Parenting and Body Image

The world is watching and analysing the physiques of women in the public eye as a kind of first-world sport, and hypothesising obsessively about their diets, feeding the consciousnesses of young girls with drivel about who they should be and what they should look like and telling them they really should care an awful lot about those things, or else.

Feminism and food is a big part of my life, in the media, in my mind, when I'm thinking about my own personal history and the wider cultural experience of women of the relationship between food and body image.

Food is a feminist issue, and a feminist parenting issue, because so much sexism and misogyny is based on a woman's perceived entitlement to self-nourishment and personal space, and reinforced by the barrage of cultural artifacts perpetuating the patriarchal hegemony (in this case, the male gaze) that tells her that what she's worth is related to her size. Criticism of a woman's body - almost always about how too-fat or too-thin she is - usually relates directly or indirectly to the food she reportedly eats or doesn't.

The world is watching and analysing the physiques of women in the public eye as a kind of first-world sport, and hypothesising obsessively about their diets, feeding the consciousnesses of young girls with drivel about who they should be and what they should look like and telling them they really should care an awful lot about those things, or else.

The rise and rise of celebrity culture (mostly found in tabloid media) has intensified this assault on girlhood and surely the increasing dominance social networking, with its scrutiny-encouraging-selfies have taken the obsession from being one of assessing famous bodies in wonderment from afar to being everyone's own personal concern. This collective cultural message that women must watch their weight, that how the dimensions of their bodies compare to the culturally agreed ideal, trickles down into a mass common (mis)understanding of what is normal.

Judgements are routinely made about a woman's relationship with food from the shape, size and estimated mass of her body. She must be seen to consume the appropriate amount of food, to lust after cupcakes but not eat too many. To be sugary sweet but show restraint when the dessert shows up.

So what does this have to do with me, with parenting, with food and me and parenting and food?

First let's look at what constitutes positive eating habits. Or normal eating habits. Normal eating is when one eats when hungry and stops when satisfied. When one eats what one's body needs, whatever its size or shape, rarely less and rarely more. How many women do you know who eat like this?

I'm going to tell you a little story about me and food, and how me and food are not by default conducive to instilling normal eating habits in my children. Which is to say I'm working hard to go against the socially-learnt grain.

Growing up, we were lucky enough to enjoy some luscious, bountiful celebratory meals. The start of the school holiday, birthdays, Christmases, New Years, anniversaries and occasions that none of us kids quite knew what they were but they were worthy of an Indian takeout or a roast ham and a gallon of sugar for afters. But the women in my family were, both prior to these events and in the following days/weeks, always invariably on a diet. And not necessarily a starvation diet, but - y'know - a cutting-out-this-and-that-to-compensate diet.

To the point that I remember it. I remember the endless flasks of watery black coffee, bags of salad eaten quickly and desperately like it was crack. And peanut-gate: the understanding that peanuts - so bad and so moreish as they are - were only to be consumed when no other food would go in that day. I now forget which of these experiences were inherited from others and which I made for myself.

And I can hear already some people shrugging, but isn't this a first world problem experienced by one individual and detached from the collective experience of other girls and their families? No, it's not, because watching one's weight (read: tampering with one's body's natural nourishment gauge) is everywhere. It's in our food advertising, reflected in the limited representations of body shape in our kids' toys, it's in the very limited representations of actual women we see in our mainstream media, it's basically everywhere you look, everywhere your kids look. It's in cereal advertised to keep you fuller for longer, in packaged snacks marketed to women, devoid of actual decent nutrition, that promise a lighter food experience. It's in the Kellog's Special K 14-day challenge, whenever that next comes around (is it January?). Being vigilant about what our bodies should look like and what we should eat to achieve this is everywhere. And it has lived inside my head for as long as I can remember, so long that shaking it off has become a matter of principle and an ongoing inner battle to do the right thing.

I'm going to tell you a bit about how I feel, when I let my adolescent inner voice do the dictating (which nowadays I don't often do), about how and when and why I should eat:

- Fear: that if I eat too much I'll feel bad about myself and that will restrict my ability to function properly for an unspecified period of time after eating

-Fear: of feeling too full

- Dependent: food/not eating as a crutch for when I'm anxious or scared, the above giving me something else to focus on other than what's actually causing the anxiety

- Lack of control: I've learned since teenagehood that if I'm limiting what I eat then I can feel powerful, and when I'm eating instinctively I feel powerLESS

- Shame: for feeling the way I do at the times when I still have these feelings today

- Shame: for feeling the way I do and calling myself a feminist, even though I know I'm not alone in what seems like a contradiction of values

- Shame: that I, too, have learnt to habitually, usually without a second thought, scrutinize the skin I'm in, and

- Fear: that that habitual scrutinization will never be fully unlearnt

Another story. I remember being eight years old and a friend's mother proclaiming vociferously how greedy I'd been to choose so many sweets at the pick 'n' mix counter in our local after-school-stop shop. Her daughter had shown super-human restraint when given an empty paper bag and a candy-scoop and row upon row of sugary shapes; she had chosen like five tiny candies.

You can't want THAT many, the mother told me. No, of course I don't, I blushed, I'm going to put some back. But of course I did, I was excited to have free rein on the candy. I was literally a kid in a candy store for god's sake, who doesn't want THAT many?!.

And another. At 14 I was on a skiing trip. Where I grew up is mountainous, jagged and severe and angular. I wasn't any of these things, but didn't appreciate that this was a problem. We were being asked for our measurements - our heights and weights - so that skis could be hired, which made sense since our dimensions were constantly changing at that age, when my friend's dad who had organised the trip asked me to tell the ski-fitting guy my weight. I told him that I didn't know, because I'd never weighed myself before (oh, how that was to change) but that I'd give it my best shot to guess. A reasonable guess, I thought, given that I could tell my friend (his daughter) was likely to be lighter than me, based on her proportions compared with mine. It was all very logical and uncoloured by the secret language of being a young female - no modesty, no shyness, no jokes about not wanting anyone to know my weight. I guess my estimate must have been ludicrously off, since he laughed, told me I must be kidding or kidding myself or feeling 'optimistic', and gave the ski-guy an alternative figure to go on.

I started to get it, that weight matters. That the space you take up - if you're female - matters. None of the boys' had jokes made about them when they accidentally wildly underestimated their BMI. This was a girl thing.

Whether or not these experiences were a contributing factor, I spent the majority of my time as an adolescent, and beyond, hating my body; it never being enough and yet the space it occupied always being far too great. Never thin enough, never tall enough, never narrow enough, never lean enough. Always too wide, too short, too heavy, too much thin air being taken up by my arms or tummy or thighs or shoulders. I used to practice sitting in positions, contortions really, that would make me look like I took up less room. Raising my heels when I sat down so that my thighs looked like the other girls' or all the women I saw on TV who I wanted to be. Sounds like a cliche, but it's how it happened.

To write this honestly, as a feminist who strives to help smash fat shaming and cast light on insidious health-, youth-, and thin-porn culture, makes me cringe. But it's my experience.

And honesty about the path trodden by girls and women as individuals can work to cure the collective condition that tells a woman that to hate her body is normal. And that is what I seek to change, at grassroots level in my mothering, is to encourage my children - as far as possible - to develop a respect for themselves and each other, regardless of size or mass or appetite, parallel with a stable relationship with food and confident appreciation of their bodies' needs.

So how does this translate in terms of attachment parenting?

Whilst I don't think the aims of attachment parenting differ as greatly as one might think from the aims of more mainstream parenting - we mostly all want to raise children to be complete, confident individuals who can appreciate themselves and others - the topic of 'weaning with respect' raises issues of how attachment and parental involvement in one's early experiences with food can be pivotal in shaping how they view their own bodies, and whether or not, or how or not, that relates to what they eat. It's easy for it to feel like it's all a losing battle, someone's got to make the change they want to see. And in my little microcosm of the population that starts with me.

So here's what we do, and if it works, then great.

Eat right out in the open. I'm not pretending to be that family who always sits down together for every single meal, because that's just not realistic for us all the time. But I do strive for connection at mealtimes. Whether it's a table meal or playing a game at dinner or a floor picnic or watching TV together (gaspshamecondemnationhowcouldyou), coming together around food is important for us. Nobody, including me, has to eat in private.

Make sure I feed myself properly, and make sure we rotate who gets fed first. The reason for the rotation, okay not a strict rotation but just an awareness that there are no rules about who gets their food first, is because I've heard at least two stories now of households where the "man of the house" (and in at least one of those cases that phrase was actually employed) was, as a rule, fed first at the meal table.

Um, nuh-uh.

Why is smashing this pattern important to me? Because women - culturally/socially conditioned to be martyrs to their families (attachment parenting challenges this, but more on that another time) - are seen as the heroines of the household, exhausting themselves to dutifully serve their families' needs. This historical idea of motherhood that persists today is a problem because it exists in perfect alignment with patriarchy.

Everyone is human in our house, everyone gets the chance to eat first. Sounds so obvious, right?

Involve the children in the food-preparation process. This isn't always easy, because sometimes I just want to do it all myself hurriedly before hungry tummies become audible. But making sure everyone in the family has a hand in (not literally) the food preparation, and in some cases - due to our little windowsill herb garden - can actually see where the food is coming from, can only be a good thing.

Refrain from labeling foods 'good' or 'bad', whilst making the children aware that different foods do different things. Foods aren't by nature good or bad (I know this is arguable, but bear with me), but advertising has over the years sold foods to us women based on the notion that they are one or the other. They're going to be a lovely indulgence for you when you get home from that busy day at the office or they're going to make you skinny. Even foods that don't go for the 'will make thin' tag manage to crowbar health into their pitch. Like full-fat yogurt.

Using adjectives about stuff that don't involve appearance. I mean anything, really. Trying to focus on the deeper beauty things have, the beauty of intention, of action, of thought, rather than of physical attributes.

Don't talk about my body negatively (or positively) in relation to its size or how much I ate! This is a big one for me, but not saying it helps me not to think it, and helps me extend to myself the same kindness and humanity I afford everyone else in the world about who they are and what they look like.

Respectful weaning has, for me, meant taking a look at respect for myself and what I put in my body and how I feel about it. It's allowed me to spend a little time considering the impressions under which I spent my formative years and how not to pass these on to my children. It's also helped me to take a load off and remember that my feminism is part of my humanness, that the experiences I've had have brought me to realise that a lot of the cultural consensuses we reinforce to our children are feminist issues, and food is a biggie.

I'd welcome any comment on this issue, similar or differing experiences. Sharing our histories is valuable in putting the stopper in the trickle-down of messages we received but don't want to hand down.