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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
Focus on those things when looking in the mirror.
To my Phoebe Cecily Violet
A million words I could say to you.
The beat to my heart.
I hope you know this is all about you.
I didn’t think we were meant to be.
You proved me wrong.
I didn’t think I needed you.
You showed me I did.
I thought I was okay before you.
You made me realise I wasn’t.
I was never very good at patience.
Now I am bordering on being a saint.
I didn’t know a child could make you feel like that.
You make me feel everything.
I didn’t know happiness felt like this.
Now it is all I know.
I thought I was always going to be alone.
Now I will always have you.
Thank you for choosing me PCV,
I am yours today, tomorrow and forever.
Mama A x
The following letter was written by Nicky for her Daughter on the eve of her 2nd birthday.
Tomorrow you are 2. Yep, that means we have had the pleasure of your company for 371 days. And to say those 371 days have had their ups and downs would be an understatement. You see, something happened just over a year ago that changed our lives, and not in a good way. I won’t write about it now, but I will one day, as I want you to know all about the very, very special person who isn’t with us any more. But it’s not the time for dwelling on that now. Now is the time for me to say Sorry. Because I know that sometimes, during that time, I haven’t been the best Mummy I could have, and should have, been for you. You see, my beautiful baby girl, some days the wave of sadness that has engulfed me has been so big, that I’ve struggled just to keep my head above the water. And on those days, although I’ve still been here for you, I haven’t really been properly here – my head and my heart have been occupied. And I’m so very sorry. It doesn’t mean I haven’t loved you more than I can say, but my heart has been aching so much that I’ve found it difficult to remember to show you that. Sometimes, being a Mummy is so hard because it feels like you don’t have the space to be ‘you’. And some days I’ve just had to be more ‘me’ than ‘Mummy me’. And I know that it isn’t truly a bad thing – I’ve had to, to get through, but I wanted to say sorry for not being quite as ‘Mummy me’ as you deserved.
The other thing I have to say is Thank you. From the bottom of my heart. Just having you in my life has given me a reason to get out of bed. You have needed me, and so I have not been allowed to get completely swallowed by that wave. When the going has been ridiculously tough, all I’ve had to do is look at you, hold your hand, and I’ve managed to get through. You are the reason I am ‘Mummy me’ and without being her I wouldn’t have coped. I know life will continue to throw horrible, difficult things at us, because that is life, unfortunately. But I also know that whatever happens you will always be there. And whether you are 2, or 22, I will always be ‘Mummy me’ and that will always be my reason to be. Thank you. And Happy Birthday.
All my love
For World Maternal Mental Health Day I wrote to my daughter about my experience of maternal mental illness.
Growing up, I was no stranger to mental heath issues. My father had struggled with depression and anxiety all his life. I’d always been known as a ‘worrier’ and sadly the feeling of overwhelming anxiety became familiar to me from quite an early age. It meant that I grew up trying to treat anyone who looked as though they were suffering with empathy and an open heart. As I got older this matured into a healthy attitude towards mental illness.
Or at least I thought it had.
Because when I suffered from mental illness myself, I tried and failed, to deal with it all on my own. I fell into the trap. I didn’t want people to think badly of me. I didn’t want to appear weak or emotional or unstable. I didn’t want anyone to see me as a failure as a mother.
After giving birth to you I suffered with Maternal Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It was like being dropped in the middle of a game of chess with a Grandmaster and not knowing the rules. Too ashamed and stubborn to ask for help, I struggled to teach myself, but without someone to really guide me how could I do anything else but let it keep winning?
OCD is so far from the common misconceptions people bandy around and for some reason seem to think is fair game for ridicule. OCD is an insidious, unrelenting blackmailer who drains the life from you by manipulating every thought. Experiencing the full force of OCD during my pregnancy and the subsequent snowball effect after giving birth was particularly cruel. Already exhausted, hormonal, feeling the weight of responsibility and judgement of others, adding in a mental illness and my life quickly became really tough.
My journey out of that hellhole has been one of, if not the most difficult thing I have ever been through in my life. And our family was forced to come on that journey with me as they inevitably became tangled in the world of OCD too. You know how you often hear people say, ’My family were amazing!’? Well, as harsh as this sounds, mine were not, at least not to start with. How on earth could they be? They didn’t know what they were dealing with either! Like me, they were clueless, scared and angry and had no idea where to direct it all. We antagonised, vented our frustration on each other and it took us all a long time to get our heads around that. OCD tried to divide and conquer and it would have succeeded had we not asked questions, educated ourselves and fought back. Seeking professional help and using medication was the best thing I could have done. It allowed me to really fight back and I am proud of myself for that.
Today is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Day. It is an opportunity for many of us to raise awareness, to share our stories in the hope of ending the stigma and helping other people feel less alone.
If you ever find yourself in the same position I want to you remember a few things:
There is no shame. I repeat – there is no shame in suffering from a mental illness. There is no shame in saying you’re struggling or that you need help. There is no shame in taking medication or having therapy. Some of the wisest, most inspirational people in this world have been there too. To take care of your wellbeing shows incredible maturity and courage.
You deserve to live a happy life. And if you have become or are about to become a mother – to enjoy this special time. Mental illness is not something that you have to resign yourself to. I’m not saying that every aspect of mental illness can be solved easily but never resign yourself to having to live your life as it’s prisoner.
You don’t know it all. There are people who know much more about this than you. It’s their job. In fact you may go through a time in your life where a stranger may understand your mind more than you do yourself and that’s fine. Trying to cope on your own is like needing root canal treatment and deciding it’s too embarrassing to go to a dentist and instead to have a crack at it yourself. Seek the guidance of professionals who can help you and keep going until you find the help that really works for you.
Go easy on yourself. Seriously, just back off a little! Take care and be kind. (If I had a quid for every time I’ve heard or read that BUT… it’s so damn true! Beating yourself up only allows whatever you’re battling to gain a tighter hold on you. Treat yourself as you would your best friend.
If you find yourself in this position someday, I hope you can hear my voice. I want to reassure and remind you that you have a part of you that is greater than mental illness. There are people that can help you use that strength and resilience you have inside to overcome and heal. I promise you have that in you – even if you just don’t know where to find it yet.
All my love