Body image, motherhood and Women of the World

Although my job involves standing in front of and talking to groups of teenagers all day, and despite the fact that in my youth I had dreams of a career in acting, I have never been a fan of public speaking. To start with I think I’m fine, but the longer I speak the more my hands start to shake, the words tumble out faster and faster, and my voice starts to quiver until sympathetic audience members look at me as if they’re worried I’m about to cry.  

So imagine my pride when, during a workshop at last weekend’s Women of the World festival, I not only managed to stand up and speak, but received two spontaneous rounds of applause! I was so proud, but am under no illusions that my public speaking skills were being applauded for their own merit. It was just because what I said were the kind of simple, common sense comments on parenting and being a woman that can be all too easily lost in a world of too much information, constant media bombardment and so-called expert advice.  

Put simply, I said obvious, not just cliched stuff – and people liked it.  

The workshop was entitled ‘Own your own body’ and led the audience through a series of interactive discussions about women’s attitude towards their bodies. This section was entitled ‘Mother-Daughter relationships’ and was initiated with the suggestion that there is too much pressure on mums to ‘snap back into shape’ straight after giving birth (I always like how that phrase implies we were all in shape to start with!). After damning ‘the media’ and ‘celebrities’ for putting all mums under pressure to go on fitness regimes before the cord has even been cut, the workshop leader went on to suggest that this anxiety could be transmitted to children through mother’s milk and this was perhaps why so many girls grow up with eating disorders.  

I looked around to see a range of faces nodding wisely and found myself a little lost.  I had rocked up at this festival for women expecting myself to agree with everything I heard: whooping, cheering and shouting ‘you go sister!’. Yet somehow, despite my burdening fear of looking a total moron in front a room full of women I respected, I felt my hand creeping up to disagree.  

As a microphone was thrust enthusiastically I my direction, I looked to my friend for support. She nodded and I found the strength to speak…  ‘Well, first of all. I don’t think we should just demonise all celebrities. They’re people too and whatever pressure we’re feeling, they’ve probably got just as much if not more. I doubt they’re deliberately setting out to make us feel crap.’  

Stony silence. Maybe there were one or two nods, but nothing audible. Oh god. What was I doing…  

‘And, well…I had a baby 20 months ago and if anything I feel the opposite of what you’re saying. I may be a bit wobbly around the edges, but I have more important things to think about these days than what my stomach looks like in a bikini (not that I have enough money to go anywhere which requires one anymore). Besides, my body grew a person and pushed it out. I think that’s pretty bloody amazing.’  

I had them. Cheers, applause, one woman even stood up and waved excitedly at me from across the room. She didn’t quite shout ‘you go sister,’ but her grin implied it.  

‘Also…’ I said, emboldened by my new found fan base, ‘I have an issue with the title of your section. Why is it about mother-daughter relationships? Don’t you think that boys have body issues too? And don’t fathers have a role to play in fostering healthy self-esteem? Why are we drawing gender boundaries when we’re talking about tiny babies who have no needs other than food and love?’  

I was annoyed. How could you simplify the complex array of issues which lead to low self-esteem, body dysmorphia and disordered eating habits to the fact that a mum was stressed about losing her baby weight in the early weeks. Plus, if there were any new mums in that audience who were stressed about their weight, you’re hardly going to alleviate that stress by telling them they’re inadvertently passing it on to their newborn! To be honest, I found it borderline offensive. And of all the places to start assigning gender stereotypes (little girls will have issues with their weight) to tiny, tiny babies, at a conference which is trying to break down gender boundaries seemed ironic bordering on ridiculous. If you assume it’s going to happen, don’t you risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? Especially if you imply that the only person in the family who can help overcome this is another female.

By the time I’d finished my moan I had them eating out of my hand – which incidentally was still shaking like it was subject to a very localised earthquake.  

Yet a week later, my words still ring in my head. Was I right to disagree? Did I simplify things, or just complicate them further? And if I disagree with their view on tackling body image from an early age, what should we do?  

What do you think?



3 responses

  1. Very thought provoking post. First of all, I find it inspiring that you public speak and you still do not love it. I have a fear of this myself, and well, would like to be able to do it anyways. So brava! Secondly, yes true men certainly do have body image issues and gender stereotyping issues and confusion about pressures of roles. You are so right to stand u and speak what you think. How will be ever get anywhere with these issues, if people are afraid to express their opinion. I also find it interesting that you point out something about topics presentations: that sometimes we can agree with some of what people say and not agree with other parts of what they say. Also, even if someone is an “expert” we can still form our own opinion about what they say. This is glory of freedom of thought. I think yes, to say that the anxiety in breast milk might cause an eating disorder might be a big leap, and might invoke even more anxiety in an already anxious parent. Perhaps, if over time the child is continually made to believe that they are ugly unless they look a certain way, this might lead to an eating disorder. However, is it definite that this will happen, no way. And yes, I do believe your “self-fullfilling” theory might have some merit. Again, very interesting point. In my recent post, I wrote that I am cautious not to use negative self talk in front of the children in my family. However, that being said we are not perfect, and if we make a mistake, let’s learn from it and move on. Children will not completely escape stress and painful emotions. It is a part of life. It is hard to accept but true. It is more important that they see people being human and adaptable. In my opinion, anyways. I could probably write for days on the topics you brought up. I have been hesitant at times not to express opinions for fear I may offend, or fear that perhaps my opinion might change in the future, which has happened. But, I think, open up the floor to discussion. BTW, yes, pushing a baby out is certainly something to be proud of. Thank you for giving me many things to think about this evening.

    1. I’m not sure why but this comment only just seems to have popped up on my feed. I know it was a long time ago now, but just wanted to say thank you for your thoughtful and interesting comment. It’s such a complex topic and I’m still not sure of my own opinions but glad to have provided some food for thought!

  2. You were right to disagree. I have a 15 year old son who has concerns about body image and I’m pretty sure I didn’t pass those to him in my breastmilk….

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