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Dear Mom, Believe Me When I Say You're Beautiful

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My mother came out of the clothing store change room wearing a long-sleeved pink sweatshirt. There was no mirror in the change room, so when she came out, smiling at me, I could tell she felt confident and sexy in that sweatshirt all on her own. I was taken aback by how beautiful the colour was on her, how it complemented her complexion and hair colour.

"You look really good!" I said, and I meant it. She looked so beautiful that the words came out of my mouth before I even gave them permission to.

"Yeah?" She smiled, before stepping up and humbling herself to the mirror. Her smile vanished the second she saw herself.

"I look fat."

Needless to say, no amount of persuading her about how the sweatshirt actually made her look slimmer could work. Her mind was made up, and that mirror had her eyes deadlocked on her alleged weak spots: her stomach and thighs.

It's a difficult feeling to describe, when you see your mother so wounded by her own reflection. We complain all the time -- "My hips are too big," "My thighs are too fat," "My stomach is seeping over the waistband" -- but when you hear it from someone besides yourself, not your friend, but your mother, your heart sinks deep within you. You feel disappointed and agonizingly saddened that someone so beautiful -- someone who gave up their body to give life to you -- could despise that body so much.

Overplayed images of perfect, pre-pubescent-looking women have been embedded in our culture and practised by the female gender for generations. Our great-grandmothers made sure to wear their lipstick and keep themselves slim in order to find a husband. Our grandmas curled their hair at night, wore slimming silhouettes and counted their calories to follow in the footsteps of 'true' womanhood as their own mothers did. Our mothers feed everyone at the dinner table but not themselves, because in their minds they can't bear to see another commercial of a painfully thin woman in a swimsuit when they haven't worn their own swimsuit without a cover-up in years.

It's gotten so much worse. These images are everywhere, telling us that what we put in our mouths determines how much we're worth. We are to be women, be hospitable, be beautiful. To feed others, but not ourselves. When you're just about inhaling a slice of pizza while your mom is just drinking coffee, you tend to feel less sorry for yourself and more troubled for her. Troubled that she thinks she is not worthy of even one bite of that burrito. Troubled that she wants it. Troubled that she is hiding her grumbling stomach all day and pretending that she really isn't hungry. Troubled that she is already the ideal weight and still feels unattractive and overweight. Troubled that she points out a rail-thin model as her ideal standard of body beauty. And all I can do is watch, while she destroys herself and her happiness. All because of the fluctuation of one or two pounds.

So Mom, and other moms out there who don't feel good about themselves; who call themselves "fat"; who feel that they won't be content until they become disappearing acts: I speak as a daughter and for your own young daughters who are impressionable and look up to you. I speak for your older daughters who are growing discouraged and hopeless trying to get through to you, and for your future daughters, who will rely on you to lead them in the right way and teach them their own self-worth: You have a responsibility -- to yourself, to your body, and to her.

I hope you learn that you are lucky to have this body, no matter how wobbly it is from too much McDonalds, or how stretched out the skin is from pregnancy, or whether you think you have too many dimples in your thighs to wear shorts in the hot summer. You are lucky to have a body that is healthy and able; that moves and takes you places and allows you to enjoy time with your daughter, swim in the ocean, and run for shelter in the rain. You're lucky that you have people around you who are grateful for your sacrifices and love you to bits and pieces, and co-workers who think you're a ball of fun, and strangers who wish there were more people in the world like you when all you did was let them bud you in line at the supermarket because they only had one item. You're lucky that you have a roof over your head, warm food to eat, and a daughter who you can call a friend.

Moms, our bodies are temporary. They're not ours to keep. They symbolize our weakness. Limited by bladders, thirst, hunger and disease, our bodies are not worth any reward when we go. We only get one, so take care of it, treat it well, feed it, make it sweat -- get annoyed with it if you have to -- but don't hate it. Save that hate for when your credit card bill comes in the mail. Save it for the guy who breaks your daughter's heart, and when you get a charley horse in the middle of the night.

Think of your daughters: How would you feel if they pushed aside their food, hoping to lose two pounds by the end of this week? How would you feel if your daughter told you she hated the way she looked? You'd tell her the truth: that she's beautiful the way she is. And if she still wanted to lose weight, you'd want her to make a healthy, positive change -- not just to her body, but also to her mind. Do the same, moms, because as you already know, there is no easy way out of difficult situations. But at least we can do it with determination and our heads held high.

But since I know my mom won't change, and I'm not yet able to get through to her, I hope she learns something: Mom, all those people telling you how beautiful you are, and how they wish they could have your body aren't telling you that to make you feel better. It's the plain truth that those people couldn't keep from coming out of their mouths. And when you laugh and dismiss them by saying, "Yeah, right," you make them wish they hadn't made themselves vulnerable by speaking up to tell you how beautiful your body was. And all those times you were complemented in change rooms on something you tried on but ruined the compliment by responding to it by calling yourself fat, didn't make people laugh, it made them feel sorry for you- sorry that a beautiful person saw herself that way.

And for all it's worth, telling her that she is lucky to have a beautiful body but being laughed at; telling her that if she's unhappy we'll fix it together and being rejected; trying to educate her on making small lifestyle changes but being attacked for being a hypocrite -- I won't give up on you. I hope one day you find the happiness and self-love you want and need from your body. But please never forget that the self-love and happiness you'll gain when you achieve your ideal weight may not necessarily come from the pounds you lose on the scale.

Your body -- every scar, wrinkle, stretchmark, burn, skin tag, tattoo -- tells your story. Wear it proud, like battle scars. Because you've been through a lot with that body: through the memorable moments, the romantic ones, and even through hell. But it always brought you back, so change it if you must, but don't give up on it.

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