I’ve got a seven-month-old baby. How do I make sure she doesn’t feel the same body shame I did? | Leading questions

I’ve never been happy with my looks and was often overlooked as a child and high school for the prettier girls which was very hurtful. I’ve got a seven-month-old baby (brown hair and brown eyes), quite chubby compared to other babies her age, and when I see pictures of her with my friends with babies a similar age I feel worried that she will always be seen as the “less than” one in the group due to her looks.

The other babies in my friendship group have bigger eyes, blond hair and blue eyes and my friends and extended family have made comments about her “not taking after this side of the family” (ie by being blond and skinny) or “oh no, she is going to have brown eyes!”

I worry for her. I know it sounds silly but the world is judged on looks and I don’t want her to feel the same, less-than, body-shamed feelings that I did. How do I go about making sure she doesn’t feel less-than or not-as-good-as based on her looks?

Eleanor says: First, let’s start with the obvious: a brown-haired brown-eyed “chubby” baby does not have “less-than” looks. Not only is there nothing wrong with being big or dark-haired, even if there was, how someone looks at seven months is an indicator of almost nothing. A women’s hospital near me used to stick up Polaroids of odd-looking babies to reassure new mothers that many infants look peculiar – not roly-poly like your little one, but really peculiar, with a conical head or a heavily wrinkled brow or hair all over their body. It was meant to give a chuckle as well as a reminder that kids change radically as they grow. Colouring reverses, minuscule babies become big and round, little sausage limbs turn lean and lanky. It takes years to look like ourselves, so for now, everyone’s predictions about your daughter are baseless.

Second, you asked how to make sure she doesn’t go through what you did. The curse of parental love is that it comes with a dose of worry, and naturally, that worry rummages through our own life when it wants to know what to be vigilant about. Every parent wonders how to shield their child from the particular suffering they endured themselves.

The risk, though, is that vigilance can become self-fulfilling. Bracing a child too much for a bad outcome can teach them to expect it, or to see the world through its lens. The challenge is to equip kids in case something bad lies ahead while letting them find out on their own if it does. Many children inherit their parents’ traumas around money, betrayal, love – not because their parents hurt them, but because they’re on such high alert that someone else will.

That’s especially true when it comes to appearance. Kids don’t come into the world with concepts like “too heavy” or “too plain”. Someone has to teach us what those things mean and that they might apply to us. The hazard is that by explicitly telling your daughter there’s nothing wrong with how she looks, you raise the possibility that there may be.

Fortunately, time is on your side here. It’s years before your daughter can think about this. I think one of the most helpful things you could do in that time is try to heal your own experience with looks. That won’t be easy – you’ve spent a lifetime being stifled by beauty expectations and it is hard, confronting work to face them down. But lots of girls learn beauty standards by hearing Mum self-deprecate in front of the mirror; if you can love what you see instead, or even just not think about it very much, she’ll have an ally before the fight begins. You can’t control what she hears from other people – but you can show her what it looks like to not mind. And if you want to know what it would be like to see yourself as beautiful, try looking through your daughter’s eyes – to her you’ll be the most magical creature alive.

In the meantime, you can bat relatives away with “I know, isn’t she gorgeous?”, or tell them it’s a parenting rule that we don’t comment on people’s appearance, good or bad.

These strategies might help de-emphasise appearance as something she thinks about, at least for a while. Sometimes the best way to spare a child the things we fear is to spare them the fear itself.


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