I had been dreading it. I knew, despite my best efforts, it would only be a matter of time before it happened. And then suddenly, we were there, having that conversation – my four-year old daughter and me.
As we climbed into the car after pre-school, she touched her hair tentatively and said to me, “Mumma, do I have boy hair? The other children say I have boy hair because my hair is short and curly. But I’m not a boy, am I Mumma?”
“I wish my hair was long and straight and pretty like the other girls, so I looked like a girl.”
At that moment, my brain froze. I wanted to scream. I wanted to undo time so that I could have done something – anything – differently to protect her from those words.
I took a deep breath and somehow managed to pull myself together to do what I’m trained to do – we talked about her strengths and how everyone is different, and how brilliant that is because it makes the world interesting and wonderful.
We talked about how some people have fast growing hair, and some don’t (like her) and that’s normal. I tried to play it cool so that it (I desperately hoped) would all be long forgotten by the time we got home.
But no. Over the last few weeks, she’s repeated the statement again, and again. It’s obviously something she’s given a lot of thought too and, to be honest, it makes me want to cry. I’m her mum, it’s my job to support her self-worth and to protect her. She’s still so young. There are meant to be years before she’s faced with the clutter of messages about beauty.
I’ve also studied and published research on body image and eating behaviours. I’ve run support groups for people with eating disorders. I’ve worked with people trying to build a sense of self-worth and I’ve walked alongside family with eating disorders. I’ve had my own struggles with eating and food and loving the skin I’m in. The body image world is one I know only too well.
And yet I can’t believe, at age four, we were here already, having this conversation. And I can’t believe, as a mum, how hard that conversation is.
We can do it
As parents, my husband and I have worked hard to foster a healthy body image in our children. We have been careful to encourage our children’s strengths and celebrate their strong bodies for what they can do, like cycle over mountains and run along the beach.
We talk about makeup being like a costume – it’s fun to wear but it doesn’t change who you are on the inside. We praise our children for giving things a go – even when they fail. We talk about how different body attributes allow us to do different things. For example, as adults, we’re tall so we can reach high places while the children are short (right now) so they can fit into places us adults can’t reach! How helpful is that? We never talk about being fat, and we never make comments about other people’s bodies.
When it comes to food, we say that eating lots of fruit and vegetables can make us go faster on our bikes. A little bit of sugar can help us too (like when we’re riding) but too much sugar overall can slow us down because sugar gives us a quick rush and then makes us very tired. Importantly, there are no food labels. No food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’, ‘treat’ or otherwise. It’s just food.
We’re certainly not perfect parents. I’ve used food as a reward from time to time, despite swearing that I would never do that before I had children. Ha-ha! As any parent knows, sometimes you get so desperate for your child to do what you’ve asked for the 50 millionth time that you’d happily leap through rings of fire and encourage the sky to rain sugar.
We’re definitely not perfect but, as a mum, I’ve taken Kate Winslet’s comment to heart:
“As a child, I never heard one woman say to me, “I love my body”. Not my mother, my elder sister, my best friend. No one woman has ever said, “I am so proud of my body.” So I make sure to say it to Mia [her daughter], because a positive physical outlook has to start at an early age.”
My body image story
I can remember the day I looked at the photo and realised I was bigger than the other two girls in the photo. I was twelve.
At fourteen, I can remember writing in my diary that I wished I could see a dietitian because I didn’t know why I was bigger than everyone else.
Do you know what I was? Tall. And with being tall, there is (obviously) more of you so I weighed more than my friends – regardless of body shape. In my head, weighing more meant there was something terribly wrong with me as a person.
Skipping through some nightmare teenage years, I was most unwell during my time at university. I was cruel to my body and my head was in a bloody awful place. I can’t even find the words to describe how hellish my thoughts were about myself. My entire world was focussed on being slim and controlling food because I thought I’d be a better person if I could achieve both of those things.
I’m purposefully leaving out much of the detail here, other than to say I look back now and wish I could give that young woman a warm, understanding hug.
My watershed moment – realising that losing or gaining weight didn’t equate to me being a good or bad person – finally came in my early twenties. By then, I was living and working in Melbourne and was rowing at an elite level club (just so you know – I wasn’t elite by any stretch!).
To give you a bit of context to all of this, rowing is an incredibly demanding sport. Over the 2-kilometre race course, everything burns, and you must be mentally tough to keep pushing through – even when you don’t think you have it in you anymore.
At the elite level, rowing athletes race in one of two weight classes – either heavyweight or lightweight. That is, depending on your body weight, you can either race in the heavyweight class or the lightweight class.
The heavyweight women are tall, strong women with serious muscle power. It really struck me training beside these women that, for them, it wasn’t so much about what they looked like but about what their bodies could do. Being fit enough and strong enough to win rowing races was the ultimate goal. It was about body composition, not about being good or bad or skinny or fat. They were like heroines, off to do incredible things.
Many of the lightweight women I knew hated the dieting aspect of the race season. Often their ‘normal weight’ was much higher than the cut-off point for a lightweight, so they spent the racing season trying to balance calorific intake with building muscle. Not an easy task, and many loved the off-season because they could eat ‘normally’ again. Again, it was about how to get the best out of their bodies so that they could win the race. It wasn’t about ‘being thin’, because, frankly, just being thin in rowing doesn’t get you across the finish line. Hell no, you’d burn out in seconds on the course. Rowing is haaaard work.
The whole focus of those women on what their bodies could do, rather than what they looked like, was light years from where I was when I started training beside them, and I will always be thankful to them for showing me a much kinder (and more practical) way to view your body.
From there, with the support of family and friends, I slowly started to change how I thought about myself and I improved my relationship with food. I learned to be kind to myself, and I learned to take care of my body in a much more nurturing and supportive way.
These days, I’m much happier with the skin I’m in but I still have my days. I wrote this post on Facebook a couple of years ago and it still rings true now:
“There are images we’ve used to promote our business in the past that I’ve looked at again and thought ‘yuk, my forehead looks so big, and I’m so pale and I wish I’d had my hair done before we took that photo.’
And then I have to remind myself that the size of my head has never been an issue going for a job, being loved by my nearest and dearest, having children or doing any of the billion other things I do every day.
Same goes for my freckly skin and being pale. Sometimes I get a spray tan and it’s delicious, but most of the time this is it.
I love telling this story: I was in hospital once for an elective knee operation and I heard the nurses talking after one had checked on me. The one who had checked on me said, “Oh, she’s quite pale.” And the other answered, “Oh no, she was like that when she came in.”
Anyway, the whole point of this ramble was to say that I understand what it’s like to be uncomfortable with what you look like, and the impact it can have on your thoughts, what you believe you can do, and your confidence.
The more I talk to others, women and men, and the more research I do, the more I see how many of us carry these thoughts around with us, all day, all of the time.
I wish I could wave a magic wand and say, “Tomorrow this will all be gone, and you will feel fabulous”. But the reality is that learning to like the body you’re in takes time, and acceptance, and a change in how you view yourself.
It’s completely possible, and there are lots of amazing stories of women and men who have come to like who they are and have built inspirational lives.
For me, it was changing the focus to what my body could do. I eventually realised that you get one body, and it can do the most amazing things if you let it. It truly is incredible what the human body can do.
One of my favourite sayings that always gets me through is (and I borrowed this from an old Guinness beer ad):
Nobody’s perfect, but parts of me are excellent.
I love that idea. You don’t have to love every bit, that’s normal, I think. But learn to love some bits, because you are terrific.”
Where to from here
So where to from here? To my dear daughter, I know I can’t protect you from comments on your looks for the whole of your life. As you get older, the comments will continue to come. They’ll comment on all of it – your hair, what you wear, your body shape, your face, your arms…whatever.
I know the best I can do now is teach you to love your body for what it can do. I can teach you to find self-compassion when you need it. I can teach you self care and I can tell you what I know about the societal pressure to be ‘perfect’.
And I can share these messages with other parents and caregivers to support them to foster the same sense of positive self-worth in their children:
- As role-models, our children are watching us, and they hear our words. We need to show our children how we love our bodies, and we need to talk about the positive things our amazing bodies can do. We can also teach them body self-awareness by positively telling them about how our bodies feel (e.g. “I had such a good sleep last night, I feel like my body is full of energy for the day!” or “my body is feeling very tired. I’ve asked it to do a lot today. I’m going to give it an early night so that it can rest and be ready for tomorrow.”)
- Communication is key. Supporting our children to talk about what’s going on in their heads can help us ‘nip things in the bud’ before they become problems. Most nights I lie next to my children in bed and talk about what they’ve been thinking about during the day. Sometimes it’s mundane things like why dinosaurs eat trees, and on other days we get little gems – like when my son said recently that he felt terrified of attending a family wedding because he was worried about the people he didn’t know. The next day I brought him a ‘be brave’ bracelet that had superpowers to make you brave. Worked a charm. It won’t always work like that – of course – but at least if you can have those conversations now then you’re building the foundations for those more challenging teenage years when you get puberty, social media access and significant relationships with others all tied in with body image concerns.
- Share self-compassion. We all have tough days – mentally and physically – and it’s ok to tell our children when we’re not feeling great. We can teach our children that, when that happens, we still know that we are enough, that we have strengths, and that we contribute something special to the world. We can teach our children positive ways to practice self care that make us feel better, and we can teach them to nurture themselves – just as they would a friend that was hurt. We can ask that golden question, “what would make you feel better, right now?” and we can help them to problem solve what that would be.
At the end of the day, it’s up to us. We can’t protect our children from everything, but we can build a world around them that accepts people for who they are and loves them for it. We all have a role to play, and a responsibility, to make that happen. It starts at home. It starts with us.