The government wants us to teach our kids that pixels are bad m’kay, among other things, and chat with them about body image, what’s realistic and so forth. Fine and good.

But look at the kind of thing we’re up against. A link recently popped up on my twitter – a page from Glamour magazine proudly trumpeting an online feature about ‘Celebrity body hang-ups’

Forty-three pages. Forty-three.

How are forty-three pages of minute self-criticism from women who totally fail the Body Mass Index, with bodies they work on day and night for a living, supposed to help the woman on the street? Does anyone really read these and think ‘Well, Sienna Miller thinks her bum is on the wobbly side, I feel so much better about myself’?

Or does it just reinforce the idea that a major part of female bonding consists of hating our bodies. I guess celebs are encouraged to say these things to humanise them, to make other women think ‘Hey, she’s OK!’

This paints a disturbing picture of female relationships to me. If this celebrity body-hatred fest is about being liked, then it’s as if being comfortable with your body makes you a not-nice person, someone other women don’t want to deal with. But to shout to the world that you have a sticky-out stomach, cellulite, one boob’s bigger than the other, you have this funny little mark on your arm that’s a bit gross? Oh, then you’re friendship material, one of the girls’ club.

It always seems to me that women criticise their bodies as a form of imposed false modesty – they fear that if they aren’t savagely self-critical, then the sisterhood will back away from them, believing they’re conceited and think they’re better than their mates if they don’t join in the ritual slandering of the thighs.

Few things are sadder than the sight of a gaggle of stick-thin girls in their early teens (at that age when most girls are that shape), parroting the language of the older women around them ‘I’m sooooo fat’, ‘No, no you’re not, but my arse is just massive’. Girls are desperate to be mature and womanly at this age, and what do women do in their experience? Criticise their figures, express jealousy towards other women’s bodies, obsess about weight and eating. It may start as parroting, but after a while I think people can start to believe their own hype. It’s like an obsessive compulsion – it starts small (‘Must go back in and check I haven’t left the hob on.’/ ‘Hmm, does my stomach stick out further than my boobs?’) and gradually becomes more all encompassing (‘Must go back in and turn all the light switches on and off or else something bad will happen.’/’Omigod! I think they reckon I’m pregnant, I’m so fat. I’m going to see how long I can go without eating any solids’).

I do wish I knew a good, productive response to those who insist on endless barrages of self criticism – it’s certainly not ‘You’re not fat, I am’, and I’m not cruel enough to make it ‘Yes, you’re fat, get over it, next subject please’, which wouldn’t help much either. Too many responses just cause the original complainant to dig deeper into their cellulite/cankles/funny mark on their arm; love to know if anyone’s come up with a way to turn these moans around without putting themselves down and thus continuing the cycle. Maybe one should try the frazzled toddler distraction technique: ‘I’m sooo fat’, ‘Look! It’s Ryan Gosling!’

As I have mentioned on this blog before, this attitude is pandered to in the media which takes it as read that women all hate their bodies, have issues with food and compare themselves unfavourably with celebrities. And it seems we gamely conform to that cliché. Time after time, research reports than an overwhelming percentage of women hate their bodies, that ever younger girls (and sometimes boys) worry they are fat. This report (from Glamour, funnily enough) concluded that 97% of women had daily ‘”I hate my body” moments’. Now, to some extent this is a rather specific subset of image-conscious young women who read magazines. That said, I’m not entirely free of image consciousness myself and I’ve never had such thoughts. There could be some ‘misquoting’ here, of course. I might have thoughts sometimes about my less good bits, of which there are many, but they simply don’t bother me. Why do women who are like me in this respect appear to be such an exception? How can I manage to pass this bizarrely rare lack of self-hatred to my daughter in a world that’s determined to press it on her as her lot as a woman? She’s just turned four years old, but according to some reports, she’s only a year or two off starting to worry about her figure and her looks.

The good news is that I think it there is quite a lot mothers can do. I certainly credit my mum with my own ability to be positive about my body (again, why is this an ability? Shouldn’t it just be normal to be happy with your body?) Anyway, I think my mum helped a lot – she told me I was beautiful, which I always took that with a pinch of salt, but it still helped, and all that motherly encouraging jazz. She was confident in her looks, or has always come over that way, although she is not naturally a slim person and has a beauty that is definitely there but by no means conventional. And I think one really important thing is that she is full of praise for the appearance of other women – women of all body types, ethnic origins, with all sorts of styles.

She taught me that women are beautiful.

I’ve never really seen this idea discussed. People talk of banning thin models, teaching kids about airbrushing and the like. But no one seems to discuss in detail in the mainstream media how women talk to one another about their bodies – if you have any examples, do let me know. And there’s not that much talk about positive things mums, sisters, aunts and grandmas can do about it. There’s a lot of don’ts – don’t talk about your diet, don’t make critical comments about their figures, don’t compliment them about looks. But not much about what to do.

I’d like to suggest a small set of ‘dos’:

  • Do find opportunities to be complimentary about the appearance of other women of all shapes, ages and races. Just as we try these days to make sure we praise kids more than criticise, let’s big up other women more than we complain about them looking too good or not good enough.
  • Do be confident in yourself – let the girls in your life know about times you’ve looked and felt great, not just the times you’ve felt awful about your looks; big one another up properly, not just in reassuring someone when they complain about the way they look.
  • Do compliment girls about their looks by all means – but just make sure you praise them about other stuff, too.

I know some schools of thought say not to compliment girls on their looks at all, but that seems unrealistic and a tad unhelpful to me. At some levels, one has to meet the world on its own terms, and I don’t think it’ll stop caring about women’s looks, so a little compliment goes a long way. As I have said, you want to balance it out with plenty of support for other, less incidental facets, but it’s not poison in itself.

But let’s not turn to Hollywood sylphs to reassure us by saying that they feel fat sometimes, and let’s not keep meeting unnecessary body hatred. Instead we need to turn to one another and talk ourselves up, and to recognise the diversity of beauty in the women around us, not one kind of monolithic ‘beauty’ that the pixels have worked their wicked magic on first.

As it happens, you’re not a horrible person who’s letting down womankind if you don’t hate the way you look – you have to ask yourself whether it’s better that the women around you seek role models in insecure celebrities, or in happy, healthy people who are actually part of their life. Lets’ replace that brainspace for things like ‘I think my knees look a bit chubby, I’m going to wear trousers until Armageddon’  with thoughts like ‘Yes, I have a touch of bingo wings, whatever’ and maybe that is a contribution we can all make to the wellbeing of everyone around us.

 

 

 

 

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