Raising a girl brings a certain set of tricky responsibilities
I’ve definitely made an effort to raise a more gender-neutral child – but fostering a positive body image is challenging
Research from the US shows that by the age of 10, 80 per cent of American girls have been on a diet. Photograph: iStock
In the split second that I found out that I was expecting a girl, my life – or rather, the rest of it – flashed in front of my eyes. I surprised myself at how gendered my flash-forwards were. Little dresses, brushing hair and mastering finicky French plaits, ballet recitals, horse-riding.
I’ve definitely made an effort to raise a more gender-neutral child than that – my daughter wears blue, plays with toy tractors and has dinosaurs on her bedding – but still, there’s a niggling sense that raising a daughter seems to bring with it a certain set of responsibilities. Certainly, body positivity and sexism are not the sole preserve of parents with daughters, but they seem like issues I need to think about.
Even though she is still a baby, I’m wondering (worrying, if I’m honest) about how to foster a healthy body image in a young girl. Research from the US shows that by the age of 10, 80 per cent of American girls have been on a diet (boys are not immune: studies indicate that eating disorders affect about a third of all sufferers).
I often joke that Isola has inherited my “fine Donegal thighs”. Hers are so deliciously chunky and soft, and I love taking a pretend bite out of them.
And then, in the next moment, there’s a niggling worry. Is this the wrong thing to say?
Then, the anxieties come unbidden. Is it possible to give a child a complex about their body, even at that young age? Is it sort of light-hearted affection something I will need to be more mindful of in the future? Is giving her a piece of fruit when she cries out for one a good or bad idea? When I tell my daughter she is beautiful, as I instinctively do every day, am I creating a scenario in her head where she believes that beauty is her most important or valuable attribute?
I want nothing more than for my child to have a healthy body image, and to be happy within her skin.
We are trying to implement healthy eating habits, with plenty of diverse and nutritious foods. There are not “good” or “bad” foods in our house (mainly because chocolate is amazing). We don’t do diets (mainly because I can’t ever be bothered).
Yet growing up in the 1980s, diets were fairly commonplace in our household. There had been the F-Plan, the Cabbage Soup diet, the blood group diet. Health and balanced nutrition were rarely the end goal: rather, some were designed to somehow bamboozle the body into morphing into Jane Fonda’s physique. My mother was slim to begin with. She had me at 27, so she was glamorous and interested in fashion pretty much throughout my childhood. Yet I recall seeing all the bodily and beauty accoutrements in her bathroom – massage mitts and pumice stones and hair masks – and feeling confused.
Why would someone so naturally beautiful, as all mums are to their little daughters, need so much of this stuff?
Slack-jawed, I’d watch my mother do her make-up in the bathroom mirror in what was a lengthy, languid ritual. She’d blot her pearly lipstick, dab foundation on her eyes, nose and forehead, and use a tissue under her eyes to apply her blue mascara. It was like getting a personal YouTube tutorial as she would intone about applying moisturiser in upward strokes or the importance of toner. I was often too young to appreciate such wisdom. More than anything, I wondered at the elaborateness of it all. I didn’t realise that looking effortlessly gorgeous sometimes needed a helping hand. My mum putting her face on usually meant she was heading out into the wider world, without us, and I probably wasn’t too keen on that.
I do wonder if my daughter will watch me do the same thing in the bathroom mirror. Will she puzzle about why her mum is doing eyeliner flicks or filling in her eyebrows?
As she grows older, I’m sure I’ll need to be mindful of all of the above. I’m prone to remarking to a friend that my hair is in rag order or I’m in need of a facial, the way friends tend to do with each other. I’m sure I’ll need to shelve these comments. They can’t send out the right message, can they?
As Isola becomes a girl, I must remember that exercise is fun and healthy. It must not be something to be endured, or a punishment to be suffered, as so often it was in my younger years.
There will be plenty of outside messaging that will tell our kids – boys and girls – that they’re not pretty enough, not thin enough, not tall enough, or not lovely enough. They’ll be told they’re not enough. It’s up to me to thwart all of it by reminding my daughter time and time again that the parameters of “enough” are an ever-changing, largely meaningless point.
Just last week, I saw a magazine headline: “Lose 10 pounds and have the body you love!” I know an easier way to get to that very goal, and it doesn’t involve losing anything aside from a lot of emotional baggage.
Hopefully when the time comes, I’ll be able to relate as much to my daughter… gorgeous Donegal thighs and all.