Continuing her series of letters to her daughter, Anna Mansell explains why she worries about the impact her body image will have on her offspring...
A Disclaimer: I was a child of the 80s when lycra was street wear and Mr Motivator would invite you to march it out, five mornings a week, just before the ad break on breakfast television. The home exercise market would explode with thigh trimmers, ab crunch frames and exercise-at-home DVDs. Soup diets were on their first incarnation and, and it wasn’t long after that that carbs became the enemy.
It’s hard to know, looking back, if the message I received from television, films and women in my family were the ones they meant to send me, or if nature simply programmed me to believe that beauty came in the form of flat stomachs, toned arms, slender legs and luminescent spandex. It’s hard also, to define the moment I realized how hateful my body was.
Perhaps it was the day I was encouraged to breathe a certain way because then my stomach would lay flatter.
Perhaps it was the day I was teased in the swimming baths for having hips.
Perhaps it was the diets the women around me would go on, or the exercises they did in front of the telly, because nobody wanted a flabby belly or child-bearing hips, did they?
Perhaps it was the time I was called fat by a stranger, or invited to take the weight off my heavily pregnant legs. I wasn’t pregnant, but I was subsequently pointed in the direction of an excellent diet regime.
Whatever it was, from the age of nine onwards, my body felt the subject of scrutiny from all external quarters and as such, very much became a focus of mine. Except, the focus was to make it look better for everyone else. Not only did I detest my body, but I felt I owed it to others to make it beautiful. That opinion became the driving force behind many decisions I took over the years: to eat, to not eat, to be sick, to starve. To kiss, to have sex, to be looked at, to be touched. Decisions that went against what I felt, but that I believed I had to make in order to be beautiful. To be sexy. To be accepted. My body belonged to everyone else and no matter what I did to it, it was never good enough. It’s hard not to hate something you feel has let you down so much. However rational and intelligent you may be, the tide of social conditioning is a tough one to swim against.
Having you was the moment that changed. I wanted you to learn love and self-respect. Where better to learn that than at home? How quickly would I unravel the message, if you caught me poking with contempt at my hips and thighs? I can’t control the way other women behave around you, or around their own children; I can’t control the media; but I do have control over my presentation of myself. There is something uniquely powerful in that, I couldn’t miss out on the chance to change the cycle. For me, as well as for you.
It isn’t easy. To be body positive after so many years of self-loathing does not come naturally. Whilst my brain has entirely bought in to the ideaology, my heart sometimes has a job catching up. When I catch sight of a ‘bad’ photo, or an unprepared reflection, I have to have words with the immediate sigh that I want to make. When Daddy posts photos of me in a wetsuit, I have to remember that he is sharing our body boarding antics with his social media friends; our quality family time is the focus, not my writer’s bottom.
The more I embrace every stretch-marked, wobbly, sagging, dimpled bit of me, the more I believe it is loveable. I exercise to keep me mentally and physically strong, which is handy: it has little effect on my hips. The healthy food I eat goes alongside the take-a-ways and cake. We’re fortunate to live in a place overflowing with some of the greatest cafes and restaurants in the UK; resistance is both futile and unnecessary.
Our bodies – because regardless what people tell you, or how they make you feel, are ours: mine is mine, yours is yours. End of. Our bodies are to do with as we please. They need as much respect and appreciation as our minds do.
And when someone tries to rock your acceptance of this, because they will – we are a long way off getting over that – feel momentarily sorry for them.
Feel sad that they are not in a position to see how destructive they are being to themselves and those around them; then move on. Remember that you can control how you perceive yourself, but not how others perceive you. The more of us who begin to learn to love and accept ourselves, in all our glorious shapes and sizes, the less body hate can feed on our fears.
Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. Love, embrace and respect yours; whatever it may be.