Her life – and motherhood for me – began with beauty.
“She has a little problem with her mouth,” they said – and handed me my firstborn with a blanket across her face. Within hours, almost before I had had time to meet her, my room was filled with pictures of other babies, other children and how surgery had fixed them to look better, repair the imperfection, alter the way they looked.
I had filled my life so full of the worries about my face, my hair, my too fat tummy and breasts that didn’t point the way I wished they did. I had judged myself all by my looks and the derision of others who judged me because of them. I had seen myself passed over for promotion because I didn’t look good in a bank uniform and belittled because short and fat must imply slow and stupid.
And suddenly I had to mother a girl for whom life was, from the instant she arrived, all about how she would be changed to make her beautiful.
The tiger mother roared. Not loudly, not at first, but she woke and cleared her throat and vowed to make her life something that would not be ruled by what people thought of her face.
But there is no doubt that if your life is all about hospital appointments to change your lip, or change your teeth or change your nose or change your speech, the idea that beauty, looks and how other people perceive you will matter. If a stray word from a gym coach about your weight takes hold, if a cruel comment about how your hair looks sneaks in under your guard, if the tooth made wonky by your cleft palate shows up in photos when you smile – all those things affect a growing teenager. In a house of four girls it is impossible for comparisons not to happen over height or size or hair or looks.
What I tried to do was make them not have to fight the battles I had fought, against weight and low self esteem and lack of confidence in myself as a being with worthwhile qualities. What I didn’t know, was that using myself as a standard against which to judge themselves as better was offering them the opportunity to hunt for their own imperfections in the mirror.
It’s an easy mistake to make.
I’ve tried to give all of them, but perhaps particularly Fran, other things to focus on that were not about face or even fat, certainly not about fitting in and being the same. I tried to make sure they had the opportunity to develop talents and skills and have bodies that were under their control, powerful, fit and strong.
But body image and the world around us are powerful influences – I sometimes forgot those because our early home educating life made us more able to control the impact of such negativity – and I forgot that focusing on my own tummy roll and the face I wish was prettier would make them think critically of their own bodies. I remembered to model speaking kindly to others, but I forgot about speaking kindly of ourselves.
I know I’ve had an impact on such things but I hope that by focusing on individuality and skill and hard work, I’ve shaped them to think about more than looks. So I interviewed Fran, who started off as a baby who was all about her looks and grew into so much more, a girl who has precious little idea how much of a role model she is for her sisters and the young gymnasts and dancers she interacts with and I was quite proud of what she had to say.
Dove made a film asking daughters and mothers about their body and what they thought of them. The impact of parental body image on a child is clear; the children echoed their mother in many of their feelings about their own body image.
Leading psychotherapist and Chair of the Dove Self-Esteem Project Advisory Board, Susie Orbach said:
“The role models in girls’ lives are often unaware of how much young girls watch and mimic them. A girl grows up absorbing the behaviours and attitudes of their family members, especially her mother’s, and making them her own. These behaviours and attitudes form the foundation of who they are and how they feel about themselves.
“So, how we talk about ourselves, how we eat, how comfortable or uncomfortable we are in our own bodies, is the medium in which a daughter’s own body sense and body confidence grows or wilts. How well a young girl or young woman deals with the onslaught of media and commercial forces on body preoccupations is affected by what they pick up at home. Mothers are so important in providing a safe base.”
Perhaps it is too late to entirely alter things now, but I can try to take something from this;
“Whether she is a mother, aunt, coach, teacher, or sister, every woman has the opportunity to make a difference to a girl’s self-esteem,” said Lucy Attley, Dove UK Brand Director. “By talking about our bodies in a positive way, we can help the next generation of girls grow up to be happy and content, free from the pressure of beauty stereotypes and the burden of self-doubt.”
Dove have created a set of self esteem tools as part of the #feelbeautifulfor campaign in the hope that the next generation will grow up feeling differently about their body.
I think seeing what pressures a young teen has to deal with has made me re-evaluate my own face and body. I’m a little more accepting of my looks (if struggling to come to terms with the reality of age!) and more comfortable with the achievements my body has to its name – 6 children, running for half an hour at a time, overcoming massive life hurdles, getting slimmer to be fitter, not more beautiful. If hope that as the girls grow up now, it is those things they will focus on remembering about me and aim for themselves.
Disclosure: This post is in association with Dove.