The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting


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Educating not fat-shaming: parenting and body image

“Mummy, are you fat?”
“Er- I don’t know. Do you think I am?”
“Yes.”

And so my daughter, aged nearly three, moved effortlessly into the world of female body preoccupation. (In terms of tact, though, she takes after her father.) Reading about the influence of childhood on body image, I’m now wondering how worried I should be.

Apparently, if we call our daughters fat, they are more likely to grow up with body image problems, whatever their size. Well, duh. But they are also less likely to have a “healthy” BMI, making such comments as ineffective as they are unkind. Other research warns us that trying to control our children’s diet, commenting at all – even positively – on their weight, or otherwise encouraging them to pursue thinness, could be setting them up for a future of insecurity. That’s for girls and boys.

So we need to be careful what we say. I hope it’s obvious that you don’t make disparaging comments about your child’s weight once they’re old enough to understand. (And certainly not when they’re an impressionable adolescent.) But beyond that, I’m not quite sure what we should be doing, or just how early all this starts.

Am I wrong to exclaim over the delicious chunkiness of our younger daughter, aged nearly 11 months? Should T. and stop referring to her (adoringly) as the “small fat one”? I can’t imagine it’ll harm her – we’ll stop before she knows what we are saying – but are we sending the wrong message to her big sister? Or is it OK because we’re countering the prevailing thin-is-best mentality? (“I’m kissing her chubby little arm,” Little A. announced the other day, cutely but – in light of this research – disconcertingly.)

I’m also stuck on how not to control my children’s diet in a bad way, whilst also doing all the things I’m supposed to be doing to control it. Because let’s not forget that other thing we are always reminded to worry about: childhood obesity. Of course, we can make sure we provide mostly healthy food, don’t make a big deal about the odd biscuit, and encourage our boys and girls to enjoy running, jumping, and generally rampaging. But I need to be able to explain myself when my daughter wants chocolate buttons every night instead of broccoli, and I don’t give them to her.

I get that, “Don’t eat that, it’ll turn you into a porker”, is out, but what about: “It’s bad for you to eat too much of that”? According to one researcher, that’s out too. Which seems very limiting. Of course we shouldn’t tell our children to be thin, but presumably we can and must encourage them to be healthy, and that’s got to involve some education about different foods.

I could always imitate a couple of my friends and appeal directly to the effects (positive or negative) of certain foods, in a non-weight related way. “Eat this fish, it’ll make you clever.” “No, you can’t have that drink. The sweeteners always make you behave like a maniac.” Etc. I’m also hoping that teaching my girls to enjoy cooking food as well as eating it is a positive thing: part of making it a legitimate pleasure. But it’s always going to be a balancing act.

Then there’s the still more difficult task of policing what others say. Can we? Should we? Of course, if they are actually offering insults, or waving pictures of Lindsey Lohan around and asking, “Don’t you want to look like that?” But what about the family friend who mock-stumbles and says, “Oh, aren’t you getting heavy?” as they throw your child into the air? It’s meant jokingly, even affectionately, but I wonder how young is too old to say that to a child.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but this troubles me especially for girls, scarily high proportions of whom already worry about their size. It can’t take long for our daughters to pick up that “You’ve lost weight,” is pretty much the ultimate compliment in the adult female world. Or that they never hear their mothers telling each other that they look great because they’ve put weight on.

Which brings me, of course, to the real challenge. It’s not just about what we and those around us say to our children. It’s not even just about what we do (or don’t) encourage them to do. It’s also about what they see us doing, and hear us saying to one another.  If we constantly comment on our own and each other’s weight, if we spend our lives dieting, we’re setting them up for body insecurity. And, hopefully, if we enjoy a range of food, exercise, and generally don’t make a thing of it, then they will have a better chance of following suit. Again, duh. But that doesn’t make it easy to carry out.

I don’t diet. That’s simple, since I made promised myself several years ago to stop wasting my life on such a futile occupation, and reinforced that when it came to the baby weight second time round. But I do have some spectacularly unhealthy food habits I don’t want to pass on, starting with an inability to eat anything cake or chocolate-related in moderation. If my girls pick up my chocolate binges but not my love of cycling, they will not only not be thin – which doesn’t matter – but not be healthy. Which does. And even if they are, that all or nothing approach to sweet treats has its roots in a food-as-sin mentality that I wish I could unlearn.

So for me – as I expect for many mothers – demonstrating a healthier attitude to food means quietly re-examining some of my own eating patterns. But it also means shedding a lifetime of insidious little phrases. “I shouldn’t, but I will.” “Oh, OK then: I’ll be naughty.” “I won’t. I’m trying to be good.” All of which tell our daughters that food is something they should feel bad about enjoying, and so, almost certainly, make them think about it all the more. And which tell our sons, if not the same, then at least that that’s what they should expect from the women in their lives.

It’s going to be a struggle. But it’s one worth trying, for my daughters. For the record, when Little A. said I was fat, I laughed and said I thought I was a pretty normal size but that it didn’t matter anyway. I don’t know if that was the ideal response, but it was the best I could manage at the time.

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Mama fat: why I won’t worry about weight loss this time round

Some pregnant women put on a bump, and that’s it. No other discernible weight at all. Not just photo-shopped celebrities either: women I see on a regular basis. From the back, you would never guess they were pregnant.

Well, I’m not one of them. Nearly seven months in and I look almost as inflated from the back as I do from the front. From the side, I look like Daddy Pig. When I reveal my due date, it is to barely suppressed disbelief that it is not, in fact, tomorrow.

I know from last time that it’ll be the same after the birth. Week after week, another new mum friend would show up to our get-togethers in her pre-pregnancy jeans, apparently effortlessly lithe, while I continued to look five months pregnant (on a good day).

And last time it bothered me, absurdly if, I gather, typically. It wasn’t so bad when I was actually pregnant and could pretend I just looked blooming. But even then – even amid the fear and excitement of preparing for birth – I found time to notice how many of the other mothers in my antenatal classes had not acquired my generous contours. (And when I stop to think about that, WTF? You can bet your life our partners weren’t sitting there worrying that the other dads were taller/fitter/less bald than they were, and they weren’t the ones who had shortly to shove a baby out of a small hole.)

Then, barely over the terrors of a first few weeks when weight loss (our beloved new daughter’s) had given T. and me quite enough real stuff to worry about – and still struggling through an endless grind of expressing, feeding, expressing to make up for my abject failure as a dairy cow – I was noticing again. Noticing that nothing fitted except maternity clothes, that my stomach had all the resilience of a deflating balloon. Spotting a theme to our new-family photos: Little A gorgeous (if frighteningly small), T. proud (if tired)… Oh, and what the hell is that? Jabba the Hutt’s flabbier sister, squashing herself into the frame. In one early snapshot of A., I mistook my thighs for the sofa.

Months two to six were when I really minded. Not so much that I stopped cramming as much food as I could into myself. (Mostly cereal bars: I retained sufficient sense of proportion to mind very much more about getting the milk supply up. Plus I’m basically greedy.) But enough to feel conspicuously un-yummy mummy when I was out and about, to waste a whole lot of time and energy stressing about it, and to start exercising very much sooner – in retrospect – than I should have. I even went to one of those buggy fit classes, lumbering around at the back of a pack of already (it seemed) marathon-ready fellow mums, failing abysmally to do a single press up, trying to ignore the fact that any kind of formalised exercise class has been an anathema to me since the ritual humiliation of PE lessons at school. To add insult to injury, none of this made any difference at all.

This time, though, one thing will have changed: I’ll be trying my very hardest not to care. That’s partly my promise to the child I already have: a small girl brimming with energy and appetite, who already notices everything, and whose main role model I am. I have no desire to pass on any weight-related neurosis to her. (Which, apparently, I all-too easily could.) But it’s also my promise to myself, born of the period of perspective I can now look back on, when the hormones had settled down after delivering and feeding Little A. but before they went crazy again this time around.

Because, of course, it was stupid to mind. Understandable, given the barrage of “lose the baby weight” magazine headlines and parade of improbably skinny celebrity mums – surely they can’t all be flat stomached at four-weeks post-partum? – but stupid nonetheless. Stupid partly because, as it happened, a lot of the extra weight came off of its own accord in the second six months, when I cut down the breastfeeding and (oh the irony!) the exercising. (Some of it never did, and that’s OK too: I just have a new “natural” size.) But stupid mainly because there’s quite enough of emotional turmoil, good and bad, in early parenting, without adding something so completely trivial to the mix.

When I look back on my first months with Little A. (and, fingers crossed, her brother or sister), I will remember the life-changing love and life-changing terror. I will think about those warm, sleepy cuddles, the agony and joy of breastfeeding, those delicious, gummy smiles. About how my own baby’s crying sears me like a physical pain, about the quiet desperation of never getting enough sleep. I will think how short those days really are: how quickly our babies grow and become someone else. More wonderful and more engaging every day, but no longer that new, fragile, helpless little person.

I won’t look back on how long it took me to squeeze back into my favourite dresses, or care if that pair of jeans never made it past my hips again. Of course, I would care if I never got back into running or climbing, or getting out into the hills again, but that’s different. That’s about being healthy – and doing something that keeps me reasonably sane – not just body image.

So that’s what I remind myself of, now the hormones have me in their grasp and the media wants me to believe that I should be able to produce a baby one minute, model a bikini the next. When I catch a glimpse in a full-length mirror, I laugh, or remind myself what an amazing thing that rapidly-ballooning body is doing, and how lucky I am that it can do it. And afterwards? Well, Kate Middleton may be paparazzi-perfect within hours of her daughter’s birth; for me, it would take a few centuries longer. But if I have a healthy, happy baby, and I’m getting even a modicum of sleep, I’m just going to be grateful for that.

As for that third of new mothers who, apparently, feel pressurised to lose their baby weight to please their partner, they need to change something in their lives, but I don’t think it’s their body shape.

 

 

 

 

 


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How having a daughter has made me more of a feminist

I’ll start by being clear: I was never not a feminist. But among the things that get me heated – human rights violations, climate change, the barbaric way we treat other animals – the wrongs faced by affluent women in affluent societies were not, until recently, near the top of the list. Yes, they bothered me, but there is only so much energy most of us can devote to being outraged.

Since my daughter was born, however, I’ve found a whole new fount of feminist indignation. I am reminded every time I open a paper or follow a link on Facebook that her life will be harder than it might have been simply because she is a girl. And I find that very hard to bear. What I accepted for myself, if not with resignation, at least with fairly low-grade grumbling – “yes, it’s crap, but it’s nothing compared to Saudi Arabia” – makes me furious, distraught, for her.

It breaks my heart that my bumptious little dot will grow up in a world in which teenage girls accept sexual harassment as normal. That she faces a future in which derogatory language and casually discriminatory behaviour are so pervasive as to have rightly been coined “everyday sexism”. Hell, one in which even female-named hurricanes are apparently granted less respect than male ones. (You don’t believe me? It’s in the Washington Post.)

Unless things change, my daughter will be judged by her looks, whatever she does and whatever she grows up to look like. She will be taught by image after photo-shopped image to regard thinness as a cardinal virtue, and by a production line of twerking Lolitas that sexualisation is the route to success. If she is like her mother – or a scarily large number of her mother’s friends – she will devote years of her youth not to reveling in being young, but to unprofitable and unfavourable comparisons of her own body with those flaunted on billboards and magazine covers; not to enjoying exercise for its own sake, but to one gym membership after another, seeking a shortcut to an unreachable perfection.

No matter how intelligent, how talented, she is, she will find it harder to get up almost any career ladder than she if she had been born a boy. Any visual media career would, almost certainly, have a shelf-life as long as she could present a pretty face and adolescent figure to the world. (Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.) If she shares the experiences of some even in my own profession – academia – she will regularly be ignored or talked over, with all the insecurity about her own ability that that breeds. If she takes time out to have a family of her own, she will risk (at best) a setback to her own career.

And whatever she achieves in other areas, novel after novel, film after film, magazine after magazine will tell my girl that her life is incomplete until she has been “saved” by that holiest of holy grails: a partner. (Most of them, for that matter, will imply that that partner has to be a man.) If she is like too many of the women of my generation – smart, successful women – she will spend more of her teens and twenties obsessing about her love life than she does relishing her opportunities, her friendships, and the start of her career. All this makes me miserable. And angry.

At the moment, my small daughter is wonderfully oblivious. She’s one of the most boisterous of her little cohort, fighting her male playmates for the plastic slide or baby walker, bashing her father on the head as he carries her down the street, escaping at the world’s fastest toddle from any activity which requires sitting quietly still. But that happy ignorance cannot last.

Something, sometime will dispel it. A chance word from an unthinking adult will alert her to the fact that, like it or lump it, there are different rules for her. I don’t know exactly when, but in a world in which even plastic bricks are gendered, it can’t be too many years away. It might even come from me, if I don’t watch myself, since I’ve found myself occasionally joking that some action or gesture “isn’t very ladylike”. It doesn’t matter now, but it soon will, and I could kick myself. (Her father does better, if only by virtue of his proud approbation for her loudest farts.)

So here, for what it’s worth, is my promise to my little girl. Of course I’m not going to cut her off from all the enjoyable and positive things currently considered “girly”: from playing with dolls to the life-changing wonderfulness of female friendships. But I will not let them define her. I will try, day after day, to contradict what the media, and too much of popular culture, is telling her about how she ought to live and what she ought to be. (And, yes, I would buy dolls for a son, if he wanted them.)

I will buy her toy railways, and proper, build-something-interesting blocks. (None of that pink, make-your-own-beauty-parlour abomination, although she’s welcome to enjoy the new female scientists range.) I will show her videos like this brilliant ad and buy her books where the heroine subverts gender stereotype (starting with this wonderful tale of a princess who rescues her prince only to ditch him when he proves decidedly unreconstructed).

When she gets older, I will take her career aspirations seriously. I will never, by word or expression, give her reason to believe that some paths are off limits because she’s a girl, and I will pick an immediate fight with anyone who tries to do so. (Engineer like her grandfather? Brilliant. Playing rugby for Scotland? Great, only let’s hope she hasn’t inherited my lack of coordination.)

I will find female role models to counter the barrage of Barbie-figured, famous-for-their-looks celebrities. Politicians, scientists, sports stars, but also the many talented and successful women that I am lucky enough to have as friends, family, and colleagues. I will make sure she always knows that my career is as important as her dad’s and that family life – that elusive “work-life balance” – is as important for him as it is for me. (It helps that he took some of the parental leave, and would do it again if we have another baby. Also that he is really quite good at hanging out the washing, and better in the kitchen than I am.)

If I can, I will teach her to eat and to live healthily, but without making a fuss about it. And by cultivating (or at least faking) a healthy indifference to whether I can squeeze into a particular size of jeans myself, I will try to counter the body-image neurosis that she will be taught to accept as her feminine inheritance.

I know my limitations, though, and I know them even though I make all these plans with the full support of her father. We can do a lot, as parents of girls. We can teach them to question the received truths that society throws at them from the moment they are born. We can do this in what we do as well as what we say. But we can’t do it all.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Not all of it: we can’t change biology, as our guest blogger has pointed out. Our daughters, if they want to have sons or daughters of their own, will face a time pressure their male counterparts, by and large, don’t. But there is a lot they could be spared, given some effort at the societal level.

And that’s the really depressing thing: none of this is new. Much of it could have been written by my mum, more than 35 years ago. It’s because things haven’t changed – or haven’t changed enough – that I’m feeling so outraged now. We need collective action: from consumer pressure to end the sexist categorisation of toys (it worked with Hamley’s) to the kind of wholesale institutional change needed to ensure that sexual harassment actually gets reported, because it will be taken seriously.

And, parents of boys, we need your help. We need you to teach your sons to regard their sisters and female friends as every bit as brave, as worth listening to, as likely to be interested in building a Lego masterpiece or jumping in the mud, as they are. We can create girls who expect and demand more, for themselves and for each other, but unless they are to face numerous personal sacrifices to get it, we need the men who will surround them – the brothers, husbands, boyfriends, friends with whom they will inherit our society – to be prepared to give it.