(Hopefully Not) Passing on Body Hatred

 

If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, imagine how many industries would go out of business - quote from Gail Dines. More good stuff on body image here too. (Titian, Venus, an organist and a little dog) | Sacraparental.com

 

Is it fair to say we all want our kids to have better, healthier, happier feelings about their bodies than we have about ours? How can we avoid passing on our own insecurities?

Alex linked recently to this bawl-inducing letter Kasey Edwards writes to her mother in ‘Passing on Body Hatred,’ excerpted from the Dear Mum collection:

With every grimace at your reflection in the mirror, every new wonder diet that was going to change your life, and every guilty spoon of ”Oh-I-really-shouldn’t”, I learned that women must be thin to be valid and worthy. Girls must go without because their greatest contribution to the world is their physical beauty.

Just like you, I have spent my whole life feeling fat. When did fat become a feeling anyway? And because I believed I was fat, I knew I was no good.

But now that I am older, and a mother myself, I know that blaming you for my body hatred is unhelpful and unfair. I now understand that you too are a product of a long and rich lineage of women who were taught to loathe themselves.

Look at the example Nanna set for you. Despite being what could only be described as famine-victim chic, she dieted every day of her life until the day she died at 79 years of age. She used to put on make-up to walk to the letterbox for fear that somebody might see her unpainted face.

I remember her ”compassionate” response when you announced that Dad had left you for another woman. Her first comment was, ”I don’t understand why he’d leave you. You look after yourself, you wear lipstick. You’re overweight – but not that much.”

Ouch.

The women who raised you may have been less broken, and if you’re lucky, body hatred may not be a legacy from your family.

But it’s a common enough infection picked up from other sources. How on earth can we avoid passing this sadness down to our children?

I think it’s a three-stage journey from being a parent like the ones described in the letter to being able to nurture positive body image and all that that springs from. I suspect only the first two stages are necessary for raising our kids so they won’t relate to this letter. The third would be awesome, but let’s be kind to ourselves and take one leg of the trek at a time, shall we?

 

(HOPEFULLY NOT) PASSING ON BODY HATRED: If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, imagine how many industries would go out of business - quote from Gail Dines. More good stuff on body image here too. | Sacraparental.com

 

Know the truth

Kasey’s Mum and Nanna really did believe that how they looked was hugely important and significant. Perhaps they even believed, as Kasey writes, that:

women must be thin to be valid and worthy. Girls must go without because their greatest contribution to the world is their physical beauty.

If you think that’s true, then it’s only responsible to work hard on your daughter’s complexion and figure, just like a hovering Jane Austen mamma.

Written as baldly as that, I hope most of us can say we don’t really think that’s right. Women can be valid and worthy without being thin. Girls contribute much more to the world than their physical beauty.

I reckon there are two main ways a Nanna like Kasey’s might come to see things differently. Good old-fashioned feminist consciousness-raising is one. Kasey’s letter is an example, as is Caitlin Moran’s hilarious and punchy How to be a Woman.

The other is some kind of dare-I-call-it spiritual encounter that helps someone see themselves in fundamentally different ways. Jesus of Nazareth, to give my own perspective, seems from the gospels to be utterly uninterested in judging people’s outsides. He offers belonging based on our inherent value as God’s children, and calls us to cultivate our character and serve our neighbour. For me and for many, this is a pretty good antidote to Nanna’s way of seeing the world.

The truth, as I see it, is that a person’s physicality is part of who they are, but giving it marks out of ten is inappropriate and damaging. Every time we mentally assess how pretty or overweight or buff someone looks, we undermine their personhood and ours.

 

You Look Fine, unknown artist. For more on body image, and hopefully not passing on body hatred to our kids, click through.| Sacraparental.com

 

Speak the truth

This step, also known as ‘fake it till you make it,’ is the good news. You’ll notice I’m putting it ahead of actually feeling great about your own body and genuinely not caring about what other people think of it. In my experience, that is the final leg of the journey, and you get there by doing this one first.

This stage is also the big one for what our kids will pick up from us. I’d love to get your ideas for how to enact this, please. I suspect we need a mixture of ridding our speech of unhealthy language and giving our kids ways of thinking about themselves and other people that will build resilience and self-love. All your tips and theories are welcome in the comments below.

One of my favourite bloggers, ‘Jane’ from Nothing By the Book and Undogmatic Unschoolers, recently raged about a man warning her young daughter that ice cream will make her fat:

He’s not a bad man, you know. Just a guy. With a TV and without a daughter. I think he was just trying to be nice, make conversation.

This is what he said:

‘You’re eating a second ice cream? You are going to get so fat.’

To my six-year-old daughter.

He moved on. Forgot. The effect on her? That evening, as she comes out of the bath, my six-year-old daughter looks at herself in the mirror—for the first time in her life, critically. She thrusts out her belly. And asks me:

‘Mom? Am I fat?’

And I, who have spent much of my adult life struggling against the eating disorder and body image damage inflicted on my teenage self, I freak. But manage to hold it in, for her. And hear the story, what’s prompting this. And engage in a little bit of deprogramming. And tell her, that the next time I see him, I will explain to him why what he said was inappropriate and wrong and ensure he will never say that to another little girl again.

I figure by the time I see him, I will be… less angry. Because, you know, I know he’s not a bad man. Just a guy. With a TV. And no daughter.

But I’m still furious, seething. And so, what comes out of my mouth, instead of the rehearsed, rational statement I practiced, is this:

‘I understand you tried to give my daughter an eating disorder.’

[Read more at Nothing By the Book.]

This story, and Jane’s reaction to what happened prompted some great comments at her blog. One from a young woman was hugely helpful and insightful:

I’m not sure there’s any avoiding self-crit, no matter the cultural influences. I took issue with my own body on several points–I wished I could be a little less stocky, I wished my face less round, I wished it would less easily grow red, I wished I were taller… the list goes on, but not for very long.

The most important things my mother did for me, I think, was to
1, ingrain the idea that society has always been, is, and will always be rather stupid, and that weirdness is AWESOME. I even found a shirt with WEIRD emblazoned across the front, and it’s one of my faves. :3

and 2, point out that a person’s beauty largely rests in how they glow. “You know,” I remember her saying once of someone we’d been hanging out with, “I was surprised to look closer and see she’s actually a bit homely. There’s so much love and joy, it’s hard to see past it.”

One of the most beautiful people I know is, when I consider her objectively, kind of gawky and awkward about the face and body. But there’s beauty, and then there’s /beauty/, and when someone glows with true beauty, a person’s mind just kind of assumes that they look beautiful, too.
I know I glow–Mom has told me, a number of people have told me–so I know that, even though would classify myself objectively to waver between “plain,” “cute,” and “lovely,” I know that I am beautiful, and that people will see that beauty in my face whether my face is beautiful or not.

Now there’s something to communicate.

In another good-parenting-news story, Glennon Doyle Melton from Momastery discovered this week that her son has been listening to her:

Yesterday, I finally pulled Chase into his room and we lay down together on his bed. I said, “Listen, buddy. I know I’ve been kind of mean lately.”

Chase didn’t argue with that, so I went on.

“I haven’t been a perfect mom. I’m sorry. I’m going to keep messing up this summer, but just know that I love you. I love you so much, and I’m so proud of you.”

Chase stared at the ceiling silently for a while and I thought . . . oh, crap, this time I’ve pushed the boy too far. But then he said, “Listen, mom. It’s okay that you’re not perfect. Nobody’s perfect. You know, when you’re not perfect, I remember that I don’t have to be perfect, either. It’s a relief sometimes.”

Ten points to Glennon!

Feel the truth

Some of us struggle with the thought that it is hypocritical to teach our children that appearances don’t matter much when we have so much anxiety about our own. It has been my experience that acting according to your intellectual beliefs on these matters, rather than your inner fears, is both effective and authentic. If you act like you don’t care what you weigh, one day you really won’t.

When I was about twenty, it occurred to me (slow learner) that in the West, it’s only women who are told they must remove lots of their hair to be beautiful. In other cultures, body hair is attractive, and until recently, at least, men in the West have not been badgered about their hairyness.

A lifetime of seeing women with smooth, baby-like legs had made an impact, of course, so it was pretty tough to give up shaving my legs. I did it though. Why should I spend time and money chasing an arbitrary, sexist standard?

 

-Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.- Mary Wollstonecraft | Sacraparental.com | How not to pass on body hatred to our children

 

I remember the party I was late to because I ‘needed’ to shave my legs before I could be seen in a dress. And I remember the first time I went to a party in a dress with all my hair still attached. I have spent a decade and a half baring my hairy legs and still not preferring the look of them to smoother neighbours. But I know my feelings and culturally-built aesthetic code are at odds with my principles, so I carry on cheerfully with the fake-it-till-you-make-it policy.

With each year that passes, my impulses and my values get closer together. And I love that each time a kid or young person who likes or respects me sees that I choose to keep the hair on my legs, that’s a piece of data that goes into building their own sense of what’s beautiful and what’s important.

That’s my twenty-two cents to get this discussion going. It’s been simmering away on Facebook, so I know many of you will have thoughts, impulses or worries to communicate. I’d love to hear, for instance:

  • how you felt reading each of the pieces quoted above
  • what you choose not to say or do in front of children
  • how you talk to kids about body image, or would like to
  • what has helped you most in learning to love your body, if that has been a struggle
  • is there one thing you’d like to ask all other adults in your life to do or not do in front of your kids?
  • any other tips or strategies you can share.

Thanks, team. This is a hard one, and some of us will need all the help we can get.

 

TItian, Venus, an organist and a little dog | HOPEFULLY NOT PASSING ON BODY HATRED More good stuff on body image here too. | Sacraparental.com

 

There are plenty of ways to join the conversation and keep in the loop. You can follow me on Facebook (for extra links and resources, daily), Pinterest (for link-plantations!) and Twitter (for ranting and raving).

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26 comments on “(Hopefully Not) Passing on Body Hatred”

  1. Deb @ Urban Moo Cow Reply

    Agree with Jane 1,000 percent (as I usually do). Great post. I have recently started to try to take my own advice (I wrote a post on self-compassion and one on body image). The whole faking it till you make it thing kind of works. I’ve felt lighter just by not criticizing myself all the damn time. Just by not thinking that I SHOULD feel bad about my body the way it is. Only I can decide how bad I want to feel. And I don’t want to feel bad anymore.

  2. Spaghetti Reply

    Great post :) I like the comment that was made in response to Janes’ blog. A few months ago, I was out on my lunch break and was watching a tourist family with a toddler, I’d been smiling at the toddler when the father noticed and said to me “You have a beautiful smile”. There was nothing inappropriate in the way he said it, so I smiled a little brighter and thanked him. I’d been feeling tired & rundown (& a little un-attractive) and it brightened my day. I have always tried to make a habit of complimenting others (even strangers!) so to have someone give me such an unexpected compliment made me realise just how much of a difference noticing the good in people makes. And it still makes me feel good months later! So don’t be afraid to compliment others, whether it’s on a good job done, a new top or haircut, or a friendly smile – you might just lift their spirits and make them feel better about themselves :)

    • Spaghetti Reply

      Was thinking about this more today and thought I’d add one more (shorter?) comment: I’ve learned that just as important (maybe more) as giving compliments, is learning how to accept them. If you always ‘lessen’ a compliment (“You worked really hard on that” / “Oh, I didn’t really”) it becomes less of a compliment. Accepting a compliment with a “Thank you, yes, it was hard work but I did it” shows that you value yourself and hopefully in turn teaches kids that it’s ok to value themselves too.

      • Alex Reply

        I like this. I find it difficult to take a compliment – and find myself even brushing them off when people compliment my children. This is a bad, potentially damaging habit, and I must stop it. Thank you for reminding me. :)

      • not a wild hera Reply

        Completely agree.

        I found I made a breakthrough in accepting compliments when I realised that I was being ungracious. Someone is offering a kindness, a grace, so the only polite and kind thing to do is to graciously accept it.

        And I really find it makes a difference to my internal world to hear and accept compliments. Also to stick them to the wall when they’re written down!

  3. Pingback: Mine, but not mine: recognizing that our children do not belong to us | Nothing By The Book

  4. Alex Reply

    I’ve been going round in so many circles on this since I first came across the body hatred article. Not sure where I’ve ended up – I feel a long way behind on this journey at the moment – but I wanted to just say thanks for the link to the self-compassion article; what a great post. That’s me, right now, having that conversation with myself pretty much every day. (Only I wasn’t petite before, and the only thing my extra weight can be ascribed to is enjoying food and drink too much and exercise too little.) But you’re right – I wouldn’t dream of making such judgements about a friend, or even a complete stranger, so I need to get better at being kinder to myself.

    The other piece that struck a chord for me was the one about “her future fat thighs” (can’t remember which blog linked to that) – my children have reached that delightfully charming tactless phase of pointing out for me all the bits that I’d rather stayed hidden, or at least unremarked (“mummy, why do you have spots on your face?”, “mummy, why is your belly wobbly?”) – I need to find some better responses. I’m afraid at the moment I tend to just snap “that’s just how they are” and change the subject. Not a very wise or kind or helpful reply. On the other hand, they have also taken to sometimes addressing me as “pretty mummy” (usually when I put a flowery top on, or a rare dress – and if I’m honest, I struggle to know how to respond to that one too – I’m trying hard just to smile and say thank you), so clearly overweight and spotty doesn’t equate to ugly for them, yet. I need to try to make sure it never does.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Thank you for this, Alex.

      It’s great to know that your lovelies have a healthy perspective on beauty, and that you’re striving to help them keep it. We’ll get there, eh?

      One thing I sometimes think about engaging with kids’ tactless/innoncent observations of things is that it’s a great chance to reframe things. I remember reading on Brian McLaren’s blog (I think) about a mother who answered ‘Mummy, why is that woman wearing that (hijab) on her head?’ with ‘because she wants to show that she loves God.’ A great interpretationt o give.

      Similarly, I am all prepared to answer any questions about, for instance, stretch marks and wobbly tummies with ‘this is a reminder that I loved you so much I carried you in my body for nine months’.

      • Alex Reply

        Thanks. And yes, that does sound better. I do think care would need to be taken, though, so that the child’s logic didn’t run “mummy doesn’t like her wobbly tummy => mummy’s tummy is wobbly because of me => it’s my fault mummy’s sad”… I guess it all comes back to mummy not being obvious about disliking her wobbly tummy / (ideally) genuinely not caring one way or another whether her tummy is wobbly or not!

        • not a wild hera Reply

          Yes, absolutely! I am thinking of the tummy (eg) being seen by everyone – us included – as a badge of honour rather than a woeful side-effect. Say it brightly, and fake it till you make it, right? :)

  5. Katie McCarthy-Burke Reply

    I remember the day at Easter camp when we discussed your leg-hair. I must have been eleven or twelve… that conversation made an impact on me for sure. I didn’t all together stop shaving my legs from then on but certainly now it’s more just a part of my special-occasion-preparation (if I bother to make the time) and if anyone has a problem with my hairy legs I don’t worry about being offended… And I don’t rush home to remove it out of embarrassment in fact I make sure that people hear my opinion on how most humans (luckily) have the ability to grow hair and it’s perfectly respectable to choose not to remove it.. My mum never used to shave her armpits or bother much with leg hair. She didn’t wear make-up EVER or dye her hair. She “maintains” all these things now. I think it’s a shame that the things she was never bothered by have become something she spends time worrying about now. So much admin! So many people out there putting their own ideas and insecurities on others. Where’s the acceptance at!

  6. Val Reply

    hm! good points.

    you mentioned other people seeing your hairy legs as “data that goes into building their own sense of what’s beautiful and what’s important”. I think that language of data and idea-construction is a great way to think about it, actually, since our concepts of ‘beautiful’, ‘acceptable’ or even ‘normal’ /are/ constructed, often subconsciously, from a hundred thousand bits of data.

    Of course, clearly, most of our current societal data goes into constructing an idea of beauty that looks like a thin, hair-and-line-and-spotless nineteen-year-old with gravity-defying breasts. What I think helps deconstruct (or deprogram!) that idea, then, is exposing ourselves and others to as much contradictory data as possible. Or, in non-data language, to constantly redefine what normality or beauty means for us by showing ourselves and others different ways to be (like you learning that hair outside of the West means something entirely different with regard to beauty).

    All that to say: I know I became far, far more comfortable with things that I saw as imperfect in my body when I started coming into contact more regularly with body positive photos of women of all sizes, for example. Like this: http://www.themilitantbaker.com/2014/08/expose-shedding-light-on-collective.html (note: nudity). The body positivity corners of the internet are fantastic for this kind of thing. Normality for me opened up to include belly fat, and spots, and hair, and breasts that weren’t the same size, and wrinkles, and stretch marks, because other people seemed convinced that these things were normal, and acceptable, and kind of awesome.

    So I think that helps most with the ‘feel the truth’ bit of your post. I find that actively keeping images like this and discussions like these in my and other people’s attention- saturating our everyday with this kind of alternative data- makes it normal, and acts as a distinct counterpoint to the standard societal narrative.

  7. Amanda Reply

    It’s actually my husband who has helped me get over my socialized focus on beauty and imperfections over the years. It’s taken eight years, five of them married to him, but I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t wear makeup unless I want to (less than once a year, in general), don’t feel pressured to wear makeup for important events such as weddings and meetings, don’t shave at all or remove body hair in any other way, let my hair do what it wants and encourage its natural state of curliness, even when it doesn’t look “perfect,” and focus on what I feel like wearing rather than what I “should” wear.

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