Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Helping Our Daughters Love Their Bodies: Interview with Dara Chadwick

Dara Chadwick is the author of You'd Be So Pretty If . . .: Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies—Even When We Don't Love Our Own The book was inspired by Dara's experience as a Weight Loss Diary columnist for Shape magazine. Chronicling her weight loss for Shape readers over a 12-month period, Dara worried that her assignment would negatively affect her daughter's self-image, just as Dara's own mother had shaped Dara's body image with frequent self-deprecating comments. Newsweek magazine called You'd Be So Pretty If... "a sensible and compassionate guide to understanding the intricate relationship between mother and daughter and how seemingly innocuous remarks can have lifelong consequences." Thank you, Dara, for responding to my questions for The Nesting Doll Project.

Nesting Doll Project: How did becoming a mother affect your self-image?

Dara Chadwick: Becoming a mother affected my self-image in a couple of different ways. From a physical perspective, I watched my body change through two pregnancies and saw how it was—and wasn't—the same after each. In many ways, those stretch marks and c-section scars were visible reminders that I wasn't the same person, both physically and mentally, now that I was responsible for raising children. That sense of responsibility weighed heavily on my behavior, too. What parent hasn't felt the weight of being an example when their little kids imitate something they do or repeat something they say? (Ever heard your kid drop a bad word and realize sheepishly that it's your favorite curse word?) Our kids are always watching us, and learning how to treat themselves and others by the way we treat ourselves and others.

NDP: You wanted to lose weight partly to set an example of good health for your then 11-year-old daughter. But you worried that closely monitoring your calorie intake and workout regimen would have a negative impact on her self-image. Your response to that tension was to talk openly with your daughter throughout the experience. What did you talk about and how were those conversations "a gift," as you describe them in your book?

DC: We mostly talked about why I was trying to lose weight—to be healthier and to feel better about myself. But we also had a good laugh about the ridiculousness of some parts of the experience and those, I think, were the conversations that were truly a gift. For example, having lived through this experience with me, she has a perspective on the illusion created by women's magazines that her peers will never have (though I really wish they could). She was there when the photographer shot two issues' worth of photos in one session, even though the column was supposed to show my monthly progress. When she saw the first column that ran in the magazine (my "before" shot), she said, "Mom, I think they tried to make you look bigger than you are." I thought that was a wise observation for an 11-year-old and that was the beginning of many talks about how what we see in magazines isn't always an accurate reflection of what somebody actually looks like.

NDP: Your mother's negative comments about her own weight informed your beliefs about how a woman should look and feel. As mothers, most of us would be horrified to hear our daughters say to themselves the negative things we say to ourselves. How can we acknowledge our influence on our daughters without beating ourselves up for misguided or failed attempts?

DC: I think we can start by recognizing that most of us are doing the best we can and when we realize that our words and actions are having a negative impact, we have a responsibility to try to do better. I wouldn't begin to pretend that I never say anything negative about myself—we all have bad days. What you can do, and what I encourage, is to let your daughter hear you say nice things about yourself and others, too. Even the harshest self-critic can manage a compliment, even if it's "I like the way my hair looks today," "I love the color of this blouse I'm wearing" or "I'm really proud of the way I handled that difficult situation with my co-worker." Remember, too, that it's not just the negative talk. My own mom was constantly making jokes at her own expense and that self-deprecating humor was absolutely a habit that I picked up from her. I once joked to my daughter that I'd never wear sweatpants with a word across the bottom because I'd need the large print edition. That was the first time I saw my mom's behavior in my own.

NDP: You write: "How [girls] feel about the way they look often has a direct effect on how they feel about who they are." I think this is true of women as well. How do we change that?

DC: This was, without a doubt, something I heard over and over again from the women I interviewed for You'd Be So Pretty If... So many women say things like, "I'm too fat to do X" or "I'm too old to do Y." One woman I interviewed was in graduate school and she told me that if she was feeling fat on a particular day, she wouldn't raise her hand in class—even if she knew the answer and no one else did. She didn't want people to turn and look at her. I hear this sentiment time and again from readers and it breaks my heart every time. But I understand it. That's why it's so important to take care of yourself, treat yourself kindly and not hold yourself to an unrealistic standard that keeps you from being the person you want to be.

NDP: Five years after your book's publication, how is the experience of writing it impacting your life and your daughter's life?

DC: First, it's amazing to me that it's been five years. Equally amazing is how often I still hear from readers. I'm so grateful to have had the experience of writing this book and even more grateful that it touched so many women the way it did. In 2013, I got an email from a mother of two young girls who told me how much the book meant to her and had changed the way she was trying to raise her daughters. She sent me a photo of her girls holding my book. I have it on the bulletin board in my office and I look at it every day. It always makes me smile and it reminds me of how powerful words and actions are, in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. But it also reminds me of how pervasive body image issues are for women and girls, and that makes me sad—like can't we just move past this? I want all women and girls to know that they're so much more than a number on a scale or a label in a pair of jeans. Living a healthy, happy life is about being content with being the best version of yourself.

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