My story about body shame, confidence and finding my way out is too familiar to need repeating. I was a young woman who wanted a body that was different to the one I had. So I starved and strived and exercised and counted and struggled. My body never did change that much. Why did I do that? How did I even know that there was something ‘wrong’ with my body?
Because they told me so.
They said that thin was in, and waif was the ideal. I am a child of the 90’s after all. When my body had weight and muscle to it, it was nothing like they said it should be. And I was too tall, in case you were wondering, too broad, too big, too full. I wasn’t alone, though. Very few women ever meet the ideal body type. But the ideal it was, or so they told me. But it was the women in my life, wider circles more than close to home, that showed me that they were right. And these women did so without even knowing it.
I’m sure, it was never their intention.
But it’s what happens. We teach girls how to be women, and every single one of us leads by example. So when we assess, critic and ridicule our bodies in front of them, its sticks. When you do the same thing for other women’s bodies, they hear. When we allow the conditioning and messages of the media and other sources to define our ideal body, they see that and follow suit.
Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s not the legacy I want to leave.
It’s important that we recognise what we’re doing to make more informed decisions about how our bodies and their bodies are represented in the future. There are, in my opinion, a few key conversations that almost every woman would have had that leads to body shame in other women. We are responsible for these conversations. We perpetrate them. We carry them on.
And I say we as a woman who has spent some major time overhauling my relationship with my body but not as a professional in the field. But I think you’ll agree when I say, these conversations sound familiar and maybe, you can see how they could be damaging. And the best part? With a bit of forethought and consideration they can be kerbed, if not stopped entirely.
Body shame conversations to stop having to empower the women in your life.
The diet conversation.
You start a new diet, an eating plan, a mode of eating that rewards you for good food behaviour here and punishes you for bad food behaviour there. We’ve all been there. Diets are a billion dollar industry for a reason. But consider that when you exercise this kind of control over what you eat, how much and when in a controlled environment speaks volumes to girls watching.
Regarding body shame, dieting can be damaging to girls watching the women in their lives because hello, who doesn’t look like their mother, aunt or cousin in some way? And if their body need such restriction and punishment, then why should she believe you for a moment when you tell her that hers is perfect?
The sex conversation.
I wrote about women and our relationship to sex on my blog, wearing a bra, one Valentines Day. It annoyed me that being women we are deemed least worthy to determine when, if and how we experience sex and the entire spectrum of sexual activities. And as women, leading the way for our girls, we need to change that conversation.
And yes it’s hard to explain to a teenager that their rushing hormones will mean their decisions may not always be the wisest. And yes everything feels heightened. I liken it to, it matters in the way that a hurtling asteroid matters to earth. But here’s the thing, it’s her experience, her body and you need to remind her that it is hers to do with as she sees fit. Safely and with her mental and physical health in mind, but hers.
Consider how often conversations with teenage girls ends up an experience in shaming and telling them to persevere over urges and lustful ideas. Sounds practically biblical, right? How those same hormones and feelings that we who have since waved them goodbye know so well, are deemed dangerous and inappropriate. Or worse, dirty and disgusting. But yet, they remain. And what does that tell our girls to believe about themselves and their developing bodies with such ideas in their heads?
You need to have the conversation now for the quality experience that is a one hundred percent consensual sexual encounter. And in doing so try to keep your idea of when and where and what is appropriate for her to do and feel to yourself. I know, I know parents of the world freak out. But my position is to teach a girl that her body is her own, her choices are valuable and her experience in her body natural and you take control away from those outside of her. You empower her. And that’s got to be the end goal, right?
The appropriate clothing conversation.
Following on from the conversation about sex, clothing and it’s appropriateness is a minefield when it comes to young girls and their experience of their bodies as well as the world around them.
We see it often online, the policing of what young women wear starts early. Everything from uniforms to how pop stars dress, on until we reach the victim in an assault who is asked what she was wearing at the time of attack. Women, especially girls, are told to dress appropriately, to be classy, to be feminine and girly. By doing so, it reinforces the idea that they are not in charge of their body which leads to feelings of shame and general disconnectedness from it, don’t you think?
So when you tell them what to wear regarding covering up, playing down their sexuality and womanliness, then you are telling them they are wrong, that their body is wrong. I think if your daughter, your niece or that teenager you know, has found out enough about herself to express it through her clothing, then you have to get behind her. I blog about fashion and women all the time and let me tell you; there are plenty of women much older who would kill to have a personal style, fed from a knowing of yourself at that age. Embrace it.
And yes, sometimes that will mean you want to tut tut like your Grandma did when her skirt is short or her boots are tall or her top is cropped. But well, it’s her body and that my friend is none of your business. She gets to be in charge and believe me; there are more than enough people trying to tell her what to do with her body. You need to be the person who backs her.
The other women’s bodies conversation
Even if you have never uttered a comment or critic about her body, she hears you make these comments about others or yourself. She hears your critic laced with faux concern, judgement and a honed critical eye. It doesn’t matter where if it’s at the magazine stand featuring airbrushed starlets to you in the bathroom mirror as the beads of moisture cling post shower. She sees and hears everything you say.
We teach our girls that there’s perfect and imperfect and that she needs to be perfect to be successful, loved and praised without ever uttering those words to her. So lead the way, stop commenting on other women’s bodies now. Stop commenting on your body. Just stop.
Stop and not only will she not learn critic and judgement, but you will feel the weight of them lift from your shoulders. When you stop judging others so harshly, you take it a little easier on yourself too. You’ll see, give it a try.
I know, it’s been a big one team! Way to hang in. My final thoughts are that we are all doing our best. Women have a lot of undoing to do when it comes to body image, self confidence and body shame. If you’re not in charge outside forces that say be thinner, taller, tanned and toned, are stronger. Girls need powerful ownership of their bodies to stand strong in loving them. So grant them that power.
But first, grant it to yourself.