A couple of weeks ago I was in the changing rooms of our local outdoor pool. It was a hot sunny day and the pool was packed. There were families and kids and teenagers and a whole load of people just messing about in the water, sunbathing and generally having fun. In the changing rooms though, there was a teenage girl crying. The reason? She was absolutely terrified of going out into the pool area in her bikini.
As she sobbed to her friend that her boobs were too big, her thighs were too big, her bum was too round, groups of other kids threw themselves into the water outside, splashing each other and laughing. It made me feel so sad.
As a mum this is something I’m really aware of. Teen girls in the UK have a worryingly low level of esteem when it comes to their own body image – which is why, as I explained here, this is a subject I’ll continue to talk about. And it’s not just teen girls, it’s teen boys, grown women, grown men. It’s an issue, particularly in this country.
Things I want my daughters to understand as they grow older:
- Their self-worth is not defined by the way they look or the shape of their body.
- We are all entitled to the same level of respect, kindness and humanity, no matter how we look. We are all human.
- Life is too short to be confined by the pre-conceived judgements of other people. If you want to wear a bikini on the beach then wear a bikini on the beach.
- We can never be responsible for other people’s opinions.
- No one’s body exists to be judged by anyone else.
These are all big worthy ideas but I’m more than aware they aren’t the kind of statements you can just make and hope to sink in. So, instead of talking about this stuff with my kids – they’re too young to really understand this stuff anyway – I SHOW them.
Here are four ways I try to promote a healthy attitude towards body image in our house:
1. I don’t talk about diets
I don’t do diets. I don’t even talk about “healthy eating”. My kids know they need a balanced diet and that includes fruit and veg, but no foods are “banned” – either for them or me. I don’t want them to see me denying myself an ice-cream on a sunny day, or eating courgetti instead of spaghetti and then still feeling hungry afterwards.
If you’re not persuaded by the validity of this approach then don’t take it from me – Laura Thomas – AfN registered nutritionist and Instagram legend talks about diet culture and disordered eating and smashes any pseudo-science myths around food spectacularly. Plus, she has a new book out called Just Eat It which I am definitely going to pre-order.
2. I’m relaxed about being naked
I’m in the Marina Fogle camp when it comes to being naked around kids. Naked bodies are not something to be ashamed of – it’s natural to be naked! I’m not saying we’re naturists (we’re not) but having a relaxed approach to being nude gives my kids the chance to see what a normal naked body looks like, and for them to see that I’m comfortable in my own skin. I don’t cook the Sunday roast in the buff or do naked gardening, but I don’t jump out of the shower and immediately cover myself up with a towel or dash to get dressed with the bedroom door closed either.
3. I compliment myself
We all have off days, but even on my off days I don’t look in the mirror and say mean things about myself. If I like an outfit I’ll say “Oh I like this dress on me” or if someone pays me a compliment I’ll accept it with grace and say “Thank you” instead of brushing it off. My kids think I’m beautiful, so if I stood in front of them telling them they are wrong, that Mummy’s belly is too wobbly or that Mummy shouldn’t wear X, Y or Z because her body isn’t the right shape then I feel like that would shatter something for them.
4. I compliment other people
I have friends of all different shapes and sizes and each and every one of them is beautiful – and I make sure my kids hear me saying so. It’s not just the way they look, but their cleverness, their kindness, their creativity and inspiring attitudes which are beautiful – and again, I make sure my kids hear me saying so. If I’ve met up with a friend they don’t know then I’ll often show them a pic and tell them about my friend, and why I like that person. In this way I hope they get to understand that everyone has their own beauty and it’s far more than skin deep.
It remains to be seen if this attitude will work. But I hope beyond hope that it might let my kids grow into teenagers and women who don’t ever let their perceptions about their appearance hold them back from just living their life.
As a teen, I grew up surrounded by images of one particular type of body on mainstream media – on TV and in magazines. But my own kids will grow up with this AS WELL as the world of Instagram and photo filters. If I can do a few small things to try to counteract that culture then maybe, possibly, hopefully, they’ll avoid sitting in a changing room on a hot sunny day, crying, while their friends play in the swimming pool outside.