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The Generational Cycle of body shame.

I went on my first diet when I was sixteen. I gained weight during puberty. My mother had tried to persuade me that it’s normal for women to have a rounded lower belly. But I wanted to lose weight and so we started calorie counting. I acutely remember taking cabbage in vinegar and tuna fish to school for lunch and weighing out my dinners. My mother had been openly called fat by her mother so in many ways I was lucky. But I had grown up surrounded by calorie counting and Bay Watch was popular back then so we all knew what we wanted to look like and we all knew we were never going to get there. I laboured a few pounds off, not many, but it was enough to make me feel like I’d achieved something. I never was particularly big, more curvaceous. I once established, in a rather awkward maneuver using the kitchen scales, that the majority of the pounds I wanted to lose were located in my boobs.

But that first diet wasn’t the only diet. There have been many, many more diets since then. There was the diet where I tried to drink mainly juice and the diet where I ate vats of vegetable and bean soup (very filling, nearly no calories), there was my time on the Madeleine Shaw eight week clean eating program (lost loads, then got pregnant again) and the times I spent on my fitness pal. I’ve probably spent more time on a diet than off one. My relationship with my body is probably not the best. Self acceptance is really hard for me, on almost every level. I try to fix problems, including myself.

Recently, I have lost a lot of weight. It’s not been overly challenging. In fact, I’d be quite happy to keep eating this way for the rest of my life. I measure 37″-27″-35″. I’m a UK size 6 (at least on the bottom half) which I think is quite small. I’m considering dropping a few more pounds, just because I think being below where you were hoping to reach means that if you gain a few pounds over Christmas or a holiday, you’ll go up to a place that you’re still happy with. I can say categorically, however, that weight loss does not automatically make you happy with your body. That happiness may be still be contingent on a whole host of outside factors.

Over the weekend I found that I had put on a few pounds, it’s a certain time of the month, it’s been hot, I’ve been enjoying too much wine in the sun….it’s water weight but somehow it’s still destroying. Then my daughter compared me to two women who I know are bigger than me. One she said was narrower, it turned out that she meant her face. The other was, apparently, exactly the same, it turned out she meant the boobs. It felt like I was being sucker punched while I was down. I got defensive and almost a little tearful, she got upset because she’d upset me. We ended up having a cuddle, while I wrestled with the chasm between my intellectual knowledge that my behaviour was irrational and feeding into creating another generation of body unhappiness and my desperate emotional need, still, to be thin.

So the question is, how do we break the cycle if we are still within the throws of body shame ourselves? How do we not pay that forward when we are, ourselves, still obsessing over the scales and when society is still full of photoshopped images of feminine perfection? When we know that shopping in the wrong shop and coming out with a size bigger than we expected, because clothing sizes are so not standard for women, can ruin our day? How could I turn a bad situation better?

I found myself thinking about an article I read which discussed how well intentioned white families often fail to adequately address issues of race when bringing up their children. The truth is that we often fail to address it at all, we’re not comfortable talking about it and we hope that by ignoring it, we will somehow bring up children who are ‘colour blind’, when all that does is create an environment in which we are ignorant to the very real struggles that people of colour face every day. We can’t be colour blind because that ignores the problem, instead we need to talk the sh*t out of it and address it everyday, working to make things better.

I started to wonder if what we need to do about body shaming, in the same way that I have done about feminism, is to create a dialogue. Admit that there is a problem and make it a problem we can talk about. My daughter loves dinosaurs, that’s not traditionally a girl area. We talk about that. We talk about how a lot of toys geared towards girls are often pink and sparkly and a bit condescending and dull. So Kitty knows that it’s cool to like what she likes whether those things are traditionally girlie or not, even if she did get offended that my mother laughed when I told her I had bought Kitty’s cool new school shoes in the boys section (they are super cool though, t rexes and flashing lights and everything). She knows that having babies is a choice, not a requirement, and that she can have a career instead or as well as as, it’s all up to her. We talk about these things, in little short bursts all the time. What if we did the same thing about weight? (Advise on the areas I need to address with Archie would be well received, I know all about the issues women face, it’s harder to know about the issues men face, at least in part because they don’t like talking about it.)

So I tried it out. I told her that it’s silly and unnecessary to get upset about what size you are but that society can often make you feel like thinner is better and that mummy had struggled with that ever since she was a teenager. Kitty asked a few questions and then got distracted by wrapping her brother’s birthday presents. We moved on. It’s the first conversation but, hopefully, it won’t be the last. Maybe by being frank about the issue, at an early stage, by the time the dreaded teenaged years rock round, Kitty will have made the message part of who she is and she’ll know to question the pressure when it starts to mount, or maybe she’ll see it all for what it is and none of it will mean anything to her, she’ll just sail through it.

Of course, we won’t know until we get there. All we can do is our best to be the best parents that we can, to be kind and supportive even in the face of own issues and inadequacies. All we can do is aim to make our children a bit more secure and bit more prepared than we were. We are imperfect people, in an imperfect world, but maybe that’s okay.

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