In my middle school years, I had all the makings of a self-hate disaster—trying to play soccer while combatting my eczema left me with large open wounds on both shins; as soon as those plastic shin guards came off, I’d scratch my itchy sweaty legs post game till they bled, unable to stop myself. Still, I had no problem wearing shorts and skirts, exposing said legs and fielding lots of quizzical looks and questions from my peers who didn’t understand my condition. Strike one. I had an explosive growth spurt in sixth grade, catapulting me above the heads of my classmates male and female alike, as I gazed down at them from a lofty 5’7”. I still have vivid memories of the dance unit in P.E. which saw me paired in ballroom dance with boys whose eyes hovered awkwardly at my chest level. When it came time to spin me, many would simply drop my hand, leaving me on my own to twirl as I ducked my head out of habit. One simply jumped in the air as I began to spin, an earnest (yet embarrassing for both of us) attempt to keep holding my hand while he spun his lamppost of a partner. Strike two. On top of it all the physically obvious changes to my body, I got my period when I was only ten. This lead to series of issues including a particularly memorable early episode of menstrual cramps at a school dance when I was 12 which left me stuck in the bathroom in horrible pain for most of the night while my friends danced on without me. Strike three.
It’s no wonder many girls begin a traumatizing relationship with their bodies during these formative years—there’s no shortage of difficult changes to the body which we as a society tend to treat as the pink elephant in the room. This leaves children ill-equipped to handle their own changing bodies and unsure of how to support their friends and peers, often accidentally making it worse. From my memory, I had a relatively healthy relationship with my body during these years despite the cards stacked against me. It still to this day surprises me that I felt comfortable showing off my legs while recovering from my severe eczema attacks, a little bit of self-love made all the more inspiring and heart-breaking because at that time, I didn’t even consider that it was making any kind of statement; I just wanted to wear skirts. When I think of the painful loss of innocence, this is often what I come back to. There is a time when a child’s ability to live their life unencumbered by society’s expectations of beauty and their naive form of self-love are replaced by feelings of doubt, in particular when her body starts to be a large part of how she claims her self-worth.
So how do we break that cycle? How do we ease the transition from child to adolescent, creating memories which are inspiring and not traumatizing? We create more of a dialogue surrounding these transitions. It helps us remember that we are not alone. It helps us lead by example, reclaiming our own bodies as a message to the next generation that self-love shouldn’t be a difficult practice, but a simple given. It means not reprimanding ourselves too strongly if we find ourselves slipping from our physical ideals, working to shift our self-worth off of our bodies and onto our minds. It means creating as many opportunities for the young to express their fears and emotions instead of hiding them, afraid that maybe they are the only one struggling with these universal issues. And most of all, it means celebrating the person the child is becoming on the inside, instead of praising who they are becoming on the outside.