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 from 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 ’90s 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 it was the women in my life 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.
We must recognise what we’re doing to make more informed decisions about how our bodies and their bodies are represented. There are, in my opinion, a few crucial conversations that almost every woman would have had that lead to body shame in other women. We are responsible for these conversations because we perpetuate them and continue to have them generation after generation. I think you’ll agree when I say that these reinforcing, often negative, conversations sound familiar to all of us. 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. Consider that when you exercise this kind of control over what you eat, how much and when in a controlled environment, it 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? When we see them behaving certain ways, we think to ourselves that our body needs restriction and punishment. Why should we believe them, those women in our lives, when they tell us our body 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 determined to be least worthy of deciding when, if and how we experience sex. 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 emotions as big as an asteroid hurtling towards 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 end 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. What does that tell our girls to believe about themselves and their bodies?
You need to have the conversation now for the quality experience that is a 100% consensual sexual encounter. Try to keep your idea of when, where, and what is appropriate to yourself. I know, I know parents of the world freak out. My position is to teach girls that their body is her own, that her choices are valuable and her experience is natural. You can’t take control away from her. We must empower her, that has to be the goal.
The appropriate clothing conversation.
Clothing and it’s appropriateness is a minefield when it comes to young girls. Clothes determine so much about 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, especially when we ask victims of assault what she was wearing at the time of the attack. Gross. 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.
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 understands your critic laced with faux concern, judgement and a honed critical eye. It doesn’t matter where; it can be at a magazine stand or 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 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 there.
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 firm in loving them.
Grant them that power. But first, grant it to yourself.
Hi! I’m Melissa Walker Horn. Around here, they call me Suger. I’m the Chief Blogger and doer of all the things here at Suger Coat It. Blogging since 1901; I love a casual ootd, taking photos, and writing about things that irk or inspire me. I love wine and cheese, long days at the beach and spending time with my family. I make stuff for the internet over at Chalkboard Digital. You know, living the sweet life.
You nailed it, babe! I had an extremely conservative upbringing and I wish I was taught to be more confident about my body. If I had a daughter, I’d try so hard to show her the importance of physical strength and that good food is to be appreciated, celebrated even.
Thank you Grace. And that sounds like a perfect lesson for anyone to learn. x
Beautifully written Suger. I definitely try not to say anything negative about my body in front of my 3 year old daughter. I talk about how strong I am because I exercise and how I eat good food to be healthy. You really have given me a lot to think about over the years.
Thank you Renae. And I love this, your daughter has a great role model for her body confidence journey in you. Go team! x