Healthy Body Image and My Baby


My baby boy started walking a couple of weeks ago. It was so special to watch him take those first steps across the room with a proud smile on his face. It's also pretty amusing to watch such a tiny human walking around. In fact, the word midget comes to mind. It's not the nicest word, and it has only been said in fun, but it's a word that is starting to bother me because technically my son is small for his age. Most of the time, I hardly notice his stature. It's really only when someone with a baby half my son's age stands their child next to mine and announces, "Look, he's as big as your baby!" that I notice his size, and then I hate what I become. That annoying, defensive mom who feels she must explain that all babies grow at different rates and he's perfectly healthy just a bit on the small side and his parents are average and very few of our relatives are even six-feet-tall... you get the idea.

A Mother's Worry
His stature doesn't really concern me health-wise (although that hasn't always been the case), and maybe later he will "catch up" and be more average-sized, but maybe not. I see nothing wrong with being short. Heck, my dad was short, and I honestly never noticed it until my girlfriends in high school grew taller than him, and even then it was a non-issue. If you asked me to describe his physical appearance, I would say he was short, handsome, thin, with dark hair and eyes. But he was also clever, loving, generous, and stylish. In other words, our physical appearance is certainly a part of who we are, but let me tell ya, my dad was so much more than his stature. And so is my boy.

Let's hypothetically say that my son continues to be small for his age, I'm not saying that describing him as short is taboo. What I do fear is that lighthearted "shorty" comments from the adults in his life, if they continue, will begin to weigh on him and make him feel as if being short is somehow undesirable. I won't have any control over what other people say about him or call him, but I can control how I help him view his body, and once he's old enough to understand all this, I just don't want to bring unnecessary attention to his size and stature. But he's just a baby, why even fret about all this now, mama?

My son is not just short -- he's also thin. And what tends to be the most desirable body type for babies? Plump and squishy. I get it. Just recently I saw this seven-month-old at a party with the most scrumptious arm rolls. Seriously, Michelin-man arms. I wanted to squeeze them and bite them (and I know I am not alone when it comes to wanting to squeeze and bite arm rolls on babies). Chubby babies are irresistible. Other than wanting to squeeze and bite those rolls, why do we tend to want our babies to be big and fat? Because when it comes to babies, our society (and the entire animal kingdom, basically) seems to think bigger is better. You see a fat baby and you think, that baby is well-fed and healthy. Big babies at birth get reactions like, "Wow, what a big baby!" said in the most positive way possible. (Though, there is a point where we all freak out when a baby is "too" big at birth, but that's another story.)

What about my short and skinny baby? When he was born, everyone commented about how tiny he was because he really was tiny. It didn't bother me because it was a fact. But if you've been in my shoes, the mommy of a small baby, and you're anything like me, at some point you start to get really sensitive and insecure about your baby being small. Your baby is in the 0-10% range in the growth charts and you start to worry that your baby is somehow underfed and unhealthy. You read Facebook posts where your friends boast, "Baby doubled his birth weight in 6 weeks!" "Baby is in the 90th percentile for weight!" "My 3-month-old is already in 9-12 months clothes!" I'm not suggesting people stop posting those stats. Be proud of your big babies! But, also be aware that I'm not positing, "My one-year-old is in the 10th percentile for weight, 0% for stature, with a big head, and he still fits into 6-9 months pants because his legs are so short!"

For the first year of my son's life, I admit that I was too focused on those charts. I was constantly comparing my baby's size to other babies. At each doctor's appointment I asked about his size. Could something be wrong? They always assured me he was healthy and proportionate, but then I had one doctor check my baby's diaper area and pronounce, "Whoa, I'm used to seeing baby legs with lots of rolls!" It got me thinking most babies have lots of leg rolls, that means leg rolls are normal. My baby hardly has leg rolls, therefore my baby is abnormal. See how my mind goes crazy? I found myself making small jokes about his size to cope with my worries and doubt.

Then at some point I realized the real problem was my own perception of my son's body. I've always loved his body. To me it's perfect. He's perfect. But when I would compare his size to other babies, I would think "inadequate" rather than "different." And not that he was inadequate, but that I was. Was I doing something wrong? Not feeding him enough? The thing is, it's all in the genes. Isaiah and I were not chubby babies, so it makes sense that our baby is not chubby. Our younger siblings were chubby as babies but are average-sized now. Maybe their babies will be chubby, maybe not. The bottom line is I want to teach Hunter from an early age that we come in all different shapes and sizes and that it's all good.

Promoting Positive Body Image
After doing a little research, I found some suggestions for helping young children develop healthy body image. First, you can promote diversity in all areas of life. Talk about gender, cultural, linguistic, socio-economic, and religious diversity with your child, not just about different physical characteristics. (I like the Spanish children's book collection "Nuestro Mundo" that talks about how we're all different but have many things in common.) It's also important to be aware of the unrealistic message certain dolls or action figures may communicate to our children. I'm not so puritanical to say to eliminate these things, but rather have conversations about them and maybe balance out a Barbie doll collection with a reproduction Cassatt painting hanging on the wall (like this one of a nursing mama and child).

My hope is that Isaiah and I can teach our son the importance of eating healthy and respecting one's body, and the best way to do that is to lead by example. We want him to look in the mirror and see a healthy body, not necessarily a short one or tall one or muscular or lean. Just healthy.

Am I overreacting by worrying about my baby's body image? I don't know, but I do know a negative body image established at a very young age can lead to self-esteem issues in childhood and beyond, so why not be mindful now of the language I use when speaking about bodies in general, not just my child's or my own? Although I may not be able to have full-on conversations with my son about his body just yet, I can work on creating an environment for him that promotes a positive body image.

So if you catch me spoon-feeding my son coconut oil and cooking his vegetables in bacon fat and butter, know that I'm not doing it "fatten him up" like other babies (I tried -- it doesn't work), but rather because his lean little body needs fat like all babies need fat in their diet. And if you need to describe my child's physical appearance, go ahead, say he's a little short. I don't mind. But if you call him a shorty, I will cut you. (Just kidding! Sort of.)

6 comments

  1. He is absolutely perfect. Not one thing is wrong with him. Not only is he handsome but he's so smart and has loads of personality.

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    1. Of course he is, Abuelita, but you know me, I worry over every little detail. If he's on the low end of the growth charts, I worry about whether or not he is growing properly... I hope from this story you can see that I am not so consumed by those growth charts anymore.

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  2. Hello, my friend!

    Hunter is already walking! That is so great!

    As for his size, it is the same with Samuel, he is also on the 0 percentile for height. At first I was worried, specially because he was born the same size as Martin, so we had no clue he would turn out to be a small baby. But then the pediatrician dismissed our health concerns at every visit and we finally understood that he is developing on his own curve.

    We still worry a little bit about the future because we wouldn't like other kids to tease him for being short, but I am sure all parents worry about their children being teased for one reason or another. Accepting that we have little control over our children's pain is very hard :-( And we seriously think about sending both boys to karate or another kind of martial art, not to instigate violence, but rather to give them confidence in knowing they don't need to lower their heads if it ever comes to that. Yves did karate as a boy and he loved it!

    It's also worth mentioning that the development curves are different in Brazil, since average numbers for weight and height are lower there. Maybe if you check the Mexican percentile averages you will find out that in Mexico Hunter would not be considered that small :-)

    xoxo

    Carla

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    1. Hi, Carla! So wonderful to hear from you! That's so interesting that you mentioned growth charts in Mexico. I never thought of that! I looked into it and found that his percentiles were a bit higher there: 10% height and 15% weight, so a small improvement but still on the lower end. It really just confirms for me how these charts are not absolute. I have finally accepted the same thing your pediatrician assured you, that my child is growing on his own curve. He is growing steadily and that is all that really matters, right? In fact, I've decided not to have any expectations about his development -- just embrace each pound, inch, and milestone as they come. It's better for everyone, you know? In the end, my worry is not that he will always be small, but that he will look in the mirror and see weakness or inadequacy.

      Regarding teasing -- ugh, it kills me to think of anyone teasing my boy, but I know it's inevitable. My hope is that with a positive body image and self-confidence, he will be able to shrug off any negative comments, but some karate skills wouldn't hurt, too! I actually practiced karate for a couple of years around age 13 and it was great for so many reasons: discipline, confidence, physical fitness...

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your story, Carla. Much love to you and your boys!

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  3. When Jackson was born, the doctors proclaimed him "HUGE"!! I had to bite my lip from telling them that 8lb11oz is a just a regular ol' baby. I breastfed him exclusively until a few weeks ago, when we had to supplement because of my supply. At 4 months, he weighed 20 POUNDS. Seriously. 20 pounds. However, at 6 months, he "only" weighed 20 pounds, 2 oz. The doctors of course, freaked out, saying I needed to pump him full of formula immediately, because he'd started falling down on the growth charts. I called bull**it, and just kept nursing him like I had been before. Wouldn't you know it, he kept growing, and he's a healthy boy. I don't take any stock in those stupid growth charts. Babies don't know about growth charts - they're on their own schedule. Don't worry, mama, your kidlet is just fine. He's a lone wolf, doing things his own way. :)

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    1. I know! Stupid growth charts. Thanks for your encouragement and understanding, Jenn. :)

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