A few weeks ago I was chatting with a new friend, Donna Jones Mbe. Donna worked with ‘at risk’ and vulnerable teenagers in Sheffield for 31 years, so when it comes to talking about feelings and emotions, she was a font of information and ideas of how to have a meaningful session with the children. One of the activities Donna recommended was to lay each child on a roll of paper and draw an outline around their forms. As it turned out on the day, we didn’t have enough paper on our long IKEA roll, but we did have little person-shaped-foams*, and I decided to use those. Read more: Five “About Me” Questions For Children
It’s official. I know it now. I’ll never be “their” beautiful.
There’s been a huge increase in views on our YouTube Homebirth movie recently, and while most of the comments are really lovely, supportive and even thankful, there are a few trolling comments that question my physical appearance and who would want to, erm, impregnate me in the first place*.
I lay in the bath last night, feeling my 15 week old baby flutter in my belly and I felt regret. I really hoped by the time I had this pregnancy, I’d have a lovely flat belly, so that I could have lovely flat belly, tight belly, round belly photographs, without that little overhang of fat that I had in the pictures of my first pregnancy.
I got out of the bath with a sigh of resignation and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. That face. I must tell you, it’s been a while since I’ve caught anyone doing a double take, turning around to take a second glance at me. My face isn’t asymmetrical (or is it symmetrical that’s meant to be beautiful?) I have a ˜mask of pregnancy’ that never really faded. There’s a double chin that comes and goes. And besides, staring down the barrel of 32, I’m too old.
But this is me and during my first pregnancy I realised that I didn’t want my child to inherit a poor self-image from me. It led me to writing about mothers, children and self-image, and I realised that the world is entirely geared towards making us feel inferior. Quoting myself from that article, “Advertising, and public perception with it, has to make us feel ugly and inferior, otherwise they will never make the money they do.”
Recently, I’ve been reading about families who refrain from telling their children that they are beautiful, or pretty, or handsome and so on, in an attempt to make them place zero importance on the physical. I’ve contemplated this, but it doesn’t make sense to me, and it doesn’t equate in my mind. In a world where so much emphasis is placed on beauty, I think it is more important for me as a parent to place emphasis on inner beauty, rather than not talk about beauty at all.
My fear, in never telling my daughter that she is beautiful, would not be that she doesn’t think of physical beauty at all, but rather goes through life thinking that I never thought she was beautiful. Or that I never thought she was pretty. Or that I never instilled a sense of self-worth in her.
I love the concept of raising my child to be completely unaware of physical beauty, or the appearance of beauty, and with it self-image, but I do not believe that it is possible in the commercial, Western world we live in.
I see self-image as a large vase, in my mind. It’s empty, but it exists. If I fill my child with positivity and a healthy view of herself that’s great, but if I leave it empty, the world around her will fill the vase with it’s perception of perfection – size 0. Hair. Make-up. Admiration. Either way, that vase will fill up, and she’ll see herself through it.
For me, and my child, I’d rather have her ‘vase’ full of an awareness of her beautiful nature, her kindness, her compassion and the importance of those things. I’d rather she have an awareness that she has beautiful eyes, but that the joy within her radiates out of them, making them beautiful. I’d rather she knows that she has a lovely face, but that the face doesn’t matter if there are hateful or hurtful words coming out of the mouth. I’d rather teach her that her beauty doesn’t matter if she’s mean and that people who know you don’t love you for your looks, but your actions.
We’re also very careful with our word choices. The difference between “Look how pretty you look in that dress”, versus, “isn’t that a pretty dress?’ Or “see how beautiful that hair clip makes you?’ and “What a beautiful hairclip’. Or, “Come, let’s make you beautiful and brush your hair’ versus “Come, we need to care for your hair to keep it healthy’. In the first phrase, we’re saying “Your apparel, your accessories, make you beautiful” in the second we’re saying either “that’s beautiful apparel” or “you are already beautiful, but we need to tend what we have to keep it healthy/strong/able to service us for the rest of our lives (i.e. teeth)”.
I feel it’s really important that we keep the two messages separate, but I also feel that it is essential that we share the message of beauty with her, that she learns and knows from early on that it is more than skin deep, more than appearance, and not the most important thing.
By the commercial world’s definition, I will never be a beautiful woman, but when I look at the man who chose to have me as his wife, I must admit that I am incredibly grateful that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, because while I may never had had the Hollywood moment where his jaw has dropped as I bowled him over, he thinks I’m beautiful, and that’s what matters to me, and that’s the message I want to share with my daughter.
*For the record, in the beginning the mean comments really bothered me, but then I realised their purpose and now I hardly notice them.Also, since writing this post I have deleted the original video (when it reached the 5 million mark, and reposted it under a new name.
I’ve been thinking a lot about inherited self-image lately.
By inherited self-image, I mean that which we learn from our mothers. The reason is a simple one. Ameli, at 15 months, has started going into my handbag, taking out my brush and brushing her hair. Or taking my – thankfully childproof – lipstick and rubbing it on her lips.
Now, I have always had body issues. Where they come from, I can’t say, exactly, but I’ve been through the mill of teenage self-loathing, diet pills, and bouts of bulimia, and in the end, it was when I decided that I am what I am that I became happiest within myself, found the man I have now been married to for six years, and have a pretty healthy amount of love for myself – and also the worst physical physique I’ve ever had, due to hormonal issues that have been getting worse and worse for a few years now, culminating in Hyperemesis Gravidarum during my pregnancy. But, I am at peace with myself, and that matters more to me.
During my pregnancy, I stood in front of the mirror looking at my bulging belly and flabby thighs, and made an gesture of self-loathing reminiscent of those of my teenage days, and recognising it, I made a decision: I will not pass self-loathing on to my child.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, liking what you see in the mirror, eating a balanced diet, and exercising, but what I never want is to see my two, or five, or ten, or fifteen year old looking in the mirror and hating what she sees – and of course, I’m pretty certain that at some point it will happen, because, let’s face it, the world is geared that way. The world is geared at making us think less of ourselves.
How would companies sell that lipstick that makes handsome guys do double takes when you wear it? How would they sell the deodorant that makes men fall over themselves as you walk by? How would anyone buy cellulite cream if it wasn’t for some or other goddess of perfection walking down the high street in winter in her bikini?
Advertising, and public perception with it, has to make us feel ugly and inferior, otherwise they will never make the money they do.
So, at some point, my beautiful little girl will look in the mirror and notice that unlike whichever model, she has curves, she has spots, and maybe even cellulite, and she will hate what she sees, but I am determined that she will not learn it from me. And my hope is that the self-image I pass on to her will be enough that, in time, she will find that image of her beautiful self again.
I think for me, that means not walking around with my head hung in shame, but rather embracing that which I have, and looking the best I can within my skin â€“ which won’t happen if I don’t feel it. It means consciously changing how I see myself. It means not looking in the mirror with disgust. It means accepting compliments graciously rather than dismissing them. It means not speaking about myself in derogatory terms and not allowing others to call me names that might be perceived as accepting negative comments about myself in the eyes of my child.
To every little child, his or her mother is the most beautiful woman in the world, no matter who you are. Let’s remember that, and live as if we knew it were true.