I don’t want my son to see me hate my body and grow up feeling ashamed of his body, either.

When I was about 5 years old, I was sitting at a restaurant when I looked over at my mom and said “Mommy, when I’m older, I want to look just like you.” 

“Oh no,” she replied quickly. “You don’t want to have a tummy like mine.”

This wasn’t the first time I heard my parents speak about their own bodies in a negative way. 

My family was also prone to commenting on other people’s bodies too. Family reunions and large get-togethers always involved updates on who had put on weight and who had lost weight. Those who had lost pounds got compliments.

As I grew up, this commentary on body size turned toward me.

When I was thin, family members referred to me as “skinny-minnie.” When I started gaining weight in college, my father was quick to inform me that I had become “borderline” and needed to start “taking better care of myself.”

When I reached for the second helping of spaghetti or bought a snack, I got a look. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but for years, I internalized a lot of fatphobia. I started believing that being thin was a sign that you were healthy and disciplined.

When I couldn’t achieve that ideal, I thought it was my own failing, my own lack of control.

It never occurred to me that genetics could play a role in weight gain. It also never occurred to me that certain diseases or medications could be a factor, too.

I wasn’t paying attention to the research that has repeatedly shown that weight is not in and of itself a sign of health, and that it’s actually people’s behaviors — not the size of their bodies — that had the biggest impact on lifespan. 

So when I was diagnosed with PCOS in my late 20s, I immediately blamed myself.

I was certain I must have done something to cause this — even though doctors still don’t know what causes polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

I started hating my body for not being able to lose the weight — which my doctor told me would help alleviate some of my PCOS symptoms — and started skipping meals. I actively started avoiding mirrors and dressing in baggy clothes. 

Later, I started blaming myself for not being able to get pregnant, a common symptom of PCOS.

Even when I did get pregnant, my growing belly gave me anxiety. I would look away from the scale when the nurse weighed me — and fight back tears if she’d decide to read out the number aloud.

I started having nightmares I’d never have the baby but my belly would just keep growing and growing.

Weight gain as a sign of failure was so ingrained in me that even the natural weight gain of pregnancy felt like I had given up on myself.

“Our culture has valued thinness for eons, so it’s no surprise if you have ingrained fatphobic views from your own childhood,” says Emma Laing, clinical associate professor in the department of foods and nutrition at the University of Georgia.

It’s also seeped into our everyday lives, and we’ve become immune to noticing it.

“I remember a meme on Facebook with several adorable baby girl toddlers dancing around in diapers lifting their shirts to show their developmentally appropriate chubby bellies and it said ‘Me after being released from quarantine,’” says Heidi Dalzell, a psychologist and eating disorder coach in Pennsylvania.

“My first response was ‘So cute,’ before I caught it and went to ‘how destructive,’” she says.

The problem with jokes like this — which are everywhere — is that it reinforces the idea that there’s one “correct” way to look. It also makes anyone who doesn’t look that way the punchline of jokes, implying that they’re worth less. 

“These jokes are especially troubling given the fact that fat individuals are less likely to be hired and promoted,” says Taryn Myers, associate professor of psychology at Virginia Wesleyan University.

People in larger bodies also experience bias from their doctors, who spend less time with them, refer them less often for diagnostic tests, and misdiagnose them because they’re too quick to assume the problem can be solved with dieting.

This weight shame and stigma can be incredibly destructive. 

It can keep patients from seeking medical care or going to regular well visit check-ups because they don’t want to be lectured about their weight. (I, for one, did this actively both before and after my pregnancy.)

It can also lead to repeated, unhealthy cycles of weight loss and regain, an unhealthy fixation on food and bodies, and eating disorders.

This shame impacts children, too.

Approximately half of teenage girls and one-quarter of teenage boys are dissatisfied with their bodies, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics

But body image struggles start much younger, too. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.

A 2010 study involving preschoolers ages 3 to 5 found that they were more likely to use negative words to describe larger bodies.

Dalzell says that her youngest client with an eating disorder was only 5 years old. 

Now that I’m a mom, I’m determined to combat my own biases and treat my body better.

I don’t want my son to see me hate my body and grow up feeling ashamed of his body, either.

I certainly don’t want him shaming others. I also don’t want him to have anxiety around food and I want him to enjoy mealtime. 

“Kids are like sponges — they might not look like they are paying attention, but they are taking in everything their parents do and say,” says Janet Lydecker, a psychologist and assistant professor in psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. 

The good news is, parents can also be role models for good, not just bad. 

“When parents are aware of their own body image and what they say and do around their children, they have the power to choose to share positive messages,” she says.

I want the very best in life for my son, no matter his size. And if I’m going to make that happen, it starts with me.

Simone M. Scully is a writer who loves writing about all things health and science. Find Simone on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.