“Bravo, mothball!” Or, How I Learned to Be Better: On body image and loving other women.

I learned very early on that my body would not be good enough. My mother (beautiful then and now; talented; driven; beloved by all of us) crying at her reflection in the mirror. Dogeared photocopies of typewritten diet sheets, passed around her group of friends and sellotaped up on cupboard doors in the kitchen. Weeks of eating only eggs, only grapefruits. I didn’t understand how what I saw as perfect could need fixing, but I helped to mix up the powder for the meal replacement drinks, and licked up the drips that tasted of dust and despair.

Comments on my body started early. My childminder told me that I would have to shave the down of dark hair on my arms. Classmates laughed at my height, my clumsy limbs, my uncoordinated body. Long before I was aware of fashion, of societal norms of beauty, I became familiar with the prickle of shame at my own shortcomings, the crawling need to escape the skin that felt like it fit wrong.

I was one of three daughters, went to a single-sex school. I remember when I started to look in mirrors at myself, trying to view myself dispassionately, objectively. I was 12, and I remember I found myself wanting. My clothes were wrong. My nose was too snub, my hair too short. I wanted creamy skin, elegant limbs, a thigh gap. In school, we all seemed to be hyper-aware of our bodies. Skirts were tightened, shortened, rolled. We wore no ties, tugged our necklines lower. We held fashion shows as our school fundraisers; we were tutored in the art of fake tan, the use of bronzer, were advised to wear high heels, and black from head to toe. I was 15.

A friend told me I looked like Kate Winslet, and Sophie Dahl (I don’t, by the way – I wish). All I heard in her comment, in the sly shorthand decipherable to teenage girls, and what was so clear that she might as well have shouted it aloud, was FAT FAT FAT. It makes me so sad now, to remember how much bad meaning was wrapped up in that word for me; I invested so much significance in something so insubstantial, so weak and unimportant.

Food wasn’t fuel, or a pleasure. Food was something to be cheated, eating had a price;the debits were totted up to be paid for later in self-loathing.

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I fell so far short of my own ideas of perfection, and I was terrified that others might think that I wasn’t aware of my own shortcomings – that they might see me as humiliatingly ignorant of how things should be. I developed a technique of jokingly pointing out my own flaws – my reasoning being that, if I showed awareness of them, no one else could gain power over me by belittling me. I was adept at doing the belittling. I was a seething morass of misery, a messy combination of crippling self-doubt and blinding self-obsession.

From my teenage years on, I saw other women as a threat to me. I couldn’t acknowledge beauty in others without feeling like I was failing myself. It wasn’t only looks – the success of other women threw me into consternation. I held myself to impossible standards, and if other women were doing well then it must have meant that I was flagging. Looking back, it seems so irrational now, but at the time it was deadly serious, and I staggered along under the omnipresent threat of others’ success.

I was terrified of ridicule, so warped by the need to please others, and so desperate to appeal that I was unable to form my own opinions, to clarify my stance on anything. I wasn’t brave. I would never have offered up anything of myself, then – and when I saw other women doing so I was riven with jealousy at their courage, their willingness to show vulnerability; I was simultaneously fascinated and appalled at the inviting softness of their underbellies. I hid my jealously with gentle mockery, with wry critiques, with sneering. I shudder now at the memory of my mean-spiritedness, the dearth of generosity. Because I was ashamed of my own reticence, I became snide and arch to any woman who was more forthcoming than I. I let myself and others down.

A classmate once told me that everyone wondered how I could bear to be so close to my best friend, because she was so special that I could only exist in her shadow. I wish that I could have told her that I didn’t feel like I was in my friend’s shadow. I wish I could have told her that I was warmed by the reflected light of my best friend’s kindness, her good humour, her generosity. Instead, I fretted. The comment stung and festered.

I am a different woman now. I have learned to be kind, to be open, to be receptive. I know that I am not diminished by the power of other women. I am surrounded by strong, dynamic, beautiful, kind women – as I always was, only now I can appreciate them properly. I am kinder to myself, too, and I think about myself less. The change in me came about years ago, but I can’t shake the memory of the person I used to be. When I discovered that my first child was to be a girl, I was terrified. I worried – I still worry – about how I would instil a sense of self-worth in her, how I would teach her how to say no to people, how I would show her that she doesn’t need to compromise her own safety and comfort in order to appease others. How I would give her the confidence to be generous to others, and to delight in the achievement and accomplishments of her friends. And as with everything I teach her, I know that the strongest approach is to lead by example.

We don’t have beauty magazines in our house. We don’t ascribe to cultural norms of beauty. The word “fat” is not an insult to me. I am quick to praise, first with a smile, firm in my opinions. I push myself, I share more truths than I’m comfortable with, in the interest of opening a dialogue with like-minded companions. I wish to tread a firm path.

I could talk about how I’ve learned to accept my body. I could say that the soft sag of my tummy is a reminder of how it stretched to accommodate the biggest baby in born in Dublin last year (have I mentioned that once or twice?!). I could praise the cushiony plumpness of my arms, the steadfast warmth with which I hold and protect my babies. My middle child anchors herself with fistfuls of the hair I used to despair over. The pads of my hips and curve of my waist provide the perfect seat for the baby who is happier the closer to my heartbeat she gets.  I’m not an elegant scribble in black ink, but I’ve learned that there’s beauty in a doodle with a chunky crayon. I could say all of this, but the truth is that it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter, because my body is no one’s business. My body is not a site of moral conflict, a subject up for debate. My fat, my hair, my health, my brain –  they are mine. I’ve carved out space in the world for myself – space in which I fit exactly, no matter what shape or size I am. I have realised that it doesn’t matter what people think of that space – if they don’t like it, they can step away.

It’s not always easy, of course. I spent years caring so much about what other people thought. It’s so exhausting, and so dull. Imagine the freedom of setting that burden down. Imagine taking the energy involved in all that worrying, all that caring, and filtering it into other things. Imagine the relief of looking in the mirror and feeling at peace. Imagine the joy found in being able to delight in all the beauty and cleverness and strength of others, rather than trying to find all of that within yourself. That’s what I hope I can teach my daughters.

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5 Comments

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  1. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant x

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  2. Excellent piece, you have given me much food for thought.

    I was only replaying how small and insecure I felt as a teenager recently. It still haunts me, I still feel the sting of being insignificant.

    I too was terrified when I found I was having a girl, how can I build her armour enough that the outside world won’t break her when I know some of the worst pain I’ve felt was at my own hands and internal voice?

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  3. Beautiful and well written as always😃

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  4. I love this piece and it terrifies me x why are we do hard on ourselves? I have two little ones also and they are so full of self esteem at the moment. It terrifies me that it could change.

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  5. This is so good . In fact I think that I’ll come back to read this again whenever I need a little pep talk, so thank you.

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