Growing up in a county where over 50% of girls have or have had disordered eating by the time they reach 9th grade, I believed very young that body image should be one of my main concerns. Whether I was calorie counting myself, looking out for classmates who were, or engaging in discussions about how to stop the dieting and eating disorders prevalent all around, body image quickly became prominent in my life.
As an athlete, I was in some ways protected from a lot of the societal pressures. I needed to be strong, not thin, and as soon as school was over and I went to practice this mentality was reinforced as we were pushed to our physical limits and relied upon our bodies to get us through. Years later, as more and more of my friends are finishing their athletic careers, my eyes have been reopened to the issue of body image; as they transition out of the athlete mentality I’ve been given a fresh look at what seems to be the main difference between how we’re currently approaching the insecurity battle and how we can better attack it in the way that a large percentage of athletes have been doing for years – by emphasizing function rather than appearance, or quality over quantity.
When Little Red Riding Hood encounters the Wolf in her grandmother’s bed, she makes comments increasingly reminiscent of those facing girls and young women today. “Oh, what big eyes you have!” and “What big hands you have!” she exclaims. When the Wolf replies that they are “all the better to see [her] with” and “all the better to hug [her] with,” the Wolf (I’m sure unintentionally) provides young women like Little Red Riding Hood with a critical interpretation of our bodies.
The Wolf defines his exceptionally large eyes and hands in terms of their utility. While big eyes aren’t stereotypically a girl’s biggest insecurity, they could just as easily be replaced with big thighs, big arms, big ears, a small butt – whatever it is that keeps her from feeling beautiful. Instead of focusing on how to be comfortable with our own bodies, we need to change the conversation from what we look like to what we can do.
We need to respond to insecurities by finding them a purpose, rather than a diet.
We need to focus on strength, and emphasize that with strength comes independence. We need to emphasize that stomachs aren’t meant to be flat, they’re meant to digest food to give us the energy to live, thrive, and pursue our dreams. We need to teach girls that just like we train our brains to do what we love without worrying about what they look like, we can train our legs to carry us across fields, courts, rinks, and trails and it doesn’t matter if we maintain a thigh gap.
A treadmill isn’t there to shave us down like Photoshop, it’s to prepare us to see the world on foot when the snow melts and the flowers bloom and the trails reopen. We can teach healthy living to children at a young age in a way that doesn’t equate health with a number.
If we frame life as solely a battle to feel comfortable in a world that’s judging us by our appearance, we may never win with so many different things telling us otherwise. But if we teach our girls to view health as a way to a long life full of ups, downs, and everything in between, we very well may end up in a different battle all together with stronger, more confident women leading the helm. We need girls to stop being afraid to lift weights for fear of “bulking up” and to eat fresh fruits and vegetables to live to see the generations after them, not to fit into their diet dress, and all of this and more starts by each and every one of us beginning the conversation with “I can” rather than “I look like” and owning our abilities.
We each need to be the Wolf to the Little Red Riding Hoods that point out our big eyes and hands and to encourage everyone around us to do the same, and then some day maybe Little Red Riding Hood will simply offer to share her picnic instead.