Saturday, 20 March 2010

Body Double: My mother, my self?

Last week Truly hosted a sleepover. Half a dozen 14-year-old girls sequestered themselves in my daughter’s room in the loft. The laughter, squealing and shrieking combated with the thumping music and reached the decibel levels of an Ibiza nightclub. After listening to the sounds of hormones bouncing off the walls, Scrumptious headed upstairs. She was armed with Dora the Explorer plasters to administer to possible injuries. Five minutes later Scrumptious returned to the kitchen and delivered the prognosis,
‘Liberty is fat.’
‘Honey, don’t say things like that. She is not fat,’ I said.
‘I didn’t say it. Liberty said it.’

Not one of the five girls in our house had an ounce of extra fat on their bodies. But when dinner was served they said no to the rice (oh no, I don’t do carbs) and took microscopic portions of the chicken and vegetable stir-fry. They did, however, inhale the brownies despite the ‘oh-my-god-gazillion’ calories in each wedge. And they shovelled the buttery, salted popcorn into their mouths as if the kernels came from the last cobs in the field. Through it all, they kept up a running patter, ‘Oh my god, I am sooo fat. Look at these thighs. My stomach hangs over my size 0 skinny jeans. Have you tried Atkins or the Miami Beach diet? Do they work? Oh, right, not eating. That’s the best diet. Sometimes I skip lunch. And breakfast. I’m not going to eat tomorrow. Just a carrot stick and a celery stalk.’

I’m not a nutritionist and I’m not a psychologist. But I am the mother of two girls and I have had a lifelong relationship with food which, for the most part, has not been co-dependent. As far as I’m concerned, no further qualifications are required to offer up my unsolicited advice.

‘Oh no,’ their eyes said. ‘Here goes Truly’s crazy mum again. Please spare us the lecture in the guise of a friendly chat.’ I persevered through the eye rolling and hair flicking and the study of, and subsequent nibbling of, ragged cuticles. I trotted out my timeworn adages, ‘You should never ever go on a diet, girls. It wreaks havoc with your metabolism. Eat healthy foods first. Start out with small portions and go back for seconds. Don’t deprive yourselves of chocolate, it will only lead to bingeing. Never ever skip a meal. Everything is okay in moderation. Eat slowly. With chopsticks if it helps. Stop eating when the food ceases to taste as delicious as it did in the first few bites.’

Were they listening? I don’t know. I have no doubt that girls are affected by the media when it comes to body image. But I also believe that girls are heavily influenced by what their mothers say and do. It has been my experience that teenage girls have selective attention disorder (SAD). They don’t do a lot of what we tell them to do. But they tend to do a lot of what we do. And they listen, albeit subconsciously, to the tapes we play over and over again. Sometimes I think my well-worn tapes are silent, spinning round and round inside my own head. But all too often, I realize that the words are coming out loud and clear. ‘I feel so fat today. My boobs are sagging. I need to get to the gym. What a lazy slob. I have nothing to wear. This dress makes me look like I’m pregnant. Would you look at all those wrinkles around my eyes. And did you see those furrows on my forehead. Looks like a farmer tilled the soil to prepare for planting season.’ I know I say so many things on a daily basis, pretending to be in jest, without even realizing I’m sending a negative message to my daughters.

I want to work on silencing the negative tape playing inside my own head and stop the noise pollution. I want my girls to believe that they are beautiful, inside and out. I want to shift the lens and focus more on their kindness, their sense of fair play, their intelligence, both emotionally and academically, and their quirky and delightful sense of humor, instead of zooming in on their physical attributes or waif-like physique. Rather than fostering a dysfunctional relationship with food, I want my actions and words to reflect my healthy attitude towards my own body and the joy I derive from eating delicious and nutritious food with a proportionate amount of decadence thrown in. Instead of saying that my girls need to limit consumption, I say eat everything in moderation and then go for a jog around the park, do a funky dance, do the limbo, or hop on a pogo stick.

I want them to strive to be women who are more than the sum of their caloric intake. I want them to know that women are capable of discussing topics other than diets, beauty, botox and designer labels. I want to encourage them to try public speaking, learn to use a wok, delve into Buddhism, plant a vegetable garden, calculate the square root of pi, or whatever ignites their passion. I want them to do this so that the media won’t have as much power over my daughters, so that they will learn to eat and think for themselves, so that they will maintain a healthy body image and high self-esteem.


  1. Gosh. I suffered from anorexia for 20 years and it started around that age. So I second every thing they say. Make sure they all feel special and loved no matter what they look like. It's just not worth it. If they think it is, point them in my direction.

  2. rosiescribble...Thank you for your honesty. I'm so sorry you suffered with anorexia. I will do my best to ensure my girls feel special and loved.

  3. Wow, great post. You're so right. I have two boys so I like to think they're less at risk from the negative body image kind of thing (although apparently eating disorders in males are on the increase) but the link between their self-esteem and things we as parents say, sometimes without even thinking, definitely still applies. It's so important to encourage them and build up their self-image, especially when they're small and so utterly dependant on and influenced by you.

    I'm not one of those hippy-dippy parents who sits by smiling fondly while the kids rip the house to bits, but I do try to always be positive with them. I can't claim to always be successful, but I try! I want my boys to grow up to be happy, confident and considerate men and I hope that by helping them to feel secure and happy and completely loved as children I'm giving them the best possible chance of that.

    Thanks for making me think :)

  4. A great post and with Eldest Daughter now at Secondary School I am having a glimpse into this world and it scares the poop out of me. I'm not great with my own body image and have always tried to protect the kids from that but now I worry if I've done enough. Especially as ED is the skinniest little thing you ever saw but eats non-stop.

    And thanks rosiescribble for sharing that info about your life. Lets hope we never have to send our girls to you for a chat (meant in the nicest possible way of course).

    On a lighter note my lovely NVH, I've tagged you today over at mine. Got take a lookey and tell us about your 10 things which make you happy for the Happiness MeMe.

    MD xx

  5. Very true about the young girls-I remember looking through the teen magazines wanting to look like the models. But, i was dreadfully skinny-just envious of the great hair and party dresses. Hopefully as they get older the healthy food we try to incorporate into their day with a treat here and there will give them some balance. It is a fact of a young girls life nowadays to obsess about their weight and the foods they eat.All we can do is tell them what our mother always said-everything in moderation!

  6. You're so right. If we, as mothers, are always down about our bodies, then that is a very strong model for our daughters.