First, I want to start this post by saying I don't blame my mother. I'm not angry with her in the least. She did the best she could with the information and the culture that was available to her at the time when I was growing up.
But maybe we can learn from our parents without condemning them.
I just want to say that growing up with the absence of a body image isn't the same thing as a healthy body image. It's a vacuum that gives a negative body image plenty of room to establish itself later.
When I was growing up, I think my mother decided to avoid teaching me a bad body image by protecting me from as much exposure to femininity as possible. By today's standards this might seem a little strange, because it feels like we're only starting to accept that being girly doesn't equal bad, but that's what she chose to do. For example, she wore makeup to work, but I never once saw her put it on because she did it at 5 am in the morning. Even when she got dressed up for parties in the evening, I never had the chance to watch her get ready and maybe learn a little. She always kept the door to her bathroom closed.
She didn't take me clothes shopping. Ever. Instead, clothes would occasionally appear on my dresser, haphazardly, without a lot of discussion about what I really needed. This meant I was never exposed to "pink" commercialism or its subtle messages about appropriate gender roles, and so I never had issues with defining my sense of self so narrowly. The downside was I also never learned to communicate to my mother what I needed in terms of specific items of clothing, like non-sports bras, age-appropriate dresses for school dances, pants when I outgrew my school uniform, or shorts and t-shirts for gym (I wore a turtle neck to my basketball games, I have proof!). If I ever did ask for specific things (I recall a cute 90s-era spaghetti strap jumper at Wal-Mart that was sold with the accompanying white shirt you were supposed to wear underneath - so it was very modest), my request was shot down with undisguised negativity. Message received? Heck no you can't wear feminine clothes. How dare you ask. I also kind of blame my poor shopping abilities on these experiences (I'm just awful at buying appropriate clothing).
Frankly, I looked like a mess growing up, and I always felt like it was my fault. I believed I was a slob, which was reinforced by my parents when they would criticize how I was dressed! I remember them giving me a hard time about always wearing a sports bra - but those were the only bras they had bought me! I had no other choice but to wear them. In retrospect, this was insane, and I can only blame my parents' busy schedules and their long commutes into D.C. for their general cluelessness about the state of my wardrobe.
At that age, they controlled my appearance, not me. So why was I getting blamed for it? And today, I really don't appreciate those comments they made about my appearance, which were one of the few examples of their active participation in molding my negative body image, but maybe had the greatest effect. (The research certainly seems to support that. Seriously, just do not comment on your children's appearance or weight. It's so destroying and it doesn't help).
When I turned 16 and got my driver's license it finally meant a new kind of freedom to control how I dressed and took care of myself. I would drive to the local CVS and spend hours in the store poring over foundation and mascara choices. Was I ivory? Or classic ivory? Was it really better to wear brown-black mascara instead of deep black, like the magazines said? (It's not, always go black, trust me.) Or I would drive myself to the mall and root through the sales rack at the Gap or Banana Republic. Finally, my babysitting money was coming in handy so I could buy myself t-shirts and stop wearing those weird mock turtlenecks my mom had bought me five years prior. I discovered Victoria's Secret wasn't a den of loose women, but just a place to buy a bra. I solved a lot very basic problems I was having with my appearance, and started fitting in a lot better at school.
And so I developed my own feminine identity in the absence of any kind of direction from my mother.
I think she thought she was protecting me, but it wasn't working. I was just developing a bad body image all on my own. She treated her femaleness as something to be hidden. Like I said, maybe it was just the culture of the time. She became a professional in an era of shoulder-pads and power suits; when to be feminine was obviously to be less. If she wanted to earn money and get promotions, she had to project a certain masculinity. Maybe she thought she had to do the same for me. I get it.
But that meant the only role models I had in order to learn how to be a woman were in magazines; from "it girls" like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. I particularly liked Marie Claire for their slightly more feminist angle and body-positive message compared to other publications, but it wasn't like they were censoring their ads too.
So now when I look at myself naked in the mirror, I see a flabby, overflowing gut, like Jabba the Hutt. Logically, I know this is false. I weigh less than 130 lbs (not sure where exactly, I don't weigh myself anymore). I wear a size two. I'm healthy by any appropriate standard. But I only see a chubby pig because I'm directly comparing myself to those magazine ads. That's what I think a woman's body is supposed to look like. Even though I know it's photo-shopped, I can't help it. It's literally the only idea of a woman that I have in my head, and I struggle to quash that image every time I see myself in the mirror. Or even when I'm looking at other women in real life I often catch myself consciously judging them against air-brushed models, which is AWFUL. But the problem is I only have reason to tell me that my body image is warped. I have no intuition for it, and so it I feels like I never really absorb or believe the message.
Look, I don't think it's possible for mothers to protect their daughters 100% from bad body image role models, like the kinds you see on TV or in women's magazines. They'll be exposed one way or another. But I wonder if my mother had ever worn a bikini, or put on mascara in front me, or let me choose my own school shoes, maybe I wouldn't have turned to magazines as a role model, and then maybe I would have had a better body image for both myself and others.
But I guess the only way I can find out is to do my best with my own daughter, if I ever have one, and then wait and see what she blames me for.
Regardless if I have daughters, I think the one thing I can do now is model as healthy a body image for other girls as possible (and boys too, I guess). Which means wearing a bikini even when I don't feel like my body is perfect. It's a real body, and I'm slowly learning to appreciate it. It means taking pride in my academic and professional achievements without putting down my appreciation for a cute pair of shoes. And foremost, it means just being nice to other women. Kids learn from example. There's no amount of lecturing that will convince them to feel positive about their bodies if we don't model that positivity for them.
What do you think? How was your body-image shaped? What would you do differently?
Writing Streak: 3 days
My Books on Amazon:
Waking Lions by Avelet Gundar-Goshen
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro