“Look how small my waist was,” my grandma would say pointing to a black and white photo of her 20-something self. “I used to have the smallest waist in my town.”
Based on how regularly I was shown that old photo and the number of times I was regaled with stories about my grandmother’s tiny waist, I can only assume that my grandma considered her small waist to be her greatest achievement in life.
As a child I didn’t realise how sad that was. I also didn’t understand that she was systematically passing her body insecurity and superficiality on to me.
When my grandmother forced me onto the scales to measure and scrutinise my body weight I thought she was schooling me in the vital lessons of how to be a successful woman.
When she told me that I would never find a husband if I put on too much weight — the ultimate failing for a woman in our family — I believed her.
I didn’t question why my brothers were out in the backyard playing cricket, and being “fattened up” with homemade scones, while my grandma was squeezing and tut-tutting over the tiny roll of skin on my belly. I was a girl and I’d already learned that things are different for girls.
I can almost excuse my grandmother’s behaviour as the product of an oppressed women from a different time. I have no doubt that my grandmother loved me, but as an adult I see how warped and toxic this expression of love was.
I also now understand just how powerful family hierarchies and cultures can be; that it can be easier to overlook the mistreatment of your kids rather than pick a fight with your mother and/or mother-in-law.
It’s possible that my parents didn’t realise how damaging it was for a loved and trusted adult to constantly police my body at a time in my life when I was trying to form my sense of self.
Maybe they thought I’d just forget about it. I didn’t; it remains one of my most profound memories from my childhood.
As bizarre as this story sounds, my family is far from unique. So many woman I know have similar stories of how they were body-shamed by their grandparents, or how their own parents are now trying to pass that proud family tradition onto their children.
A friend tells me that every week for years she would go to a family lunch and her grandfather would tell her to stop eating because she’d get fat. How utterly perverse to sit a child in front of table full of food and tell them not to eat it. Her parents said nothing. Not once.
To a child, a parent’s silence is confirmation that not only is it okay for their grandparent to speak to them like that, but that their grandparent is right. That girls shouldn’t eat, they should always deprive themselves because they owe the world their beauty and their thinness.
Psychologist and Director of BodyMatters Australasia Sarah McMahon says that grandparents can be very influential in a child developing body image problems. Grandparents typically have status and authority in families and kids want their love and approval, therefore the words and values of grandparents can have a lot of power.
“I’ve seen it lots of times,’ says McMahon who specialises in helping patients recover from eating disorders and poor body image. “Grandparents tend to feel a responsibility for their grandchild without properly understanding what’s going on. Quite often they can be coming from a well-meaning place but that doesn’t always mean it’s helpful.”
McMahon says it’s very common for her patients to tell stories of their grandparents’ criticising their appearance, and judging what they eat and how much they eat.
“Even patients who are suffering from an eating disorder and working towards a recovery still receive body-policing comments from their grandparents. It’s almost unfathomable that grandparents can watch their grandchild go through something so awful and then still make body critical comments. But it’s something that I see all the time. They either don’t get it or can’t help themselves from making unhelpful comments about their grandchild’s body.”
The special status of grandparents means that our parents and in-laws can have a huge effect on how our daughters feel about their body and themselves.
I am determined to do everything I can to break the cycle of body hatred in my family so I have specifically asked my mum not to speak about my daughters’ – or anybody else’s – weight or appearance in front of my girls.
Rather than adding to the chorus of voices that will critique my daughters’ bodies, I want my mum to be a protective factor to help my daughters to develop a sense of self that is not reliant on what other people think about how they look.
I’m sure my grandmother had fabulous lessons and life affirming stories she could have shared with me. Instead, I will always remember her as the old lady who told me that my body was wrong.