Pursuing Perfect: Body Image, Grades, Poltergeists and Love

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When I was about thirteen, I thought that if I could be perfect, all of my problems would disappear.  I would look great and feel great, I would be confident, I would have tons of friends, and my parents would get back together.  I’m not sure why I thought my parents should get back together, but I thought that was what perfect was–a mom and a dad together.  Oh, and to be perfect, I needed to look like my best friend.  She had boobs, she was thin, she was always tan, she wore bikinis to the pool while I was still in my awkward one piece swim team issued suit. Boys loved her. Did I mention she had boobs?

Now I have kids and I realize how silly all of that thinking really was. No one is perfect.  You can’t be perfect. And I want to make sure my kids learn that earlier than I did.  Okay, the rational side of me knows that they have figure that our for themselves. A friend recently told me that her elementary school aged children had been talking about the “f” word.  But it wasn’t that “f” word, it was the other “f” word. As in “fat”. And suddenly I realized that that particular “f” word hasn’t really come up in my house and my kids are much older than hers. I’m not sure that I have ever addressed the issue of weight with my teenaged daughter.  Sure, we have talked about how loving someone has nothing to do with looks and everything to do with personality and feeling. And about how the number on the scale isn’t always an indicator of how healthy or fit you are.

I think I haven’t addressed it because I am afraid of going overboard.  I don’t want to create a problem.  Many parents struggle with the issue of talking to their kids about body image and the other “f” word.  And it doesn’t help that it comes along at a time when we are coming to the realization that our own bodies don’t look like they used to –wrinkles, belly fat, cellulite, saggy boobs. As with everything, finding the balance is the challenge. And I don’t know what “the balance” is. I keep hoping it’s like a looking for a four leaf clover and all of a sudden it will appear in the mass of green and I’ll will see it and be able to pick it out. And it will be perfect. It’s such a cliche, but parenting is so hard!

And the other “f” word isn’t the only thing out there. So much of what our kids hear is about perfection: “she has perfect grades”, “he has perfect SAT scores.”, “that was the perfect triple axel”, “that soccer/lacrosse/field hockey goal was a perfect shot”, “that’s the perfect prom dress”, etc. I have read that we should not focus on looks, but instead emphasize things like intelligence. But what if telling your child that they are smart rings hollow? What if being smart isn’t his or her “thing” and he or she know that?  As adults who have been out in the real world, we all know that grades are no indication of smarts. And of course our kids have talents we can encourage.  But we can’t escape that kids see grades as their indicator of how smart they are. Except for that one person who is ranked first in the class, everyone else is not number one. And the person who is #1 seems perfect. The truth is that no person on this Earth is perfect, not even the person who is #1. But, still the search for perfection marches on. And somewhere in there, for some of us, pursuing perfection can become unhealthy and destructive. It’s like that closet in the movie “Poltergeist”.  The door opens and there’s a vortex that sucks you into another dimension. Lets put a deadbolt on that door, right?

Raising a teenager, there is this hollow echo in the back of my mind: “please don’t get an eating disorder”.  I hear it.  Personally, I have never had an eating disorder and I consider myself lucky. But, I fear it.  I had three friends with various eating disorders that ruined parts of their lives. Two got help and struggled through treatment and finally came out the other end in a great place. One left college and we never heard from her again. I have often thought about why that didn’t happen to me. I have OCD and in college it hit new heights. Wasn’t I ripe for developing an eating disorder? What was so different about my upbringing over theirs? There must have been some secret reason and if I can figure that out, I will be able to protect my kids from it. Was it that I had never had a full length mirror in my room? Was it because my father, who was quite “rotund”, skinny dipped every morning and every night in our pool and therefore thought nothing of being naked? Was it because I was an athlete and I saw lots and lots of different body types? My mother was a public figure and there were constant comments about her weight and rumors floating around that she was pregnant when she wasn’t. It was painful for her. How did that fit in? I don’t know. I’m still confused.

On the surface, it seems like it should be easy.  We can stave off this eating disorder thing by teaching them how to eat right. Teach them to eat healthy stuff and this will never happen. We can do that and everything will be “perfect” for our kids! That is so simple! Wait… no, it turns out that it really isn’t that simple. I recently read about a new eating disorder called orthorexia, where people become so obsessed with healthy eating that it becomes destructive. And it is just as dangerous and unhealthy as other eating disorders. And the cases are growing in number. There is such a push to make sure our kids eat well, how do we keep from setting our them up for that?

How do we strike the balance of teaching them not to obsess over something? There is a delicate pendulum swinging there and I want so badly to keep it from swaying too far either way. I don’t know how to do that. I would love to say I can do it, but I know better. They are hardwired already, in ways yet to be discovered. I can’t protect them from everything, right? When my kids were little, I once jokingly said that I wanted them to put them in a padded room so that nothing would hurt them and my brother, who is a crazy smart statistician and analyzes whether or not product is statistically hazardous for a leading consumer safety group, told me that the padding may not be safe. There is off-gassing and chemical leaching and possible lead! There is whole boatload of stuff out there that is potentially dangerous and out of my control.  I have educated myself on what to look for, but that may not be enough.  At some point I have to let go and let them make their way on their own…yikes!

Here is the best I feel like I can do: I have a son leaving for college in the fall and my daughter will be gone before I know it. I am at once indescribably excited and scared to death about what the World with a capital “W” has in store for them. I really only wanted one thing for my kids and it wasn’t smarts or money. I wanted them to know love. So, I try to make sure every day all the time that they know how much I LOVE them -every them, all of the time no matter my mood or theirs–happy, angry, sad, or just feeling regular.  Some days I do a good job of letting them know, other days not so much.  But when they leave my house, I hope they take this with them:

I love the well mannered him and the naughty him,

I love the her that encourages me and the her that rolls her eyes at me,

the him that loves junk food and the him that learned to like salads,

the her who shined so brightly in her homecoming dress and the her in pajamas who really needs to take a shower (she got that look from me, it’s my signature look),

the zitty him and the clean complexioned him,

the her that likes me to come in and sit on her bed and talk to her about her day and the her that shuts the door because she needs to be alone,

the him that still comes in my room every night to say he’s home and tells me to sleep well and the him who doesn’t answer my repeated texts to tell me where he is,

the her that baked cupcakes and the her that left the kitchen covered in confectioner’s sugar,

the him who admitted he tried a beer last night and the him who stayed sober last weekend and drove his friends home from the party and made sure they were okay,

the her who feels both love and pain so deeply,

the him who liked a girl and was on top of the moon and the him who had his heart shattered into a bazillion pieces and spent a weekend in bed.

the them who set a big goal and achieved it and the them who fell short of their dreams,

and the her that loves her brother and the him that loves his sister.

The truth is that most of the time they won’t feel perfect. Hopefully they will still feel loved. And if one of them ever get sucked down deep into the vortex, there will be a little light there and maybe they will know enough to seek it out without embarrassment or feeling of judgement and say, “I need your help”. And, I don’t know, maybe I will be strong enough to walk them through it. I know that it might not make things perfect, hopefully it will be enough.

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