The following letter is something I’ve been meaning to write to my daughter for some time now. I feel like the subject of body image is so huge I will probably end up writing more on it again, but it was good to make a start however daunting it may seem to address something so important.
I’ve wanted to write something to you on body image for a while now but I keep hesitating because of the sheer enormity of importance to a growing young woman. But every time I hear a woman bemoan her short fallings in comparison to a digitally altered image, or I’m bombarded with products promoting ways to achieve an unattainable standard of beauty, I get an uncomfortable twinge.
So I’m determined to sit down and try to make a start in the best way I can.
I would urge you first of all, to read the work of some wise women. Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou. Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham. Amazing speeches by Amy Schumer and Gabourey Sidibe. I’ve added some of their work to your growing book collection. Take in their words, absorb them, let them sink right down into those XX chromosomes that make you this young woman in waiting. Let them unsettle the ground around your emerging way of thinking, before too much of the outside world’s voice has a chance to settle lasting foundations.
Right now, you’re still a very little girl. You have no idea yet that it is commonplace for people to feel they have a right to comment on your body. Or feel it is acceptable to offer suggestions on how your body could be improved.
At three years old, we teach you that the reason you have a ‘big fat tummy’ (as you call it thanks to some seemingly harmless but now questionable kids cartoons) is because it is full of food to give you energy and to grow strong. To help you to ‘jump really high and run very fast’. But there is a day coming where the rest of the world will be able to imprint much deeper on you and I hope that I can help guide you through some of that.
One day someone will tell you that you’re too fat. Or too thin. Or the wrong shape.
One day a boy at school might inform you that your eyebrows are ‘too bushy’.
One day maybe society will shove numerous adverts in your face and suggest that you should want to change the colour of your skin to cover imperfections and achieve a ‘healthy glow’.
I wouldn’t be doing you any favours if I told you that you shouldn’t expect this to hurt or affect you because it will.
One day those opinions might trigger something inside making it feel normal, necessary even, to make some ‘improvements’ to your body.
One day you might stand in front of the mirror and begin to feel at odds with your body and wish that you looked more ‘acceptable’.
One day you might start to start seeing your body as the problem. An adversary, an obstacle, a stranger.
And so maybe you’ll go ahead and try to change your body. It is YOUR body after all to do with as you see fit. But it’s worth noting at this point in your life, that the end game of these new thoughts are very focused on the ‘here and now’, one tainted with society’s skewed, misogynistic, sexist ideas of female beauty. You might simply be looking to ‘fit in’ or maybe you just want to be noticed a little more, but either way its purpose would seem to be seeking acceptance.
It is impossible to foresee your older self playing back your thinking and decision making at this time. This is what makes foresight and hindsight so damn frustrating. The woman in the future cannot tell the girl to step back from the tweezers and leave her eyebrows alone and the girl pruning away in the mirror can never hear how desperately she’ll want them to grow back in the future. It’s important to remember that your decisions can and probably will, have some effect on you in the future. Either physically or mentally. It’s unrealistic to think you’re not going to experiment with your appearance as a result of your feelings about your body, but it is best to try and make these from as neutral a position as possible, not a place of negativity. True happiness around your self image will never come from the constant critiquing and tweaking of your body. It comes from learning to accept the ‘imperfections’ as just parts of your uniqueness.
One day you will find a pair of jeans that make you feel fantastic.
One day you will see a photograph of yourself and love the way the light catches your face.
One day someone will pay you a compliment and you’ll totally agree with it.
The thing about external changes like fashion and cosmetics is that they’re for everyone, regardless of size, shape or colour. There is something to make everyone feel great. If fashion is your thing, the key to getting the most from it is accepting your body for what it is and not how close you can get to replicating an image of someone else. Whether your body is athletic, voluptuous, tall or petite, acceptance is the thing that will allow you to truly celebrate and enjoy it.
Be mindful though of how easy it is to get caught up running around in a wheel, trying to keep up with the catalogue of things that we’re told we need to achieve ‘true beauty’. Fashion and Cosmetics are powerful industries which profit hugely on the insecurities of women and our desire to fit in and look like others. Try to remember not take it all too seriously. It will serve you better to spend more time investing in your body’s health and wellbeing. Your body deserves nourishment not punishment. Love not loathing. A healthy body is the most amazing gift and one unfortunately not afforded to everyone.
One day you might be sat in a waiting room wishing very simply to have healthy body in any size, shape or colour.
One day you might realise that there is so much that can so easily be taken for granted.
One day you might wish you had looked after yourself better.
Your body deserves the utmost reverence and respect. You should take great care of your body to get the most from it and build on the natural resilience and strength that we have been gifted. Never underestimate what your body is capable of. Through the good and bad days there will be a time when you realise the true magnificence of your body, whatever it’s size, shape or colour.
One day your body’s power to heal and restore itself will astound you.
One day your body may grow, give birth to and nurture another life.
One day it will push you to great physical achievements, it will dance all night long for your sheer pleasure and still get out of bed the next day to face the world.
I say all of this because have too been on that journey too.
I have been that young woman in the mirror at odds with her own body.
I have taken on board the voices far less invested in my wellbeing than my own.
I have listened to the boy at school and over-plucked my naturally beautiful brows.
I’ve moaned about my short eyelashes whilst ignoring my lovely blue eyes.
I’ve hidden my freckles and risked my birthmarks in the sun.
I’ve sat anxiously in surgeries and regretted not taking better care of myself.
I’ve made those changes to appeal to someone else’s idea of beauty I adopted as my own.
I have seen my body mend broken bones and heal numerous scars.
I have grown a life inside, brought her into the world and nourished her body with my own.
I have climbed high, pushed hard and run fast.
I have danced all night long and still got to work on time the next day.
I have found a place of peace and respect for my body.
My wish for you is to do the same. One of the hardest things about this mother-daughter gig is that I can’t go through those difficult bits for you. But the journey with your own body image is after all, a personal one. I just want you to remember that your body is YOURS. It should demand YOUR respect as well as that of others.
My advice to you – something I would urge you to consider as soon as you realise your body is subject to the opinions of others and is having an effect on your feelings;
Think of your body as your friend.
When your friend is being bullied defend her. Be her guardian and ally.
When she is weak help her to restore. Be her nurturer and her protector.
When she is unsure of herself support her. Be her champion and admirer.
And she can be your trusty sidekick on many amazing adventures.
She can give you the strength to raise and nurture a family should you wish.
She will dance with you all night long and make sure you still make it to work on time.
Focus on those things when looking in the mirror.