When I think back to Christmases as a child, there is one year that still sticks out to this day. I was around 10 years old, my mom and I were in Colombia to spend the holidays with her entire family, and all of the women around me were getting dolled up for the occasion. Sparkly dresses, red lipsticks, and kitten heels seemed to explode around me, leaving trails of loose sequins and discarded makeup wipes behind them.
What I remember most, though, were the fajas. My aunts, cousins, and mother were and remain fairly petite women (unlike me), but still, they insisted on slipping their figures into tummy-tucking girdles, asking the mirror and each other if they looked “too fat” in various outfits.
At the dinner table (armed with their compression shapewear), I clocked the way they ate. They’d place the smallest of spoonfuls onto their plates, while most of the men piled on each component of the meal as if it was their last.
When I served myself seconds, someone joked about my already “too big” belly. I wasn’t doing myself any favors, they said. “I couldn’t possibly have anymore,” one auntie told me moments later. She didn’t serve herself any dessert that night, but she did watch in some combination of sadness and envy as others around her did.
Christmases as a kid were usually big affairs. I have a big family full of big personalities, after all. Still, it was the fear of physically becoming big that I remember governing these moments. It was a fear most of my female relatives felt acutely when regarding their own bodies, and it was a fear that I adopted early on in my life.
Even at 10, I understood that I was already larger than a lot of them. I was already the “before” picture of the before and after weight loss magazine ads that so many of them purchased quickly after their “holiday overindulgence.”
There is very little else that I can recall with such clarity from my childhood Christmases. I struggle to picture any memorable gifts. I can’t recall what songs were played on my uncle’s radio, or what films the adults turned on for us kids. I don’t remember what it felt like to hug my grandparents before they passed.
I can only remember what it felt like when they offered me tips on improving my still-developing body. I can’t remember the taste of the tres leches cake—only the guilt I felt as I ate it, surrounded by (mostly) women commenting on how they were going to start that new diet on New Year’s Day.
For all of these reasons and so many more, I cannot help but commit to ensuring that one particular guest does not make it onto the list of invitees at this year’s Christmas dinner (as well as every day and dinner to come, TBH)—and that’s diet talk.
There are countless ways in which this holiday season will already be inherently different for my girls than any one from when I was their age. Big Christmases with too many relatives to fit in one dining room are not advisable in 2020, amid a global pandemic. In fact, time with extended family hasn’t been advisable nearly all year.
Although Covid guidelines in the UK, where I now live, will allow us to form a “Christmas bubble” composed of three households, my family will likely limit that to two for the safety of the more vulnerable among us. Much like the rest of this year, time with loved ones continues to be a rarity: a precious thing many of us are determined to cherish because if there is anything we have collectively learned this year, it’s that nothing is guaranteed.
What I do know is that when I try to picture the memories I hope my daughters hold onto as they grow up, I don’t want it to be memories of shapewear.
I don’t want them to forever muse on vivid pictures of their mother shoving her body into painful garments, berating her rolls or chins every step of the way.
I don’t want them to develop guilt around eating food or enjoying food or having second helpings of that food if they so please.
I don’t want them to learn to look at their own figures with judgment and disdain — characteristics I know can impact the entire trajectory of our lives, and not often for the better.
I don’t want them to make New Year’s resolutions rooted in the pursuit of a harmful ideal of aspirational beauty.
I’m not naive, though. I know that I will not be able to shield them from these things entirely. Diet talk and anti-fat biases rule so much of our culture. As they get older and learn to read, for example, my kids will likely see all those post-Christmas magazines at the local shops. They’ll learn that the holidays and tips for weight loss go hand in hand, as far as the general public is concerned.
Still, I believe our children first learn how to speak and think about their bodies (and the bodies of those around them) from their primary caretakers. It would follow that, as their primary caretakers, we also have the power to help them build a more empathy-driven foundation than so many of us had.
As one friend recently mused when I shared my fears around raising daughters in a world that teaches them to be so critical of their appearances, “Even if [they have a tough time], the hope is what you arm them with allows them to persevere and expand and grow through the challenges which are inevitable, rather than be diminished and stuck small by them.”
If we want better for them, we must ensure that their bodies (whatever those bodies look like) are never framed as problems to be solved within our own homes. We must also do better by ourselves, though. We can start by speaking about our bodies as we would want them to speak of their own—not with shame, guilt, or beration, but kindness. Always kindness.