Friday, 17 January 2014

A New Year’s plea to the women (and the men) in my daughter’s life

Blimey it’s 2014. Time for some updates, but before that, an off-list project of mine.

Let’s start with background. While it’s true there are a complex set of influences acting to create a young person’s sense of themselves and their body, and while we live in a culture that has a toxic view of how women should look, and is shockingly pervasive in how it communicates this to girls, I believe this holds true: what YOU say still matters.

Right now my daughter - that's her up there with the groovy sunglasses - thinks her belly is awesome. She lifts up her top and drums on it and giggles and beams with delight. It’s heartbreaking to think how soon she will start despising that belly, and other individual parts of her body, and spend the rest of her life trying to fix herself.

Research indicates that the most powerful role model for a girl’s healthy self-image is her mother. But it’s not just me under pressure to perform. My daughter has clever grandmothers, independent aunties, and energetic cousins. She is taught by kind and thoughtful carers. You are her closest female role models, and whether you realise it or not, even whether she realises it or not, she cares what you think. Of course it matters what men say about women too. But the creation of her “self voice” will be most strongly influenced by the women in her life. Your self-flagellating words will model for her how to be critical of her own body. Your comments about other women’s bodies will normalise for her that it’s ok for women to be mean when discussing each other.

We might not be able to unthink what we’ve been taught, and most of us might struggle with contradictory feelings about our bodies. That’s ok. But we choose our behaviour. We choose our words. I’m trying to do this with my daughter and I would love all the women in her life to support us. I know some of you already do this consciously with your own daughters. For everyone else, here’s some specific ideas to consider:

Don’t say negative things about other women’s bodies

This toxic behaviour may feel so “natural” you don’t even notice that you do it.

So you were out at an event and saw a woman who was quite large and you feel her fatness is somehow a vital part of the story. Don’t say it. Don’t comment on the dress or top she was wearing, and how unflattering it was given her size. Don’t say you were tempted to give her exercise tips. Philanthropic of you, I’m sure, but no. What you’re really being is unkind, while my daughter is listening.

Don’t talk about that obese couple at the supermarket who stuffed their trolley full of chips and sugary soft drinks, and how they made you feel really healthy. And how you were tempted to give them eating tips. Don’t tell us that your friend has lost weight and she looks fabulous. Don’t tell us your workmate is too skinny.

The way we talk about other women is learned behaviour, and we CAN change the way we do it.

Don’t criticise your own body

You might not be fully on board with the idea that your body is wonderful. That’s fine, but don’t talk about it in front of her. Don’t say you have “tuck shop lady arms”, or “a big fat belly”. No “thunder thighs” or “huge bum”. Don’t tell us your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight. In fact, don’t talk about dieting at all. Talk about exercise keeping you “healthy” and “strong”.

If you do think your body is wonderful, hurray for you! Feel free to share. But don’t say you’re wonderful because of all the weight you’ve lost. Or be mean about pictures of how you used to look. That person is still you and the message is still a nasty one.

Praise your body

I’m not saying we should live in a weird amorphic vacuum where we pretend that bodies don’t exist. How about you tell her some of the awesome things your body has done? What about

How much fun you have in body combat class
The time your legs carried you for that half marathon
The time you broke your arm and the bone healed itself
All those really cool things your fingers made that didn’t exist before
How you got that scar where your skin grew back together or
The time you created a new human being inside of you.

I can’t stop the awful ideas about female bodies that our culture is bombarding my daughter with, but I can call myself on the bullshit I say, and call out others too. So Happy New Year to all the awesome women in my daughter’s life! Let’s work on showing her how much we respect ourselves and each other.

Coming soon, some listy progress updates and some substitutions too.

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