At a recent family gathering, my 10-year-old daughter Grace was monkeying around with an older cousin when he started teasing her about her belly. Poking her stomach and asking whether she’s been eating too many cookies.

(Note: Grace is not overweight. She’s a very active, strong, healthy child. She has, however, filled out around her middle this year as most girls do just before heading into puberty. She has expressed some concern about her thickened middle, but so far has been satisfied with my explanation about growth–oftentimes kids grow out just before they grow up.)

As a mother, you always hate to hear your child teased. As a mother who has struggled with weight issues and disordered eating most of my life (and desperately wants to spare my child the same), I prayed that he would stop.

As the taunting continued, I panicked. My instinct was to tell him to stop. To cover his mouth with my hand. But, I didn’t want to make a bigger deal of the situation and bring even more attention to it. I desperately wanted him to stop though. I cringed every time he said it and I watched anxiously for Grace’s response.

And, of course, he did stop. The entire episode lasted less than 5 minutes.

I managed not to say anything until Grace was out of earshot, but then shared with him that Grace, like all little girls (and boys too), is sensitive about her body. It was a pleasant exchange. He apologized (which wasn’t necessary, I just wanted him to be aware) and commented that he’s noticed how sensitive his girlfriend is to comments about her body.

Thankfully, the teasing didn’t seem to phase Grace anymore than if he had been teasing her about the color of her eyes.

But I know better.

I know that the teasing about her belly stuck with her. Just as every negative comment about my body (even those that weren’t intended as negative) stuck with me. It got tucked somewhere in the back of her mind and is lurking there.  And, unfortunately, it will be supported and strengthened by lots of other comments, observations, media images and advertising messages.

Although this one incident was small–just a blip on the radar screen of her life–these small incidents accumulate and build. And our kids are paying attention. Close attention.

An ongoing study by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute found that 40% of 9- and 10-year-old girls have tried to lose weight. Another study found that 53% of 13-year-old American girls are “unhappy with their bodies.” The percentage grows to 78% by age 17. Shockingly, anorexia’s mortality is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old.

God help our girls (and boys). They are up against a lot.

So I’ll continue to be on guard and work to strengthen Grace’s defenses. I’ll try to instill in her the importance of being strong and healthy rather than being thin. I’ll support her as she finds and cultivates activities that are healthy and make her feel good about herself.  I’ll continue to emphasize healthy eating and exercise habits. I’ll encourage her to question media messages about female bodies.

And I’ll pray.

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