Posted on 07 December 2015 by Rachel
MOTHERHOOD AND BODY IMAGE
With our support and guidance, our children can become body-confident in a world that wants them to be body-shamed.
This month we handed over the feature article to our friend Grace. Here she shares her own thoughts about motherhood, body image and more...Enjoy!
When I began to research the topic of body image I believed it to be a superficial non-issue. A body image problem couldn't be a real problem, surely? To anyone struggling, my advice would have been to buck up and get on with your life, there are greater problems in this world than the size of your wasit/biceps. (Just so you know, I am embarrassed by my ignorance and insensitivity!)
As I began the area in more detail, I unravelled the true depth and complexity of issues related to body image. Here are some of the things I've learned along the way ...
We shouldn't be trying to love our bodies. Our bodies are neutral. They are the interface between our internal existence and our external environment. Our bodies allow us to experience the world around us; to see, smell, hear, run, swim, play music and so on. They allow us to experience intimacy. Our bodies are, therefore, purely functional and vitally important to our enjoyment of life.
Body-related anxieties are nothing new. As humans we have an inextricably complicated relationship with our bodies and this has been true throughout history. For example. in 1910, author Franz Kafka wrote in his diary, 'I was afraid of mirrors, because they showed an inescapable ugliness.'
However, our emotional relationship to our bodies is exasperated by the toxic marketing strategies of the fashion, food, diet, health and cosmetic industries. These industries tell us it's better to be young and small (female)/ strong (male), than old and big. These industries suppose that our bodies are something that we own; something that we can modify, upgrade and transform. Our bodies aren't possessions, we can't modify upgrade or transform them. Our bodies ARE us. And we can't escape them.
And so by marketing to our bodies, these industries have found a never-ending income stream, and they aren't afraid to exploit it.
It makes sense, then, that adolescence is a tricky time, as the pre-teen body grows olders: 'Arg! Not old, don't ever get old!' screams this capitalist culture, 'buy some anti-ageing cream. Now!' And larger: 'Being big makes you lazy, ugly and unlikebale', this culture screams even louder, 'Go on a diet. Quick!' in unpredictable and uncomfortable ways.
And part of the problem is that those bullying screams are often a collection of whispers that make up our own culture's zeitgeist. This means that there's no way to identify one tangible cause of body anxiety; the causes are all around us, seeping into our consciousness's without us even realising.
So how can we help our teenagers navigate the world without being harmed by the insistent body-realted negativity that is all around us?
Firstly, we should check in with ourselves. Those whispery screams filter easily into our language and expectations, and so the body toxicity is passed effortlessly between us...
'You're so slim, how do you do it?' .. 'I shouldn't be eating this cake, I'll start the diet tomorrow.'
... and travels by osmosis into our children. A quote that I LOVE, and which really gives me encouragement that I can protect my children from experiencing body-related anxieities, is from Naomi Wolk. She says: 'A mother who radiates self-love and self-acceptance actually VACCINATES her daughter against low self-esteem.' It is my job as their mother to accept myself unconditionally, and my children will reap the benefits of this for years to come. This is easier said than done, but still an entirely achieiveable task, I think.
Another achievable task is to talk to our children about everything other than their bodies. Talk about their skills, interests, hopes and fears. Talk about their achievements and struggles. And never make a comment about the apperance of their bodies. Not even a positive one, for praise can have negative effects. If you want to talk to them about their bodies, emphasise the funtionality, and admire the brilliance of how our bodies work. Your unrelenting, unconditional love and encouragement of your child will go a very very long way.
And then there are two important skills which we can nurture in our children. The first is assertiveness. An assertive person has the appropriate vocabulary, and a strong sense of validity, to communicate how they feel clearly and accurately. Help your children identify and express their feelings, even (or especailly) if they are difficult feelings. And just listen. Let them know that they are heard and accepted. Assertiveness breeds strong relationships, gains respect from others, and improves confidence and self-image.
I view assertiveness as a protective forcefield, so let's start building and strengthening that forcefield around our children.
The second skill is media literacy. If our children are able to think critically about the media messages they receive, then they are less likely to succumb to their negativity. Encourage your children to ask questions of everything they see and hear. For example...
What does it mean to be 'beach body ready'? .. Can 'anti-aging' products actually stop you from aging? .. How are men and women presented on TV and in films?
If your children are anything like I was when I was a teenager, they will be annoyed at you by doing this. But persist anyway, because it's worth it in the long run.
When we cease to worry about our bodies we are free to focus on more worthwhile things, and we are more able to have a positive impact on the world around us. With our support and guidance, our children can become body-confident in a world that wants them to be body-shamed. And so we place our children in a position to change this world for the better.
- Grace lives with her husband and two daughters in Hertfordshire. In her life before children she worked as a youth worker, specialising in promoting positive self worth and body image in Luton secondary schools. She's currently looking forward to consuming a huge quantity of cheese and chocolate over the festive period!