“Hey, Good Lookin’!”
How do I look? Am I fat? Am I thin? Am I good looking?
How multiples answer those questions depends upon each child’s image of herself – a self-image shaped by parents, co-twin(s), other siblings, culture, traditions, other relatives, friends, and the media.
A child’s perception of her body matters: “It’s practically impossible for a child to feel good about herself if she’s uncomfortable with her appearance,” wrote Debra Phillips, M.D., and Fred Bernstein, in their book, How To Give Your Child A Great Self-Image. Feeling comfortable with one’s body requires appreciating and accepting oneself and opting out of constant comparison with others, difficult in a society where fashion models are typically unusually thin, and fitness is held as the ideal for all to reach. It is doubly hard for twins to avoid comparison games due to their public “measuring stick” of a same-age, and often same-sex, companion.
“I think it’s almost impossible for people not to compare twins or for twins not to compare themselves,” said identical twin Colleen Doherty, 43. “I always wanted to be at least equal with Eileen, my twin – in looks and academics. In my 20s, I went through a period where I didn’t eat – I was probably anorexic – and was thinner than Eileen.”
Her co-twin, Eileen Kelly, remarked, “We compare ourselves subconsciously as identical twins. When Colleen lost weight, I felt like I was heavy because I could see the difference between us. I still don’t like it when she’s thinner than I am.”
Mothers of identical and same-sex fraternal twins noted that their twins are attuned to physical similarities and discrepancies. For example, “Katherine, 7, dislikes being one inch shorter, a pound lighter and having smaller feet than her identical co-twin, Kristin,” said their mother, Barb Clark. “In fact, Katherine says she wears the same size shoe as Kristin, but she really doesn’t.”
Loretta Emmert has watched her fraternal twin boys, Jacob and Dane, 9, pay close attention to regular height and weight checks. Dane likes being the taller and heavier of the two; there’s competition between them about height, but Jacob does not want to gain weight.
Not surprisingly, identical twins are most susceptible to intense physical comparisons. However, some parents report competition between same-sex fraternals, which can be traumatic if their genes endow them with significantly different body types. Being male and female spares most opposite-sex fraternals from direct body comparison.
What Parents Can Do
Concerned about her twins’ competition over size, Loretta Emmert points out each boy’s individual strengths. Barb Clark tells Katherine and Kristin that identical twins usually differ a bit in size and weight. She also tries to keep eating from becoming an issue by talking about food as body fuel and never using it as a tool for punishment or reward.
Gloria Leon, Ph.D., a University of Minnesota professor of clinical psychology, advises parents to “focus on your twins’ distinct areas of competence rather than their weight and appearance, and on eating a balanced diet rather than on dieting to lose weight. And remember that some kids are genetically programmed to weigh more than the average. There’s a need for greater tolerance of weight levels.”
Above all, parents need to set an example: “Be sensitive to the message you give about your own body and eating,” said Dr. Leon. “Research shows that parents are often preoccupied with their own physical appearance, and mothers are sometimes more critical of weight gain in an adolescent than the adolescent is.”
Liz Wright, a mother of three, including 17-month-old fraternal twins, Dylan and Bryan, tries to keep her focus on serving healthy foods – lots of fruits and steamed vegetables. She likes how she looks, exercises to stay slim, and feels that’s a good example for her children. However, she recognizes that she’s “a product of the thin culture” and may need to take a more moderate approach to fitness.
Elke Eckert, M.D., a University of Minnesota professor of psychiatry and director of in-hospital and partial-day hospital eating disorder programs, has studied anorexic twins. She, too, encourages parents to treat each twin as an individual, “although that can be hard because some twins want to identify with each other.” Dr. Eckert and other experts cite low self-esteem and poor body image as major factors in the onset of eating disorders.
A Recipe For Enhancing Body Image
The foundation for a good body image begins at home. In her book, Dr. Phillips stresses modeling behavior to children. “If you want a child to feel good about her body, show that you accept yours. A parent could say, ‘Well, I’m no movie star, but I’m pretty happy with the way I look.’ Your child will learn from your example,” she adds.
Although parents can’t alter media images or control comments from friends, peers, and siblings, they can lessen the impact by giving a child tools to use to feel comfortable with her body. Letting your twins know they’re lovable and okay starts at birth: Like Fred Rogers, of the television program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, states in his book, You Are Special (Viking Books, 1994), “I don’t believe there’s any such thing as meaningless communication between caregiver and child – not from the first touch or coo. Each, no matter how insignificant, adds to the stored experiences of all messages that have gone before.”
The messages parents give a child can alter the way she perceives herself, “so that her few flaws no longer outweigh her many strengths in her mind,” Dr. Phillips said. “What’s important isn’t how she looks on the outside – but how her looks feel on the inside.”