Losing weight is such a fraught endeavour. I’ve written extensively about my struggle with this before, in particular; the terrible shame around the hypocrisy of trying to mindfully raise girls who like and accept their whole selves, body heart and soul- when I cannot honestly claim to be one, try as I might. I’ve since accepted, after much reflection, that I cannot completely escape my own history and conditioning. In October last year I decided that despite my significant concerns, for the sake of my health I needed to take my weight out of the red (75kg, BMI 28, officially ‘overweight’) and into the black (currently 64kg, BMI 24, officially ‘healthy’ range).
I was conflicted though, because I felt like doing this might send mixed messages to my girls that I felt I wasn’t good enough the way I was, and therefore, they might start feeling the same way about themselves. To summarise, we turned it into an opportunity to focus on physical health and its impact on our mental and emotional health and wellbeing, body mind connection, how good it feels to be fit and fuelled with nutritious food choices, etc. It has gone very well overall, and I have been extremely aware of my own thoughts and inner commentary, helpful AND unhelpful, and taken steps to challenge, reject and reframe those harmful, negative, uninvited thoughts, conditioned over a lifetime.
I do feel great, I won’t tell a lie. (Read about the journey here if so inclined.) The comments at work are coming particularly thick and fast at the moment, having just rotated to a new area. People who haven’t really seen me much for months say “Mia, you look so skinny!” or “Geez you’re looking good Mia” (knowing this is a reference to my weight). Even though I know they mean this as a compliment, I smile, but I just bring myself to say thank you, which is certainly not the way I was brought up! I know this might come across as rude. I usually say something like “I’m feeling much healthier”. I really want to focus on the health side of things rather than the appearance. For all they know I might be crippled with low self esteem, no appreciation for my body, and these comments, while so well intentioned and so automatic in our society, only perpetuate the problem. These comments tell your subconscious that yes, you were right fatty, you’re better now that you’re skinnier. Not because you’re healthier or happier, but because you’re skinnier. And whatever you do, don’t get fat again!
These comments tell us our health doesn’t matter. For all my colleagues know, I could be seriously unwell, losing weight from some terrible condition. I could be starving myself. I could be bingeing and purging. I could be abusing laxatives. I could be suffering from horrific mental illness. Fortunately, I’m not doing any of these things and I’ve been doing this long enough to filter the comments, appreciate the intentions and reject the underlying prejudice in our society against overweight folk. Sad, but true.
I recently came across the above book, “Raising Girls Who Like Themselves” by parents Kasey Edwards and Dr Christopher Scanlon. It is grounded in research and goes easy on the parental guilt. I mean, we have enough of that don’t we! I ordered 2 copies. One for me and Chab, one for mum and dad. It will be my way of thanking dad for his thoughtful, albeit tactless gift a couple years back, “How to Stop Losing Your Shit With Your Kids” by Carla Naumburg (incidentally, a fantastic read!) *Love you dad!*
I attended a webinar they held the other day, where the authors chose to focus on the body image side of things. It spoke to me deeply about the way we focus so much on little girls’ (and then women’s) appearances. Think of how many times you’ve complimented a little girl or a friend on their appearance- hair, makeup, outfit, size- “You look great, have you lost weight?” Cringe. How often do women also engage in fat chat, putting themselves down and bonding over body hatred and criticism. Once you become aware of it, it is distressing to witness. I’ve been guilty of it in the past, but I can tell you I never, ever do it now. I shut that down straight away if it’s happening around me and my girls will not grow up knowing that I grew up hating and hiding my legs.
I took this photo yesterday when I felt this piece coming on. You don’t often see me in jeans. I love my flowy boho dresses and sandal wedges. But it’s so wet at the moment, school pick up really called for boots. And boots called for jeans. On a whim, I tried on my much loved but long neglected size 11 (!) Jag jeans. I only ever fit into them for a very short 6 month period that actually ended exactly 10 years ago, when new love, French cuisine and pregnancy collided. I couldn’t believe it, as I slid them on, easy as butter; they fit. Oh the joy! Oh such satisfaction! I felt 100 feet tall. Sitting in the car I glanced down at my thighs and revelled for a gratuitous moment in the diminished ‘spread’ across my car seat, something I’ve always resented. Then it hit me how vacuous these thoughts were. Such pride from having a thigh gap. I mean, really. What the actual…? This was my teenage self coming through. Hell, this was my twenty-something self coming through. I had to call bullshit on them both and remember that these uninvited pseudo positive thoughts are just as dangerous as those that tell me I’m less worthy and wonderful when I don’t fit those jeans. They are just the other side of the same shitty coin.
It’s not wrong to tell your children they are beautiful, the authors argue. Of course it’s not wrong. But research tells us that we need to consciously focus on other attributes as well, namely, the ones that come from within! The ones that actually mean something. Aesthetic beauty is fleeting, subjective, ever changing and never enough. Even Cindy Crawford and Heidi Klum are on record as hating certain elements of their bodies. Girls are fed the lie that their self worth and self respect is dependent on their beauty and their size. The sheer volume of positive reinforcement provided to young girls around physical appearance rather than their capabilities is mind blowing. Because of this we must work incredibly hard to dramatically reduce the frequency of those comments and exponentially increase the positive reinforcement we give for their innate gifts, talents, quirks, kindness, sensitivity, strength, and natural or hard-won abilities. We must truly celebrate what makes them uniquely them, underneath their skin. They must learn that their appearance is just the wrapping, and what is underneath, unseen, is the gift.
I consider myself fortunate that I had loving parents who did their very best to instil positive self esteem in their daughters. Not one day went by when I was not told I was loved. I heard it, I saw it, I felt it, I knew it. I was in no doubt. Both my parents openly celebrated what they considered to be my beauty. So did a great number of people I came into contact with. If I had a dollar for every comment on my “stunning green eyes” I’d never have to work again. These comments overrode everything else. They came at me from all angles. And of course I loved it. At the same time, in the home I witnessed near constant dieting and relentless body dissatisfaction. It did not belong to me, but it permeated my belief system. I was told I was “so beautiful”, but it was a shame about my legs. I was told with eyes like mine I should never leave the house without mascara- to highlight them. Waist thickening out? Shall we start a diet? Usually perfect skin breaking out? Do we need to see the GP for a prescription to do something about that? Obviously these were comments made with good, loving intentions, never malice or meanness. We are products of our upbringing and our society. We do the best we can with what we have. Thank goodness my parents also celebrated my intelligence, creative talents, wit, confidence and guts, and I love them dearly. There was an attempt at balance, but the weight of societal conditioning is heavy for us all.
Mindfulness, questioning and challenging the status quo is hard. But when you hear that girls have a higher chance of dying from an eating disorder than they do of being abducted, it becomes easier to make the effort. Huge change is necessary, but it starts with individuals making small changes. We can all do that. May we all have the energy, strength and tenacity to be part of the positive change we so desperately need.
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