival and life. “My family put the food on your plate and you had to finish it. You were not allowed to leave the table until all the food was gone. The amount of food was too much for my small body. I never got to learn what it felt like to be satiated because I was always overly full, sometimes to the point of feeling ill.” This affected Sandy’s relationship with food and her body. The negative feelings that went along with being “forced-fed” every time she sat at the table, made for conflict and confusion about what her unique body needed.
When I asked Sandy how these negative body comments she received affected her sense of self as a young person, she remarked, “I felt like there must be something wrong with me. If I couldn’t finish my plate, but everyone else could, and I am still this small, there must be something wrong with me.” As a child, she internalized all the disapproval of her small size and that affected how she felt about herself when she looked in the mirror.
As a young adolescent, the normal teen pressures to be the same as everyone else, while being different, was a unique burden. “It was really hard when everyone was shopping at one particular store and I had to continue to purchase my clothes at kids stores.” Sandy was teased and bullied about her size. When I asked whether she felt that the negative feedback about her body somehow stunted her emotional and social development, Sandy answered, “I always felt behind in the curve. I never felt that I looked or was mature enough. Because I never fit the mold of what they thought 'I should have been.'” Eventually she began wearing baggy clothes, to hide how thin she was and to give the appearance of being larger. She hoped that if it was less obvious how small she was, people would stop remarking about it.
As an adult, the comments kept on coming. Even recently in nursing school, patients at the hospital where she was working doubted that she was a medical professional. “I was an adult woman, one of the oldest in my cohort, married with children, but patients did not believe that I could really be their nurse.” Sandy often even receives remarks on her figure from strangers out in public. “I am disturbed by the “freak-quality” that people ascribe to my size, that makes people I know or even don’t know, feel like it's ok to talk about my body. People think I’m not supposed to look this way. They make me feel like I look this way because I have done something wrong. That I am not a “real woman” because I am 4“10 and I don’t have ‘the curves of a real woman.’ Our society has idealized body shapes and sizes, but we need to start talking about the fact that you may not be the 'ideal' size and still be healthy, feminine, and beautiful.”
Sandy’s daughter Eryn has the same petite frame. As the unwelcomed commentary on Eryn’s size has begun, Sandy is concerned about the message about size, weight and health. “As a three year old, my daughter is who she is without apologies. I wish I had gone through life being comfortable with myself like she is now.” It’s true that children learn values of what is beautiful, ideal, acceptable or hurtful from their parents. Children often say what they think, but they also reflect what they hear from their parents. We need to be reminded that our tendency to remark freely on each other’s bodies or reflect negatively on our own, is absorbed by our children and it becomes integrated into their personality and self-worth.
Sandy keeps her experiences in mind now that she is raising her own children. She makes sure to ask them what and how much they want to eat and together they assess when each child is satiated. She monitors their growth and is careful to check in to their individual needs. As a mother, she models comfort in her own skin, and dresses her body for the size that it is, not the size that people think that she should be. Sandy encourages her children to respond to negative criticism about their size with empathy and a critical eye, knowing that an antagonizing comment about someone else’s body, likely reflects insecurities in the relationship with their own body. She teaches them that it is not about how big or small you are, but about maintaining a lifestyle that promotes good health for your own unique body.
Sandy’s advice for her children is important for us all to heed. “If someone says something about your body that hurts you, tell them that they have hurt your feelings. Tell them that you hope that they don't define your inner goodness by the way that you look on the outside. Most importantly, know that everyone is different and that is good.”