By Ellen Bari
Of course we can blame it on our mothers. It’s all their fault. It always is. Pretty much any conversation about women’s negative body image issues, and obsessions with weight, point back to two sources: our screwed up mothers and the prevailing media. So now that we’re the mothers, and smart enough to know that the media is intentionally manipulating us, shouldn’t we be past all of that? And how can we insure that we pass on healthy ideas about body image to our kids?
These, and a number of other issues about body image and motherhood, were the subject of a fascinating panel discussion last month, at the Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Sitting among artifacts from the American Revolution, a group of local moms were privy to a book reading and panel discussion around Claire Mysko’s book, Does this Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat: The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby. The book title- which relates to a woman’s body image starting with pregnancy and throughout her life as a mother- is clearly meant to highlight the absurd disconnect between most women’s body images and reality. The event was hosted by Momasphere, a new organization whose mantra, ‘whole women make whole moms,’ carries out its commitment to ‘building strong families one mom at a time’ by creating innovative programs and events for moms while the kids are left at home under the watchful eye of… anyone else.
Ms. Mysko’s familiarity and knowledge of the subject is quite impressive, as she has a degree in gender studies from the New School for Social Research, has spent her life working as a beauty activist and interviewed some 400 women for the book. Joined by a panel of four seasoned experts in their fields, Ms. Mysko was able to turn to a fitness expert, sex educator, psychotherapist and journalist to probe a little deeper into some of the more pressing issues in the book. Many of the issues were obvious, but I thought a few less apparent ones were worth sharing.
Clearly, the media is filled with unrealistic images of women, from mommy stars whose bodies are shaped and molded 24/7, aided and abetted by a legion of trainers, dieticians, surgeons, therapists and personal chefs, to models who don’t even recognize themselves after the Photoshop artists are done with them. But when terms like ‘bump watch’ are part of the vernacular, and all eyes are focused on a star’s ‘postbaby body,’ is it possible to completely turn the other intelligent cheek? Meredith Lopez (Huffington Posts’s very own mommy blogger) admitted that it’s actually not that simple, and her feelings were corroborated by most of the women in attendance. As women who do not read the tabloids, follow star news reporting, or even succumb to the latest fashion fads, it seems that as a group, we should be above all that, but in fact, we are still very much affected by what we see. What’s worse is that now, in addition to feeling bad that we’re not able get ‘our pre-baby bodies back,’ we also feel embarrassed that we’re dumb enough to succumb to the media’s barrage, knowing full well it’s wrong.
And what’s even more absurd, is that the new bump fixation has extended to women actually comparing the size, shape and location of each other’s pregnancy bellies, deeming some more aesthetically acceptable than others. It seems when women get together as a group, the pressure they put on each other and its negative impact can sometimes be more destructive than the support they offer.
So what do we do? Admit that all is lost, and that our kids are doomed to be as screwed up about this as our mothers were? Psychotherapist Barbara Kass strongly believes it doesn’t have to be this way, but it means each of us has to stand strong against the tides, and champion healthy attitudes and behaviors. With two grown girls of her own, she described a situation when her daughters were young, where she literally had to tell a friend not to ‘talk that way in front of the kids.’ It was not that the conversation was lewd or crude in any way, but rather the obsession with weight and fat content that was being discussed was not something she wanted her kids to hear, or ever buy into. Modeling positive body image awareness and normal healthy eating habits absolutely starts at home.
Personal trainer Zoe Bowick Levine described a new paradigm that she uses when working with mothers. She will not even discuss body fat, inches or weight goals with new moms until after a good nine months, but instead focuses on feeling good in your body and noticing positive changes over weeks of working out- perhaps increased strength in some areas or simply a reduction in body aches and pains. She used the metaphor of the in-flight oxygen mask- in case of an emergency, always save yourself first so you can save your kids.
The message, again corroborated by the panel on many different levels was the importance of giving yourself time. This translates into giving your body time to heal, giving your system time to process the extreme loss of control, and allowing yourself to savor your new bundle of joy instead of being fixated on the shape of your body. It’s no surprise that being obsessed with weight loss and a past image of oneself does not help one’s sex life either. Sex educator, Claire Cavanaugh, offered some tips on how to keep intimacy alive, even when your own body issues may be getting in the way of your natural feelings of excitement. First and foremost, she stressed the importance of maintaining open lines of communication. She also said that contrary to her ‘feminist’ belief that women have to be able to clearly state when “NO means NO,” Ms. Cavanaugh explained that if one’s partner is feeling amorous, going with the flow can go a long way in bringing one back to a healthy sex life and a positive body image.
It’s really a kind of ‘just say no’ to the forces around you, and then stick to your guns with your kids. Girls Inc, a national organization that’ inspires all girls to be strong, smart and bold,’ was on hand, reminding us that if we don’t get a grip, we will continue to pass on these really messed up messages to our kids. While it’s very hard to stand strong against the pressure, it seems that there are ways we can respond positively. As with any behavior, being aware of the underlying forces is crucial.
Beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder. It’s critical that we allow ourselves to embrace some of the changes that come with motherhood instead of trying to fight them like they’re the forces of evil. And as Ms. Kass said : If you can’t do it for yourself, then at least do it for your kids!
During the Q&A, one mom complained that in the two plus years since she gave birth, her stomach has not retreated to its previously board flat state, and it makes her want to cry. She said it’s so bad that she’s been asked on more than one occasion if she’s pregnant. In response to her comment, another woman, shared the following: the other day on the subway, someone offered her a seat because they thought she was pregnant. She did not take the seat, but went home smiling from ear to ear. At 55, for anyone to think she could be pregnant was a huge compliment!