by Elizabeth Small
I try to model a positive body image for my daughters. I never once commented on the massacre that was my postpartum body (at least, not within earshot). And I didn?t even flinch when my daughter told a room full of strangers, ?My Mama?s belly is so ?squishy.?? Yet despite my best efforts, I still struggle with consistency.
Recently my 4-year-old daughter climbed into my lap, pressed her face up against mine and squinted in fascination as she noted, ?Mama, one of your eyebrow hairs turned gray.? Her innocent observation slayed me. ?What? No! Can that even happen?? I gasped, racing to the mirror to verify her observation and promptly plucking the deviant hair. I simply couldn’t resist the impulse to check the mirror.
It is an old Jewish custom to cover the mirrors in the house of mourning during the seven-day period that follows a loved one?s death. I was raised Catholic, so it wasn?t until I was a teenager that I learned about the ritual of sitting Shivah and the mirror covering. But for me the practice immediately touched a primordial piece of understanding that seemed to have applications beyond the period of mourning. In other words, in the act of being physically barred from viewing our appearance, we can create room to attend to our unseen nature and look more easily outside of ourselves toward others.
And that’s what I love most about camping: no mirrors. In a world where most of us carry a compact around in our pockets and purses, this escape from our own appearances seems more important than ever.
Although my family of origin didn?t camp or do the outdoorsy things that make up so much of who I am now, I joined the Girl Scouts as a youngster, and participated in my first hiking and camping adventures through that wonderful organization. On those mirror-less camping trips, I felt liberated. In being unseen, I learned to trust my better self. I felt less self-conscious, allowing room for self-discovery and growth.
Camping is a funny thing because so many people just can?t stand it. Often when you mention a plan to go camping, loved ones may look at you as if you just said, ?I am going to go chew pieces of gum from the subway floor.? Comedian Jim Gaffigan says in one bit, ?My wife always brings up camping?s a tradition in my family.? Hey, it was a tradition in everyone?s family until we came up with the house.? Admittedly, camping leaves you without the comforts of home, but it is the time I feel most comfortable in my own skin.
It’s precisely why the time my daughters are away from mirrors feels sacred. When we are camping, we are all unburdened by appearance. We are not our bodies but rather the things that we can do with them.
On a recent beach camping trip, I was watching my 2-year-old and 4-year-old daughters play in the surf, their beautiful baby bellies poached over their ruffled bathing suit bottoms. They ran around and joyfully tussled without so much as a passing thought as to the “jiggle-rolly-poles” body parts that were becoming coated with sand. And I wondered how much time I have before that disappears, before they will feel self-conscious.
The fact is, we know dissatisfaction with body image begins in our culture at a terrifyingly young age. According to “The American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing,” over 80 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat.* (See article summary here.) That is a higher percentage than Americans who mistakenly believe the earth rotates around the sun and not the other way around.
But this isn?t news to you; we have been publicly shaking a stick at this problem since I was one of those 10-year-old girls. It?s possible our collective mirrors have become tainted with the trickery of Photoshop, but I think there’s nowhere in our obstructed world can we cure the problem.
So what can we do? Give our kids these sacred periods without mirrors.
* Andrist, Linda C. “Media Images, Body Dissatisfaction, and Disordered Eating in Adolescent Women.”?MCN: The American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing?28.2 (2003)
Elizabeth Small is a lawyer by training, writer by nature, and wife and mother by spirit. She has lived up and down the east coast of the United States, in Miami, Washington, D.C., and Boston, and now resides in Connecticut.