In September last year, I read an article in Brisbane’s Child, called “Raising Body Image: Are We Fighting a Losing Battle” by Nikki Davies. In response to this article, I wrote a letter that was published in the Dec-Jan issue. Here I expand on that letter, with more of my own thoughts about body image and self esteem.

I wrote a response to this article, because it evoked some personal issues and experiences of body image. I have been blessed with the opportunity to revisit these issues because I now have 4 children- 3 daughters and a son- aged 3 to 13. Although my family of origin did not endow me with very positive attitudes to my own body (and caring for it), my experiences as a mother have made me much more optimistic, and I wanted to share this with other families.

The original article talked about bodily self esteem as something that we can give by the words that we say about our children’s bodies. I agree that what we say about our children’s (and our own) bodies is important. However, I wonder whether the issue is not about feeling good about our bodies but rather feeling good IN our bodies. If our goal is to help our children to feel good in their bodies, it gives us a much wider range of tools, and I believe works at a deeper level.

If we feel good in our bodies, our self-esteem comes from the inside out, rather than being something that others give us (or don’t give us) through external messages. When we raise our children to feel good in their bodies, we give them a strong base, as well as protection from the negative social messages that they inevitably will encounter, especially our girls.

This approach also circumvents the ideas about attractiveness, as discussed in this article, which have a rather fatalistic tone- ie we either have it and our lives are easier, or we don’t have it, and our lives will be more difficult. When we feel good in our bodies, our confidence gives us a glow, and highlights the innate beauty that is in all of us. Feeling good in our bodies also encourages us to look after our bodies with good food, exercise etc, all of which keeps us glowing.

When I take my goal as helping my children to feel good in their bodies, then everything that I do to their bodies- right from the very beginning- is important. The way that I hold my babies, and the pleasure that I share with them through pregnancy, through giving birth, and through holding and carrying them, lets my babies know not only that they are loved, but they are giving me pleasure through their bodies. When I breastfeed them, I am not only giving them a sensual pleasure, but I am enjoying this myself through the hormones that my body makes as I breastfeed- especially oxytocin, hormone of love, and beta-endorphin, hormone of pleasure and transcendence.

Breastfeeding also gives a baby a feeling of rightness, at a gut level, because the nourishment that they are receiving is perfect, and promotes their own health and well being on every level. It can be hard, as it was for me, to feel right in a body that is being fed milk that is not right for my species. I am personally very thankful for my maternal experience of breastfeeding. My own self-esteem has been enhanced through the goodness that my body provides for my babies. Perhaps family eating has been easier, as well, because I have had the pleasure of satisfying my babies with breast milk. This has reassured me, at a deep level, that what I provide for my children is essentially good, and this has helped me deal with food issues such as “I won’t eat that!” without feeling slighted.

The style of parenting that I choose can also reinforce bodily pleasure and self-esteem for my children. When I choose a hands-on approach (also called attachment parenting) I am affirming that I will meet my children’s bodily needs as much as possible, and I am helping my children to ‘feel right’ in their bodies. As they grow, I continue to be responsive, and I can add verbal messages that reinforce my faith in their bodies. For example, in a playground I can trust my child to ask me for help when they are unsure-and, as importantly, to not ask for my help when they feel confident. (I can also choose to negotiate round these issues, but always from the perspective of acknowledging their sovereignty in their own bodies).

The relationship between attachment parenting and solid self-esteem is beautifully described in the early chapters of The Discipline Book, by William and Martha Sears. I have also relished the deeper, more analytical approach of UK psychoanalyst/child psychiatrist DW Winnicott, whose writings on mother’s and babies from the 1950’s are still penetrating and useful today. Winnicott coined the wonderful phrases “The good enough mother” and “primary maternal preoccupation” (with the baby) and reminded us, in an echo of African mamatoto (motherbaby) wisdom, “There is no such thing as a baby” (without a mother). His best-known book is called The Child, the Family and the Outside World.(My copy is Pelican 1964)

For me, the other crucial ingredient for my children’s bodily self-esteem is my relationship with my own body. If I love and care for my body, if I say good things about my body, and I am open with and unashamed of my body, I am helping my children to also feel natural and loving with their bodies and giving them a message that no words can say. This can be challenging in our culture, which is so negative about women’s bodies, but the good news is that, even if we start out doing this self-consciously and supposedly for our children’s sake, we end up benefiting too! I see this as one of the most powerful and subversive things that we can do as women, because when we have good bodily self-esteem, our body’s modeling can be an example to many girls and women.

We can also model good things to do with our bodies- running, walking, cycling, yoga (my favourite!), gym- anything that gives us fun and/or a sense of mastery. (Actually, my children have taught me more about this than vice versa- I especially enjoy my 10 year old doing cartwheels in shopping centers!) . Although my children might call me a ‘food Nazi”, I also believe that feeding my children well teaches them that good food helps their bodies to feel good. (If they develop a fast-food fix later in life, at least they will be conscious of the impact on their bodies!)

Watching my children grow is like watching flower buds unfold, and I trust that all that I have put in, as mother and ‘gardener’, will help them to blossom freely and unselfconsciously. And perhaps the most important input that I make is when I stand back quietly and enjoy their beauty- the beauty that is in each and every one of us.