When I hear people (sorry, I mean girls and women, I never hear this from men) discussing their meal choices (“I had a lovely steak last night, with the pepper sauce on the side and salad instead of chips…”) , their latest diet dilemmas ( “I really want to try that doughnut… but I can’t, I’m keto, I just have to do something about my weight”), or lamenting their pants not fitting right, a little piece of me dies inside. I feel incredibly uncomfortable. I hear insecurity, I hear pain, I hear self loathing. I know, I’ve been there. Some days, I’m still there. I can’t escape the conditioning.
We are all products of our upbringing, genetics, our experiences, and of course, society. I always dreaded sports days and phys. ed. classes because exposing my legs above the knee absolutely terrified me. Swimming carnivals? Forget it. I loved swimming but in togs in front of the school? No thanks. Fate worse than death. Fortunately my mother was always happy to write me a letter and I could avoid the humiliation I feared.
I have heavy, cellulite ridden, soft squishy thighs. That’s just my make-up. Even at my lightest, I would never wear shorter dresses without stockings and would always try to have a tan if I had to wear togs in public. Sure, you might get cancer but at least your legs will appear slimmer. Dear oh dear. That’s how mortified I was for years. I grew up to repetitive taunts of “thunder thighs”, “porky”, and- very inventive- “fat legs”. One crush in grade 10 was more poetic though. He told me after a history class that it was a shame I wasn’t born centuries ago when my kind of soft round body shape was appealing. Ouch. Kids are such shits aren’t they.
I developed ways to deal with it (when I couldn’t rely on avoidance alone). Diets and exercise was one way. I did all the diets and ‘detoxes’. They worked for a while but it was never enough of course. No matter what weight I was though I consistently focused on and highlighted what I considered my assets; small waist, green eyes and a pretty smile. In fact, I was so convinced that I almost needed to be smiling to be attractive (pretty sure another shit kid told me so), I developed a smiling habit. I still smile a lot, definitely more than most. I would also used a lot of eye contact, and once I moved past the grunge flannies and docs era I dressed to accentuate my small waist and slim and lengthen my legs. I was wearing platform shoes by 12.
When I reflect on these behaviours now I realise that I what I was hoping to do, was captivate people with my strengths so that they would overlook and forgive my physical shortcomings. I am so saddened by this. Now at age 38 I am much kinder to myself. I have slowly learnt to have gratitude for what my body can do, rather than what it might look like. It grew and gave life and nourishment to our babies! Our bodies are, quite simply, amazing. But I still can’t switch off the little voice of conditioning in my head that constantly critiques my wibbles and wobbles in the mirror. I have to consciously override that harsh inner monologue with reason, respect and compassion.
I strongly suspect I will always have to do this and I hate it with a passion. I hate that I am aware that I am 10 stubborn kilos heavier than I was at my lightest 2 years ago (no I don’t own scales but other people do). I particularly hate the fact that I care. I cringe that while I am trying to instil self esteem and confidence in my children, I can’t escape the niggling desire to lose a few kilos, knowing that I will feel just a little better about myself and feel just that little bit more attractive. I can’t stand the fact that I am aware that my little belly now jiggles quite independently from the rest of the body when I go for a ‘run’ (I shuffle). The fact that it bothers me is what really pisses me off. Oh how I wish it didn’t even register on my radar.
But it does, and when my beautiful, tall, strong daughter came home in tears at age 7 after some kids had said she had big legs, my blood ran cold. Was this the start of everything I fear for my girls? A long conversation was had, and I asked her to focus on how amazing her legs are, how high she can jump, how fast she can run and swim, how she can do plies in ballet and can almost do the splits. I told her that while it wasn’t appropriate for anyone to comment on her body, people do tend to do that. I encouraged her to compare a comment on her legs to a comment on her hair. If someone sneered at her that her hair was brown, would she be upset? No. She’d be indifferent. Yeah, I do have brown hair. And..? My legs are big? Yeah, sure, I do have big legs. They are strong, they are long, and they’re great.
But I know I can’ t protect my daughters completely. I can’t future proof them. I just hope they grow to have enough self esteem not wrapped up in their weight and body image to weather the inevitable criticism and body shaming they will come up against. I hope they come to us about it. I hope they recognise their worth is not in their dress size and treat their bodies with respect and love. I hope they enjoy food and see it as fuel and nourishment rather than therapy and rewards. I hope I am strong enough now at 38 to show them that their mother, their number one role model (for better or for worse!) is a pretty awesome, curvy woman with heavy legs, a big bottom and a soft tummy that once housed them both who does not own scales, does not count points or calories, enjoys food and drink in moderation (usually) and loves to go for walks, dance, sing and do yoga. I hope they see their mama as kind, smart, strong and able to be vulnerable. Finally, my greatest wish is that my girls know that I am loveable just as I am, and that they too are infinitely loveable, loved and cherished- unconditionally. If we achieve this as parents, we’ve won- and they’ll be alright.