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.”
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?
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.
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?
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.
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). And you can make more content like this possible by joining my Patreon.