I’m heading into uncharted waters with this post. I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and articles lately about feminist thinking, and trying to get my head round this whole Cis thing. As it’s a bit heavy, it’s not something I discuss with Husband and kids. But a
discussion argument between myself, 10YO and Husband earlier today has suddenly caused the two separate worlds to collide, so I want to try and get my thoughts in order…
10YO is definitely on the skinny end of the weight spectrum. It runs in the family. I’ve always eaten like Mr Creosote and I was probably about a stone underweight all my life, until I started a fairly sedentary office job in my late twenties. I lost my baby weight in about six months, and now, despite being a total couch potato, I’m still comfortably in the ideal weight band for my height. I know this makes most women hate me. I spent most of my childhood being called “stick insect” and I still remember one of my so-called best friends telling me I had “arms like an Ethiopian” in our early twenties. Husband is much the same build although he’s much more interested in sport than me, so he’s probably a bit healthier for it. And unsurprisingly with a gene pool like this, 10YO is also underweight for her height.
Anyway, today she asked us if she could start using the weight training set we impulsively bought years ago from Argos and which has been mouldering in the garage ever since. I was inclined to say yes, remembering all too well how she’s feeling. Husband’s response was a categorical no. If I can remember his exact words: “If she’s feeling bad about her body image, we should be helping her feel more positive about herself, not encouraging her to change herself into something she’s not”. Which, despite really identifying with 10YO wanting to change herself, I had to agree with.
But then he said something else that was so far removed from my reality, my experience of life, that it was utterly mind blowing. I’m paraphrasing again, but it was along the lines of “Why is she making such a big issue out of her weight? When I was her age, I was probably just as thin and I never gave it a moment’s thought, it was just the way I was. That’s how she should think about her body too.”
Can you imagine? What must it be like to live in a world where your body shape just is, a given, like where you were born, or the language you speak? For your body image to really not merit any further consideration than that? I have no idea what that’s like. Like pretty much every other woman I know, I’ve spent most of my life comparing my body shape unfavourably to other women – both real and the photo-shopped magazine variety. As I’m now finally of an age where having skinny genes is a good thing, I’m lucky that I don’t obsess about diets. But I still have all these appearance/ clothes-related rules that seem ridiculous to Husband: low cut tops = no (lack of cleavage), long length tops = yes (hides the lack of waist line) sleeveless = yes (those skinny arms actually looking quite good these days) knee length or A Line skirts = definite no (huge backside, HATE my bare legs) – you get the idea.
I try not to talk about these anxieties in front of 10YO but I’m not her only source of information. She watches TV programmes and flicks through magazines and catalogues in which the female actors and models are chosen because they fit a very prescriptive definition of what girls ‘should’ look like. Her friends do the same, and they all pick up on the body anxieties of adult women, and then, when they talk to each other as 10 year olds do, they subconsciously reinforce those messages and feed each other’s anxieties.When I tried to find out more about her and her friends’ ideas of how ‘normal’ girls should look, it turns out that they have all already identified something they don’t like about themselves, whether it’s their weight or their height or their hair. At age ten, for goodness sake.
I suspect that when Husband was ten, he spent his time playing football, doing armpit farts and falling out of trees, and his appearance would only fleetingly concern him when he was nagged to put clean clothes on. Don’t get me wrong, I know body image is increasingly becoming a problem for some boys as well, which must be every bit as bad for them as it is for girls. But for girls and women this kind of worrying seems universal and unavoidable in our culture, so when Husband commented that 10YO should just ‘accept herself as she is’, it sounded about as realistic as advising her to fly to the moon.
So I’ve been trying to imagine what it would be like for me, to just accept myself as I am? I was flicking through the Next catalogue this evening, and I realised that if I were to truly accept myself in the way Husband does, I would not be choosing skinny jeans, I’d be choosing shapeless comfortable-looking ones. I’d be choosing sweaters based on warmth, not on the waist- and neck-lines. I would be able to leave the house without straightening my hair. I wouldn’t dread summer because of needing to wear shorts in hot weather. I would go swimming whenever I felt like it, without shaving my legs first. But I can’t do any of those things, literally can’t, because I don’t want to. The lifetime of ‘stick insect’ comments (and I’m sure the same is true of the equivalent ‘fat girl’ insults), of diet advice, fashion advice, hair advice have convinced me that I will be judged, and must judge myself, on my physical appearance. I hate it, but I haven’t got the strength to walk away from it. Because to do so would involve a rejection of what it means to be a woman in this culture (This is why I think that being a cis woman may actually be another form of oppression rather than a privilege).
So what hope have I got, as 10YO’s main female role model, of giving her a more positive body image? For her to have a body image like her father, I’d need to remove her entirely from 21st century western culture, and take down every mirror in the house… it’s just not practical. The best I can do is keep on loving her and praising her, and if she’s really worried about her weight, encouraging her to bulk up on protein. And if she asks about the weights again when she’s a bit older … frankly, I might say yes.