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I was recently unsettled when I came across a post from a 13-year-old girl asking members of a fitness community for advice about how to lose 15 pounds. In my opinion, no 13-year-old girl should ever, in any circumstance, have to feel worried about the size or shape of her body. It was heartening to see that others agreed with me and said so in their responses to her, but I was still unsettled by the original post. I have a 13-year-old niece, an almost 12-year-old niece, and two younger nieces and three younger nephews. I was a 13-year-old girl once. I'm flexible about many of my viewpoints in the sense that I'm generally willing to listen to multiple sides to a story, but this case is pretty cut-and-dry to me. Society fails our girls. The fact that a 13-year-old is concerned enough about her weight to post a question about it online is proof to me that we have failed.
All this got me thinking about the kind of advice I would WANT to give to a 13-year-old girl. Instead of perpetuating a cycle of self-hatred and destruction, what if we empowered our young girls instead? So here's the advice I would give to all 13-year-old girls.
1. When you look in the mirror, refuse to hate what you see.
This alone will make you a rebel in a culture that's constantly telling you to better yourself. I know you can't open a magazine without being told that this hair product or that makeup will make you look prettier. I know you can't turn on the TV without seeing women act embarrassingly excited about low-calorie yogurt or sugar-free chewing gum. I know you're being exposed to ads featuring models whose full-time job is working on their bodies and still get Photoshopped on top of that. I know many of the stars popular today have spent money to transform the way their hair, faces and bodies look. I know you're constantly fed messages telling you that wanting to improve the way you look should be of upmost concern, but it's completely in your power to say "No thanks" to everyone and instead look at yourself in the mirror and say, "I'm fine as I am." Trust me: You are. You're fine as you are. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something.
2. Figure out how to be healthy in a way that makes you happy.
When I was 13, I hated sports but tried to play them anyway because it seemed like the thing everyone was doing. I wasn't good at sports and playing them did not increase my self-confidence, so I never had fun in the process. On the other hand, I know people who gained a lot from team sports. My sister became a confident leader because of team sports. She learned how to harness her competitive nature in a healthy, fun way. She loved running around on basketball, tennis and volleyball courts and soccer fields. If you love a sport, play sports. There's nothing better than participating in an activity, losing track of time, and not even thinking about the fact that you're getting exercise. One of the best things about being young is that you're encouraged to have fun. The older you get, the less this will be true. So while you are young, have as much fun as possible. Then try to carry some of that fun with you to adulthood.
I was in my late twenties/early thirties when I discovered I loved running. I wish I had known I loved running when I was younger. For some reason it never occurred to me to look beyond the box of organized sports. There are so many fun ways to move your body, whether it's sports or running or hiking or dancing or riding your bike or doing yoga. The trick is finding out what makes YOU happy. What makes you lose track of time? When exercise feels like exercise for the sake of losing weight, it's a form of torture. When exercise is fun, it's empowering and even life-changing. Figure out what you love to do. Don't worry if it's not what your parents or friends or classmates love to do. This is about your health and your happiness.
3. Learn to love food.
To this day, I'm troubled by a scene from my life that took place when I was about 15 years old. A group of us spent the afternoon swimming in a friend's outdoor pool. After several hours, my friend's mom brought out a trayful of food: sandwiches, chips, fruit. I was starving, as I'm sure we all were after spending several hours swimming. When we sat around the patio table, though, this is what happened. All the boys dug into the food. A few of the girls said, "I'm not hungry," and sat with their arms crossed, watching the boys eat. Then all the girls echoed their actions. One by one, every girl said "I'm not hungry." As the boys chowed down on what looked like the best sandwiches in the history of ever, the girls sat and watched.
That was the first time I learned that it was expected for girls of a certain age to act a certain way even if this meant denying their own desires. And it was the first time I did act that certain way, despite the fact that I wanted one of those sandwiches more than anything. You know what I realize looking back at that scene now? Probably every single girl there wanted a sandwich more than anything. And maybe if just one of us had been brave enough to say, "Yeah, I'm starving," and put some food on a plate, we all would have joined in. But we were stuck in a weird game of teenage girlhood. I understand how powerful that game is and how difficult it is not to conform. But as a 34-year-old who probably seems ancient to you, I promise you: Life will be SO much better if you let yourself eat when you're hungry. Let yourself eat when and what you want to eat, even if's not popular. Don't deny yourself your basic human rights in an effort to fit in. When you are hungry, eat the sandwich. Love every bite.
4. Take the energy society wants you to put toward your appearance and divert it elsewhere.
As mentioned earlier, we live in a society that wants its women to be primarily obsessed with their appearances. We're meant to spend the bulk of our days thinking about our bodies. And while there's nothing wrong with thinking about your body — I think about mine often — please don't buy into the narrative that's it the only thing you should be thinking about. If your body and appearance is what you're thinking about the most, where does that leave everything else? When you're young, you're full of passion. For a lot of people, that passion dwindles as they get older. Adult life gets in the way. But adult life isn't something you need to worry about right now.
While you're young, make a point of figuring out what you love. Do you love to read or study chemistry? Do you love to dance? Do you enjoy spending time with your friends or do you prefer to think about things on your own? Are you interested in astronomy? What about astrology? Do you like to cook? Do you enjoy experimenting with makeup? Are you interested in fashion? Do you like learning other languages? Do you want to be involved in politics?
Hollywood movies tell girls they should be interested in looking pretty and capturing the attention of a guy. They're rarely allowed to move beyond this narrative. Real life is so much more interesting. In real life, you can be anything. You can study anything. You can immerse yourself in anything. Don't waste the energy that could be spent on your passions worrying about losing weight.
5. Get comfortable in your own skin.
Maybe you think your legs are a little chunky and your best friend looks like a model. Guess what? You best friend probably thinks her hair is too stringy and wishes she had your beautiful eyes. Learn to look at other girls and women, appreciate them, and not want to be them. Hating yourself will make your life so much harder. Wishing you looked a different way is a dead-end street. The person you want to look like isn't perfect either; she just took a ton of selfies until she found the one with the perfect angle and filter.
If you spend every day fixated on your perceived flaws, you'll miss a lot of beautiful moments. If you're so worried about what you look like in the group picture that you can't even enjoy the party, that's a problem. And that's not a problem that's going to be fixed if you lose 15 or 50 pounds. You have the power to love and accept yourself exactly as you are right now — not the way you will be if you do X or Y to your appearance. Just like refusing to hate what you see in the mirror, refuse to hate yourself as you walk through life.
Some women with thick thighs and full bellies go on to make millions, win awards, and earn the respect of their peers. Some women with thin hair and flat butts become superstar athletes and bestselling authors. Some women with seemingly perfect bodies develop eating disorders and drug addictions. The secret isn't in how you look. The secret is in how you feel. Tell the world you see yourself as beautiful. Project an image of confidence. You know what the world will see? A beautiful, confident woman. That's how it works. It doesn't work the other way around. You don't hate yourself, punish your body, and transform yourself into being beautiful.
Loving yourself is beautiful. Respecting yourself is beautiful. Treating yourself well is beautiful. So don't waste another second hating yourself because that's what society tells us women are supposed to do. You're allowed to love yourself exactly as you are, despite living in a culture that tells you otherwise.