Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, or will they?
Have you suffered from poor body image?
What is your earliest memory of feeling self-conscious about your body?
Did someone say something to you to make you realise your body wasn’t perfect?
I’ve always been highly observant, watching people, watching their reactions, their looks of approval and disapproval of others. Growing up with a mum who struggled with self-acceptance, I was aware from an early age that it was better to have a smaller body than a bigger one, after all, if this wasn’t the case, why was my mother always trying to reduce the size of her own? I quite easily put two and two together.
I was a normal sized child, but unaware at the time that normal consisted of a varied and vast continuum of people of all different shapes and sizes, and on comparing myself to my thinner friends, I drew the conclusion that I was fat. As early as 10 I can recall how ashamed I felt of my body’s early development, as I struggled to hide my body underneath an over-sized t-shirt, enviously watching my skinny friends dance and prance confidently around the swimming pool with not a care in the world. Later as a teacher of students that same age, I watched compassionately, as young girls who felt just like I had, tugged and pulled at their clothes to try and cover their inevitably developing frames.
Several years ago, I worked as a teacher on the paediatric ward of a hospital and I worked closely with the eating disorder patients. In the team meetings, I would hear family histories, and learn the backgrounds to how and when the patients first developed their disorders. One story stuck in my mind more than the others. It was the story of an 8-year-old girl who had been a normal weight for a prepubescent girl of her size. This young girl went to spend the summer holidays at her grandparent’s house with her cousin. Her cousin was thin, and she relentlessly taunted her for being ‘fat’. At the end of that summer, the little girl made the decision to stop eating, dropping significant weight and receiving the diagnosis of anorexia, where I met her for the first time on her admission for refeeding.
Her story broke my heart, and whilst her case was extreme, it is the story of so many of us who have suffered with our bodies and our self-esteem as a result of someone’s words. A well-meaning aunt telling you at 12 that you’d put on weight, a grandfather telling you not to eat so much at 9 because you were getting fat, a group of mean girls at school making fun of you at 11 for being bigger than them. These stories belong to so many of us, and they are all the result of somebody’s lack of awareness of the power and of the inappropriateness of their words.
It’s so important we teach our sons and our daughters that it’s never okay to comment on someone’s body, whether that body be big or small. To joke by telling a skinny person they need a burger, or by asking a fat person whether they should be eating that, is a truly low form of wit. Why anybody would think their opinion matters when it comes to someone else’s looks is beyond me. Remember that saying, if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all? Let’s teach this to our children on a regular basis!
When kids see their parents engaging in this mean, body shaming behaviour, they think it’s ok for them to do it, after all, kids do what they see. We must be better than this. We must teach our children the importance of kindness and compassion, and the importance of looking after each other’s hearts.
Don’t be afraid to speak up. If someone in your family says something like this to your child, rise up and remind your child the problem isn’t with their body, it’s with the way narrow minded people view it. If we can teach our children the importance of knowing their worth, of not relying on approval and validation from others, then they’ll already be several steps ahead of the game.
Never forget the power of your words, 20, 30, 40 years later, comments and the feelings that came with them, can be recalled like they were said yesterday. Be the change you want to see in the world. I am.
“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”