Our resident agony aunt Rhona McAuliffe offers advice to a reader whose family have an unhealthy relationship with her body
My mother is a beautiful woman. People always comment on how slim she is and how young she looks and I guess in some ways, that is what she places most importance on, her appearance. I am not slim and I am not beautiful, or even considered attractive by most conventional beauty standards. I struggled with my shape and how I looked when I was growing up as I’ve always carried weight differently to my sisters and Mum. I starved myself for almost two years during my mid teens and despite my mother bringing me to the doctor several times, nobody was alarmed as I was not emaciated and didn’t fit the picture of someone who had an eating disorder. I’ve finally arrived at a place where I’m at peace with my body. I exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet without denying myself any main food groups. But my shape has not changed and I’m no longer trying to change it. I have grown to like my body. The problem is, my family aren’t happy with how I look and openly discuss my weight and what I can do to ‘help’ myself.
I’ve just spent four days with them for a family celebration and the constant picking and disapproval was exhausting and upsetting. My mother even asked me to cover up at one point by the pool and I just felt really shit about myself all over again. I know how toxic they are being but I don’t know how to confront it with them so they understand that I am just living my life. I often can’t find the words to express myself in the moment because I’m just too upset by the constant rejection and shallowness. Where do I start?
Conditional Love is a Thing, Meath.
It’s a sad and sobering fact to realise that I know very few people who can honestly say that they are at peace with their own bodies. No matter your size, age or ability, we have all been conditioned to think of our bodies as ‘less than’ if we don’t match the beauty ideal du jour. Your mail stirs so many emotions but mostly I just want to bask in your radiating strength. You’ve already achieved what so many of us haven’t even started striving towards. And you did it in spite of your family.
It’s hard not to care what people think, especially when ‘people’ is your family and they can’t keep their scaredy?cat conformist mouths shut. I’m furious with and feel sorry for your Mum in equal measure. She won the genetic lottery, through no effort on her part, and it sounds like she’s been trading on a steady line of demure smiles and cinched wastes ever since. Too harsh? The fact that she has been trapped in that narrative for so many years is sad and must have limited her life experience and personal development. It’s certainly limited yours. Not only is she looking for approval from others for how she looks but she is projecting this need for external validation on you. It’s a classic case of ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ where the Joneses are every shade of Stepford.
The huge problem here is, your family still view you as a work?in?progress, a non? conventional body type that they can somehow ‘fix’ and shrink with a magic diet and exercise plan. Cruel as they sound, they are also operating on the basis that the world sucks, that you are bound to be judged on your size. Women’s bodies have long been fetishized, with the bar set by the frequently male ad executives, movie producers and fashion designers pedalling ‘perfection.’ In the 1950’s, that ideal was the classic Marilyn hourglass, by the early 1990’s, Kate Moss’s dangerously thin Heroin Chic. Until recently, the bodies that we’ve been told to worship have been thin and white. Your parents are still firmly at this alter. Thankfully, women who either refused to conform to that ideal or spent years trying and failing to fit the homogenous, commercially?constructed archetype, started re? writing the fashion and beauty rules for women of size. What started out as personal blogs, celebrating bodies that had been marginalised by mainstream media, gained momentum and added fire to the long established Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance movements, which have finally pierced our collective consciousness. The ideal would be that the world was neutral to appearance, that we didn’t place any value on size, shape or symmetry. Though we may witness this social graduation in our lifetime, your Mum will not progress to this way of thinking alone.
I would suggest you start by writing a long letter to your parents. Chart your personal journey, from your struggles with body image as a teen and unrecognised eating disorder to where you’re at today. Explain that you value your mental health far more than fitting an impossible ideal; that you do not need to be fixed or made to feel that you are lacking in some way, that you are enough as you are. Be empathetic to their social conditioning thus far, including a reading list so that they can swot up and educate themselves. Lindy West’s, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, is top of the pile, as is Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Linda Bacon. There’s also an endless list of fat positive podcasts to tap into, activists to follow and sites to check out here. If they really want to support you, they’ll listen, read, learn and start filtering themselves. If they ignore your suggested prompts, intent only on signing you up to the next series of Extreme Makeover, you will have no choice but to limit contact with them in the name of self?preservation.
The act of loving your body is still considered to be so radical that they might just not get it. Hopefully they at least make it to this paragraph in West’s masterpiece: “Don’t tell thin women to eat a cheeseburger. Don’t tell fat women to put down the fork. Don’t tell underweight men to bulk up. Don’t tell women with facial hair to wax, don’t tell uncircumcised men they’re gross, don’t tell muscular women to go easy on the dead?lift, don’t tell dark?skinned women to bleach their vagina, don’t tell black women to relax their hair, don’t tell flat?chested women to get breast implants, don’t tell “apple?shaped” women what’s “flattering,” don’t tell mothers to hide their stretch marks, and don’t tell people whose toes you don’t approve of not to wear flip?flops. And so on, etc, etc, in every iteration until the mountains crumble to the sea. Basically, just go ahead and CEASE telling other human beings what they “should” and “shouldn't” do with their bodies unless a) you are their doctor, or b) SOMEBODY GODDAMN ASKED YOU.” Good luck.
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