What do you love about your body? When we posed this question to ourselves in the office everyone fell silent for a while. It was surprisingly difficult. “Er… I suppose my height is OK…”; “Umm... my waist is quite small, which is lucky – I’d look awful if it wasn’t.” That was it. That was all we could come up with.
On the other hand, answering what we dislike about our bodies was easy: “Oh! I hate my chunky calves, my too-big feet, my wonky nose, my flabby stomach, my planet-sized bum, my universe-sized hips... the list goes on!”
It was all light-hearted and self-deprecating at first. And then we reflected on our seriously negative self-image and wondered how on earth our relationship with our bodies went so very wrong.
We know it’s not just us. Somewhere along the line, it became socially acceptable for women like us to berate – even hate – our bodies. Diets went from being something only eccentric California-types did to the new normal, and now a person’s ability to emaciate themselves by excluding half the major food groups or following halitosis-inducing liquid detox plans is something to be praised. New mothers in the public eye are admired not for bonding with their babies but for their ability to “snap back” into shape post-pregnancy, and “You’ve lost weight” has become the ultimate compliment. What’s going on?
It’s what a new report by the UK Government Equalities Office calls our “normalisation of pathological attitudes to food and the body”. Eating problems of all kinds are on the rise, says the report, and while obesity is the most visible disorder, the most hidden is the “chaotic eating, which involves individuals who intermittently restrict and binge while obsessing about their bodies, rarely feeling safe around food”.
How perverse is that? As a society we feel ‘unsafe’ around food – the very stuff we need to keep us alive. And even more worrying for those of us who have or plan to have children is the vital role the mother plays in all of this.
Although we might think the media is to blame for our preoccupation with body shape, it’s actually how these messages manifest in the mother and are passed down to her children that makes the difference, the study claims. “The way [a mother] eats, her attitudes towards health, food and hunger as well as the emotional reasons why she may eat or not eat are all passed on wordlessly to her baby: the positive and the negative.”
Dove’s 2014 Legacy campaign encapsulates this connection in a short film. A group of mothers are asked to write down the physical features they like and don’t like about themselves, and are then shown the same list as written by their pre-teen daughters. The results are striking: one mother’s dislike for her fat thighs becomes her daughter’s perception of her own fat thighs; another mother’s admiration for her strong running legs becomes her daughter’s praise for what her own legs are capable of.
So what can we do to pass on a healthy body image? Child psychologist Dr Leslie Sim, clinical director of the Mayo Clinic’s Eating Disorders programme, advocates a Zero policy: “Zero talk about dieting, zero talk about your child’s weight, zero talk about your weight and even other people’s weight.”
Also steer clear of talking about food or bodies as if they have intrinsic moral worth, says the UK government study (no references to ‘naughty’ foods for example).
But perhaps, most important of all, we should stop focusing on appearances so much all together. Instead of worrying about whether our children understand that we think they’re beautiful the way they are, we should stop talking about external characteristics full stop, praising effort, skills and kindness, not looks. In a society trapped by its own limited definition of beauty, surely the best things we can pass on are the tools to break out of it.