Young children love being naked, and no wonder; running around unrestricted by shirts, trousers and skirts makes them feel free. My daughters are no exception. Although they are now 10 and seven years old, they are still comfortable walking around the house naked as long as there’s no one else in the house but my husband and me. I am loath to tell them to cover up, for why would I want to instil shame and prudishness in them when they are so at ease in their bodies?
When I became a mother, I swore I would never criticise my children’s bodies, nor my own, because I knew from experience that young girls often absorb their mothers’ anxieties about body image. My own mother never judged me or told me I needed to watch my weight because she knew how damaging that could be.
Even so, I heard her complain about her own body, and I watched her obsessing about losing weight. As a result, I started to look at my own body, wondering if I was slim enough, and worrying that clothes I wore might make me look fat.
Once when I was in my early teens, my stepfather jokingly remarked at the dinner table, “One second on the tongue, a lifetime on the hips,” when one of us – my mother or I – went to get a second helping of dessert. Little did he realise that his words would echo in my head for years to come. I was fifteen the first time I made myself throw up after dinner.
There are lots of reasons why young girls develop eating disorders and mine were a combination of low self-esteem, fear of failure, and a constant longing for perfection. The fact that I was born with a cleft lip and palate, which left me with a wonky nose and fat lip, didn’t help. As a teenager, my secret mantra was, “If you’re not pretty, you must be smart and thin.”
So, when my seven-year-old daughter came home from school visibly upset because some of her friends had laughed at her when she got changed after gymnastics class, my reaction was fierce.
Ordinarily, if one of my daughters complain about something that’s happened at school, I encourage them to work it out themselves, because they need to learn how to resolve conflicts with their peers.
There are two exceptions, however. When my older daughter was bullied for the colour of her skin by a classmate a few years ago, I did not tell her to sort it out on her own, and most recently, when her younger sister was made to feel ashamed of her body in class, I took action.
For there’s one thing to have an argument with a friend, but it is something altogether different when issues of race and physical appearance are involved. In a world where beauty and perfection are overwhelmingly synonymous with white skin, blond hair, blue eyes and a thin body, we can’t afford to stand idly by while our daughters are being shamed for not conforming to that beauty ideal.
“But we need to teach our daughters to be strong, and that means having to put up with bullying and mean comments,” a fellow mother recently said to me.
My response to that argument is that while your daughter may learn to cope by ‘toughening up,’ the outward appearance of strength and resilience often masks a world of inner doubt, insecurity and a distorted perception of self.
As a child and teenager, for example, I almost always appeared strong on the outside, fighting back when bullied and standing up for what I believed was right, all the while doing well at school.
Below the surface, however, raged a vicious war against myself, which eventually lead to depression, eating disorder and self-harm. Meanwhile, my parents were largely unaware that anything was amiss because I didn’t tell them (for fear of disappointing them), and neither did my teachers. We all pretended everything was fine.
As mothers, we are our daughters’ first role models, and as such, our attitudes, behaviours and words carry tremendous power and influence. That means, among other things, that if we keep fretting and obsessing about our bodies, our daughters will learn to do the same.