My mum has spent her life believing that she’s fat and hating herself for it. Her dearest wish was to spare me that fate.
With the very best intentions she closely monitored my developing body, talked constantly about the perils of weight gain and policed my appetite in a way that she never did with my brothers.
She didn’t realise that she was helping to instil in me the very thing she was trying so hard to avoid: body hatred. When you’re taught that your body weight is central to your worth and happiness, and that snacking on anything other than celery sticks is shameful, developing body insecurity is almost inevitable — regardless of your BMI.
Body hatred isn’t about how you look, it’s about how you feel about how you look.
I have interviewed women with supermodel physiques who loathe their bodies and are obsessed with losing the ‘last five kilograms’. And I know of women with bigger bodies than me who haven’t a shred of body hatred. One acquaintance recently exclaimed ‘I wish somebody would make jeans that fit properly’. In her view, the problem resides with Levis, not with her larger body.
Having the ‘right’ body doesn’t inoculate people from body hatred. That can only be achieved by having the right thoughts. With my daughters, I’m determined to do things differently. I’ve adopted the following strategies for avoiding body hatred.
1. Never talk about body weight
I never talk about my own weight or anybody else’s in the presence of my girls. When people talk about weight in front of my girls I do my best to neutralise it — it’s just another part of the rich tapestry of life. I want them to understand that a person’s weight is as unrelated to self-worth as their height.
2. Never talk about food in terms of calories or what’s fattening
When we talk about food we talk about its nutritional value. My five year old Violet understands that she needs to eat a variety of foods every day. Some foods make her grow, run fast, and lift heavy things. Others help her learn, and prevent her from getting sick. And some are just yummy.
3. There are no banned foods
I don’t prohibit any foods because I don’t want to create a closet eater or create any sort of good/bad associations. Violet understands that she can eat processed foods some times because they taste good and they are part of social rituals (such a birthday cake) but they don’t help her body grow. If she ate too much cake, then she wouldn’t be able to fit in all the other foods that her body needs.
4. There is only one food rule
I want my girls to feel in control of their own appetites. I tell Violet that her body knows when it’s hungry and when it’s full, so all she needs to do is listen to it. I don’t force her to eat when she doesn’t want to. I also don’t want to incite a food war or power struggle at the dining table.
The only rule we have at meal times is that Violet needs to eat something of everything on her plate so that her body gets the variety of nutrients that it needs to grow and be healthy. Sometimes this means she will only eat one of her peas or half a bean. Feeling in control of her own appetite and trusting her body’s signals is more important than how much she eats.
5. Focus on how bodies work rather than how they look
We celebrate all the amazing things Violet can do with her body — such as running, jumping, skipping, rolling. She has come to value her body in terms of what it can do rather than how it looks.
When she pokes my wobbly belly I tell her that that is my trophy from growing her and her sister, and isn’t it amazing that my body was able to make not just one darling girl, but two!
My girls are five years and nine months old, and only time will tell if my strategies will succeed in raising children with positive body images.
I’m also acutely aware that mothers don’t hold the only keys to their daughters’ body images. The diet, beauty and cosmetic surgery industries are masterful in cultivating insecurity in girls and women.
But I’m not going to surrender to them without a fight. I want my girls to know that in the battle between their self worth and all the people who seek to profit from destroying it, I will always be in their corner.
My job is to help my girls love their bodies, not hate them. And by doing so I hope they will make healthy choices, because we are more likely to look after the things we love.