Every year I have mixed feelings about the start of a new year. Whilst I love the thought of a shiny new 365 days stretching out ahead of me, new goals to set, new experiences to be had – the familiar feelings of doom appear when I turn on the TV, social media or happen to glance at a magazine or newspaper. The message that I can’t avoid – be better, be fitter, be slimmer, be the best version of you! Diet culture is all around us at this time of year and it would take a serious recluse to be able to avoid it completely. In the past, I have bought into this wholeheartedly. Each year without fail I would declare that January was ‘detox month’. I would cut huge food groups from my diet, binge watch awful TV programmes solely intended to shame me (and the people who sign up for them) into losing weight as quickly by any means possible. By the end of January I would usually be more than ready get back to normal and I would inevitably put weight back on. The cycle of shame and self-berating would continue.
I recently posted on my Instagram a selection of 3 photos of myself taken over a 5 year period. In 5 years I have been every size ranging from 20 to 12 and back again. I was so taken aback by the reaction it got, my honesty about how I felt looking at the different versions of myself seemed to surprise people and strike a chord with many. What saddens me though is that this kind of public self-approval by someone ‘like me’ (by that I mean a confident, plus size woman/mum) is seemingly so rare. All too often we see overweight women typecast as a variety of limited roles, the ‘funny sidekick’, the ‘lonely singleton’ or the ‘lazy slob’. It’s rare to see someone like me stand up and say that they are happy and not actively looking to change themselves. Even the recent body positive wave that washed over the Mum Blog circle on Instagram, whilst a great and admirable thing – and undoubtedly a huge step in the right direction, was led by women who are no more than a size 14. Would the reaction have been so positive if I had posed in a bikini at a size 20/22? Many of the recently launched body positive themed clothing lines directed at Mums actually only go up to a size 16. The (I’m sure, unintentional) message to me and women like me is that it’s great to be body positive, but within society’s limits of what is acceptable. I contacted a few of the bloggers who have launched these ranges to discuss the sizing range but sadly I didn’t receive a single reply.
I think the change in mindset for me came when I had my daughter. In the year prior to having her I had lost a significant amount of weight via a restrictive meal replacement plan. My body was smaller, but my mind was in trouble. I had given into the belief that now, suddenly, I was somehow better than before and the praise I received only cemented that belief. A sad but true fact is that I received more ‘likes’ on a before/after photograph of myself than I did on my engagement announcement. At the time I didn’t see how skewed that was. I was swept up on a wave of congratulations and admiration. When my daughter came along I gained back the weight I had lost the year before, the post-natal depression I was experiencing was fuelled by a huge amount of embarrassment and shame around my weight. All those people who had taken time to congratulate me on my ‘achievement’ would be so disappointed and all the those who told me I would gain it all back, and more, were being proved right. It was a few months later during a CBT session when I had a breakthrough. It wasn’t me who needed fixing, it was the pressure and expectation of society and I needed more than ever to be kind to myself and realise that even back at a larger size, I am a person of value and deserve happiness not punishment and shame. At a smaller size I wasn’t any funnier, any smarter or prettier. I wasn’t a better daughter, sister or wife. I had no greater skills to offer the world, I was just me existing in a smaller body.
This realisation has put me on a path of searching out others who feel similarly, I’ve been lucky enough to follow the meteoric rise of some amazing plus size bloggers including Danielle Vanier and Callie Thorpe and body positivity campaigners Megan Jayne Crabbe (Bodyposipanda) and Joeley Bishop (The Vagaggle). Surrounding myself (virtually on social media) by likeminded people has been the key to staying in the right mind set where body positivity is concerned. What I think some people get confused by is that I am not ‘promoting obesity’ or congratulating myself on gaining weight. What I am congratulating myself on, however, is learning how to separate my self-worth and value from my physical appearance.
Raising a daughter in this non-stop body critical environment is a challenge though. I can only do so much to instil positivity within her, most of her beliefs will come from external things that I cannot control, what I can do, however, is provide her with skills and tools to examine societal beliefs and pressure and make her own mind up about her body and the images she sees around her. The body positive campaign, Be Real, which is backed by some large organisations such as Superdrug, New Look and Facebook offers an excellent area where you can gather information and download toolkits to use with your children to begin the conversation about body confidence as early as 2 or 3. They have, in partnership with PACEY (Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years), created a guide called ‘Celebrating Me’ to be used by Early Years Educators and parents to provide practical ideas to help children gain an understanding of body positivity. There are also toolkits for children aged 6-11 where you can begin to discuss photo altering and unattainable images in the media.
Most of what we can do as parents begins at home though, I have put together a short list of things we can do as parents to support our children in having body confidence:
– Limit discussions about diets and ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food, attaching morals to food is never helpful and can lead to feelings of shame for eating a ‘bad’ food. Discuss food as fuel and talk about ‘every day foods’ and ‘sometimes foods’. This way children gain an understanding of which foods will fuel and nourish their body without using confusing labels
– Don’t criticise your own body! Constantly hearing about parts of your body you dislike will normalise that kind of self-criticism for your child. They will absorb it and will eventually begin to look at their own bodies as a subject for judgement and scorn.
– Compliment them on non-physical attributes. Of course as parents we want to tell our gorgeous babies just how pretty or handsome they are, do it! But remember for every physical compliment you pay, try and pay one about something else too. That amazing picture they drew, how kind they were to the new child at school, how beautifully they sang a song. This will cement in their little brains that they are valued for many things other than their physical appearance.
– Talk about food and staying active with no direct link to weight loss. Moving around is fun and children don’t need the unnecessary connection between exercise and eating yummy foods and burning calories. We walk to the park because it’s fun, not because ‘Mummy had a big lunch and needs to burn it off’.
As a parent, there is only so much I can do to instil body confidence in her. She is at the mercy of society and I can only hope that as time goes on we start to see some changes in the images we see around us. More diverse role models, more body shapes, colours, abilities and sizes. My hope for her is that she sees her body as a vehicle to power her through life, to be cherished, nourished and cared for. Not something for up for scrutiny or judgement by herself or others.