The Body Beautiful: How my preschooler taught me to love myself
“I don’t like my body!” My then-2-year-old screamed.
I’m pretty fearless with her, mind you, and it takes a lot for anything she says or does to faze me. But this one stopped my mind for a moment, and in that moment, I raced back into the past and ahead to the future.
I went to my own childhood, with its accompanying fear and loathing of my rapidly transforming and bulging body. To desperate attempts to garner understanding and sympathy for my agony that went misunderstood, lost in their own fog of memory and pain. I went to my husband’s past, fraught with its own sense of corporeal inadequacy.
I went to her future, one in which I wanted more than anything for this perfect, gorgeous creature to recognize herself as such, to move through the world with power, ease, and confidence, never wasting a single precious moment of her miraculous life on something as petty as wondering whether her body was “good enough” based on arbitrary and capricious standards.
At the tender age of 2, could she already have been tainted by the twisted stranglehold of society’s bodily-based sense of worth?
Milliseconds later, I returned to the present. My enraged toddler was struggling to complete her thought.
“I don’t like you touch my body!” she clarified. Oh. She was pissed off that I had tried to pick her up and change her diaper.
I was silenced into thought, troubled by how quickly I took her budding language skills, still plagued by frequent incoherence, as evidence of early onset self-hatred. In retrospect, the ridiculousness of this becomes starkly apparent. Body image issues of the kind my mind conjured up are not really fathomable to someone so young, thankfully. Her understanding of bodies is fairly unscathed by social and cultural mores.
No, to her, bodies are sources of feelings, points of contact for relationships. They are the things that receive tickles, gentle touches, kisses, and hugs. They can itch, bruise, receive boo-boos, and be healed by medicine both real and magical. They are objects of delight, yearning, and connection.
So when my daughter began to lavish preschooler praise on the merits and joys of our bodies as she perceives and appreciates them, it caught us a bit off guard.
“Daddy, I love your biiiiiiiig Totoro belly! It’s so soft and squishy!”
“Mommy, your tushy is so fat! I love it!”
At first, we were most assuredly not used to comments like “fat,” “big,” and “squishy” being used with such unequivocal praise and endearment. But now, we have the wherewithal to respond with genuine appreciation and warmth. Perhaps we have come to see ourselves and our fleshy coverings as she does: with gratitude, affection, and a fresh eye.
As I write these words, I sit in a quiet apartment, child-free and husband-free for the first 24 hours since long before my daughter was born. So, naturally, my first order of business was to head out to a Korean spa, one of my favorite self-care pleasures and an indulgent treasure of Los Angeles’s vast and diverse metroplex. I’ve been coming to these for over a decade now, seeking retreat and solace in the soothing waters and delightfully regressive Korean spa ritual. When I first visited one, intrigued by an article in the newspaper, I was hesitant about the mandatory nudity policy, but my curiosity won out over my fear, so I stripped down and took the plunge. In the dim light and warm, moist air of the spa’s cavernous interior, I noticed two things:
- Without my glasses on, I don’t see very clearly. This lent a misty sense of privacy to my already dream-like experience, as if my inability to see rendered me similarly invisible to others, much like the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, a diabolical but highly stupid creature from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. To defend yourself against it, simply cover your eyes, and it will assume that, since you cannot see it, it cannot see you either.
- I was astounded, delighted, and comforted by the luscious parade of diverse bodies. Breasts! Butts! Rolls of flesh! Stretch marks! Tattoos! Scars upon scars upon scars! Bodies big and little, young and old, in every color and shape imaginable. A lifetime of stories written upon the anatomy, laid bare, quite literally, for me to read and contemplate.
Maybe it was the healing properties of the steaming water or the mugwort bath, or maybe it was these two factors, but somewhere between them, decades of hatred, ambivalence, resignation, and confusion about my body started to melt away, as if the rough mitts on my spa attendant’s hands were sloughing them off layer by infinitesimal layer.
This is the central part of the traditional Korean spa experience, you see. A Korean woman, clad only in black underwear and a bra, summons you. Silently, you follow her, and a dance of wordless touch and caressing follows. Your attendant scrubs down every part of you, leaving no crevice untouched or unsmoothed. Sometimes they sing or hum as they work. Their firm but gentle commands bridge the language barrier with soft hands and often a kind, doting smile. Yesterday, as I turned over onto my stomach, my attendant KJ tapped me on the top of my head; as I looked up, she held a cup of sweet ginger tea to my mouth, and I drank deeply. Your only job is to be held, touched, and cared for, completely and utterly, surrendering to the infantile pleasures of skin-time.
When I lie on the table, covered in warm, wet towels, being washed and groomed wordlessly from head to toe, I become as an infant once more, drifting into a half-sleep of utter care and union. This is pure knowledge of body, self, and other: knowledge my daughter, with her innocent wonder, has not spent a lifetime forgetting and remembering.
- What love smells like: On bathing with my daughter
- “No” is not a four letter word
- Why does my child hate me?
- Parent Q&A: When kids prefer one parent, part 2: This time it’s personal
- Green eggs and super-strong adhesives: What I learned about my parents by reading Dr. Seuss
Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.
Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!