Pre­teen’s body im­age angst ar­rives with alarm­ing speed

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & ARTS - NuRI VALL­boNA

The drama started like clock­work. “When they turn 11 it’s like a switch,” I was told. “Get ready!” they warned. My friends were right, a few months af­ter my daugh­ter’s 11th birth­day, the tantrums grew loud and strong. The hor­mones had ar­rived.

One of the first tantrums started with arm hair. “I don’t like it! I don’t like it!” my daugh­ter wailed hold­ing out her arms. “What? What?” I asked look­ing for a scratch, a bruise or a cut. “Look!” she said again as two tears rolled down her cheeks. “My arms have all these hairs on them and it looks bad! I don’t like it. Can’t we do some­thing, Mom?”

I was thrown for a loop. I thought I had pre­pared her for all the fe­male body changes that come with tween­hood, but the arms? I hadn’t thought about the arms. What was I sup­posed to say here? I stalled for time. “I’ll try to get some in­for­ma­tion for you,” I said while she dried her eyes. This sat­is­fied her for a bit, but I felt frus­trated.

I wanted to blame our cul­ture for cre­at­ing un­re­al­is­tic body im­ages that can only be achieved with Pho­to­shop. But I knew that in her case the cul­ture wasn’t the cul­prit. I didn’t have any fashion mag­a­zines around and I kept her TV watch­ing to a min­i­mum. She re­as­sured me that no­body at school had teased her. No, this came from within, and it shocked me be­cause the same thing had hap­pened to me.

I, too, was in fifth grade when I no­ticed my arms for the first time. I scrunched them up against my waist and leaned for­ward to cover them up. That was in the ’60s when

we be­lieved in “let­ting it all hang out.” Nat­u­ral was bet­ter and the cul­ture wasn’t yet in­fected with a hot­tie and cleav­age ob­ses­sion. My mom had been dis­mis­sive and un­sym­pa­thetic so I was left to fend for my­self. While no­body teased me about the hair on my arms, the boy next door tried to put a Chiq­uita ba­nana sticker on my over­sized nose, which I hid be­hind my long straight hair. Even­tu­ally I learned to ac­cept my looks and move on, but for years I lived with angst. Surely there was a bet­ter way to help my daugh­ter tran­si­tion into adult­hood.

I went to the In­ter­net, but was dis­cour­aged by blogs de­scrib­ing moms tak­ing their 6-year-olds to the spa to get a wax job. An­other ar­ti­cle said that no­body in LA went out with­out get­ting their arms waxed first. Couldn’t we just be the way we were?

I turned for help to Terri Moser, a mar­riage and fam­ily ther­a­pist as­so­ci­ate and cer­ti­fied fam­ily life ed­u­ca­tor at St. Cather­ine of Siena Catholic Church in South­west Austin.

“You are not go­ing to be able to fix all the sit­u­a­tions in your chil­dren’s lives,” she said. “You’re not go­ing to be able to car­pet their world. But by em­pathiz­ing; it’s al­most like putting slip­pers on them to soften the road of life.”

Moser also said the best way to em­pathize is to lis­ten to my child’s con­cerns and to help her ac­cept the changes.

I took that to mean that I did not have to give in to her whims and de­cided that a trip to the spa was not go­ing to boost my child’s self-es­teem, I would not buy her a cell phone and no, she was not get­ting a Face­book page even though she was the only 11-year-old in Texas who didn’t have one. My con­fi­dence as a par­ent was grow­ing.

The next day of­fered an­other con­fi­dence-build­ing chal­lenge. She needed new clothes, and al­though we had planned a shop­ping trip to Tar­get she no longer wanted to go. More tears.

“I don’t know what clothes to buy, what looks good on me, I don’t have a good hair­style and I don’t know what to do about it …” the litany went on and on as she slumped in her moon chair.

In the past I would have said, “but you have cute clothes, your hair is beau­ti­ful …” In­stead, I tried a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. “Oh I see! You don’t like your clothes or your hair?” I used my most em­pa­thetic voice.

“I don’t like the way I look, and I don’t know how to pick out clothes!” she cried throw­ing her hands down in her lap. I bent down and kissed the top of her head.

“Can you take me to the mall please?” she asked.

I let out a deep breath. I knew the day would come when she out­grew Tar­get but I had hoped it would come much later than this. Maybe I would do bet­ter at help­ing her with this new round of in­se­cu­rity.

“We’ll pick out some out­fits, go in the dress­ing room, and you can de­cide what looks good on you,” I of­fered. Then I gave her a blank piece of paper sug­gest­ing she make a list of the things that she wanted to ac­com­plish at the mall, hop­ing the ex­er­cise would ease her anx­i­ety.

Ten min­utes later she brought back the blank crum­pled paper. “I don’t want to do this,” she said lay­ing the paper on my bed. Strike two, but I was not giv­ing up.

At first, things didn’t go well at the mall. The stores I knew that catered to pre­teens like Limited Too were gone, and Barton Creek Mall did not have a Jus­tice. Zu­miez was not her style, and I could tell by her sigh that she was start­ing to get dis­cour­aged. I was an un­hip mom, to­tally out of touch with the tween world. How could I pos­si­bly help?

I pressed on, steer­ing her in­side a JC Pen­ney store. “Let’s take a look in here,” I sug­gested.

As we passed a rack of com­mu­nion dresses, I stopped and sighed, pic­tur­ing my lit­tle girl walk­ing down our church aisle with her hands pressed to­gether. “Mom, no!” My daugh­ter yanked me back into the present and pulled me away from the dresses.

Then she spot­ted some Snoopy shirts and rushed over to pick out her size. Soon we were mak­ing our way to the dress­ing room with an arm­ful of shirts and shorts. As I watched her try on dif­fer­ent out­fits I could see her at­ti­tude change.

“I like this one and this one, not this one, “ she said sep­a­rat­ing the clothes into piles but stay­ing within my bud­get.

She also chose out­fits that were more so­phis­ti­cated than the peace sign T-shirts and cut-offs she usu­ally wore. I was sure she would re­ject one pair of dressy shorts with sil­ver but­tons down the sides, but they went in the “yes” pile as well. My lit­tle girl was grow­ing up.

As we headed home I could see a change in her de­meanor. She was smil­ing, she walked with a pur­pose and she seemed to have more con­fi­dence. I felt proud that she had been able to re­solve her iden­tity cri­sis, but I kept flash­ing back to the com­mu­nion dresses, think­ing about the 8-year-old she had once been, but would be no more. Yes, the com­ing years were go­ing to be a chal­lenge … for both of us.

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