Category Archives: Body image

Nipples to the wind

Last weekend we went to the swimming pool, the whole family. It brought home to me how alive the gender divide still is when it comes to our bodies. My husband just put his trunks in the bag and went, where as I spent half an hour de-fuzzing my armpits and legs from their winter growth.

And then as we got ready to swim, I looked at my two girls, aged two and four. Each completely themselves. One in a pink floral patterned ultra girly swim suit, with frilly parts to draw the eye to her non existent four year old bust. And the other in a pair of her brother’s old pirate monkey shorts. Topless.

“You look like a boy,” my seven year old son said to her.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because she’s only wearing shorts and I can see her nipples,” was the reply.
And yes, there she was, nipples to the wind, just the same as he was at that age.

And it felt good to me. And to her. And everyone else just got on with their lives assuming she was a boy.
Because truly, there is no shame in a girl’s nipples. It feels ridiculous to even say it.
Why do they need to learn to be “discrete” with a non-genital part of their body, when little boys can bear them in public, shamelessly? It is just learning a body shame which will get worse as they get older. Something is seriously wrong with our culture, when nipples are fine on the cover of lads’ mags, and Page 3 of the daily paper in the UK, but are considered shameful to be exposed for their biological function: feeding a baby.

I see pictures of tribes’ people around the world with longing. There are the women – from 14 to 70 with their breasts, all shapes and sizes, to the wind.

Their beautiful, normal breasts.

But the first sign of civilisation, when other cultures impinge on theirs, is the covering of a woman’s breasts. I remember hearing an Aboriginal elder, one of the lost tribes, who was “discovered” by a white explorer in the 1950s. She looked back at the photographs he took of their lifestyle, this woman who was wearing a baggy T shirt. Oh look she says, we used to go everywhere with nothing on our boobies! And laughs.

And I feel a longing to have that freedom. When the sun shines, to not be tangled in a bra for support, and a T shirt for modesty, but to join my husband and son and every builder in Ireland as we whip off our tops to feel the sun soak into our skins.

Not to make a statement, or to tittilate or shock. Just because the sun is out, my body is not shameful, and I put my nipples to the wind.

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My mother’s shame is what I wear as a veil…

My mother’s shame is what I wear as a veil.

It is my modesty.

Handed down, from mother to daughter, generation upon generation, laundered and press within an inch of its silken life. It is my birthright, my dowry. I peer through its gauze and think gauze should be kept for hospital settings, to mop up blood and pus, gangrene and weeping sores.

But it has been taken out, out from the institution of illness and out into the world, carrying within it pestilence and plague upon my mother’s head as she bears her female body with shame, with disgust and anger and misery and disappointment – they ooze from her body with her blood and her sweat and tears that no real woman should have, they pour from her body in the birth fluids of her babies, the tears of her frustration, the sweat of her pain, they pour and pour, covered by the veil, too disgusting to be seen, too shameful and horrific to be seen by everyday eyes.

Of course you did not know, how could you? The veil’s purpose is to keep things nice, and pretty and safe, and most of all, hidden. The veil is the social smile. It hushes the wear’s voice to a murmur. And so what pours behind the gauze becomes her own, her own private suffering, her own personal hell. She is kept in a purdah of shame, behind the veil, not knowing that every woman wears the veil, the veil of her mother’s mother, and she suffers behind it too. Beneath it her libido fires in her youth, dances in delight, then learns to lie still and have headaches and womb aches, and heart aches become a distant memory, as fibre by fibre, the veil falls down upon them too. And they become the white noise of her existence, as little a part of her as the wind in the trees on a distant mountain top. She forgets that all this is hers, was hers. Disembodied, anonymous behind the veil, she floats ghostlike, dead amongst the living with only her shame to keep her warm, her silence to be her friend.

She holds her shames close to her heart. The loves she shouldn’t have felt, the hatred that burned like a fire for the woman that bore her, the child that she could not keep, the husband that she could not live with, the son that she cannot reach though her soul calls out his name in her sleep, the love that she longs for, the art that sits like birds in the top of the tallest tree that she cannot tempt down with the small crumbs from her desolate soul.

The betrayals from friends, who knew just the words to cut her like a knife, the truths from the tongue of her firstborn that she could not swallow and jammed in her throat like fish bones, sharp and malevolent. The body that was not slim enough, brown enough, smooth enough, that did not want to open at the right time and place to suit the clocks of others. And the dreams which haunt her nights, of lovers lost, her dead father, trains and falling from cliffs sex and death and pattern and colour all mixed up into one grotesque charade, this too is hers, and her shame.

The shame that she, in the end, could never be what everybody else wanted, that she couldn’t be kind enough, pretty enough, chaste enough, kinky enough, calm enough, wild enough, to please all of the people all of the time. And so as she walks, beneath the veil you hear her bones rattle, her flesh wobble, her tears, streams of tears like a faucet which cannot be turned off, and the blood, the blood it flows, then drips, then stops, but the tears keep on flowing.

Beneath the veil she learns to avert her eyes, and her heart. The look, of coyness, respect, disdain, distraction, disengagement. All and nothing.

She learns to float through this world, which is not for her, because she is not of it. Cloistered behind a veil of shame.

Can she over throw it? Can she find the courage of the women of the Taliban whose burkahs haunted my teenage dreams. Can she see that beyond the safety of fear, the habits of generations lies a land called freedom? Where women dance bare-breasted in the sun, where the law is made by dreamers from the red tent, where love is the currency, and joy flows through our veins. She can smell it, seeping through her veil, it is intoxicating, but the only hands to remove her veil can be her own, when she decides to wed life, to say “I do”.

Will you?

*Please note the mother I refer to here is metaphorical, not my own flesh and blood mother.

Reflected beauty

The other day I saw a woman across the room. And my first thought was – she looks like she’d be a great friend, she’s just my sort of woman. Beautiful patterned artsy clothes, an open face, radiating her own unique beauty, she looks happy in her own skin.

Then my brain caught up. That woman, that beautiful woman was me, reflected in the bedroom mirror as I walked by. What a moment it was! Genuinely seeing yourself as objectively beautiful – free from ego or doubt or intentional self esteem raising. Just seeing. And knowing.

Me and my daughters

And it was in such contrast to another mirror moment three years earlier.

In a restaurant with our children, I caught sight of myself in the mirror across the room – and felt physical disgust as I dissected my faults – my eyes filled with tears, I felt sorry for my husband to be not only married to such a hideous creature, but embarrassed for him that he had to be out in public with me. Then I caught sight of my daughter sitting opposite. Angel faced, the epitome of beauty. I scanned back to my own face, and noticed what I am always told. She looks just like me. So similar its scary. The eyes, the nose, the mouth, the shape of her face. I know her beauty to the depths of my heart. It is truth. So how, if we looked so similar, could she be beauty incarnate, and me a hag? I knew then that I really was dealing with a problem of perception and not reality.

I have had an ongoing hate-hate relationship with my own beauty. A general disgust of my reflection in a mirror, photographs of me, my thighs and belly as they sit quietly… I have always found my physical self unacceptable. Its so cliched. So dull. So pointless. And yet so real, omnipresent in my mind and life. Beauty shouldn’t matter… but it does. With beauty come value, love, acceptance – of self and others.

I know where its roots for me lie. In not fitting in. My dad not thinking I was beautiful. My mother and step mother showing dismay at their post baby bodies and carving them back into shape with diets and harsh exercise routines. A friend’s mother who thought her daughter, aged nine, was fat and should diet. Friend’s comments, magazines, TV… the list goes on. The poison is everywhere. And I swallowed it down like a good girl. Until I hated every part of my beautiful self.

I found myself looking back over our wedding photos, and oh how beautiful I was. But acceptably beautiful. The slimmest I have ever been. Hair dyed back to its natural color. But I remember just how uncomfortable I was in my skin. I showed the photos to my children. And to my shame asked if they thought I was beautiful then, they said yes. And if I was beautiful now, not really, was their response. They make references to me being big, being fat. You know where they learnt that from. Because that is how I have felt.

But recently I have realised, that being heavier I feel fully myself. Full of me. in my own skin. I was never much good at being a teen or in my twenties. When life was about weight and surface beauty. I never cared enough about it to sacrifice myself on the altar of beauty and fashion. I always wanted to be me. But me was apparently unacceptable.

But now, when I look in the mirror, I do not carve myself into pieces of unacceptability. I see the curves and the flesh and the hair and the skin, the wholeness of my beauty. My spirit incarnate. And I shake my booty, and laugh with pleasure and joy at this body that I get to call mine. And I revel in the flesh of my children. Flesh of my flesh. And I tell them that I think they are beautiful. Strong. Kind. Loving. Smart. Creative.

And I tell them that I am too. I show them my work, my actions, my heart. And when I look at myself in the mirror, I share my beauty too.

I am commited to this admiring and celebrating of our beauty, inside and out. And this is why…

“When I was growing up there wasn’t one woman in my environment who I heard saying something positive about her body. Everything I heard was negative, negative, negative. I accept my body. I accept how I am and make the best of what I am given. Children orientate towards examples. That’s why I talk solely positive about my body in front of my [daughter. I say things like ‘Hey, look at my strong arms!’ Or I shake my butt and say ‘Look at my fabulous butt!’ I do that deliberately,”

Kate Winslet, in a new interview with German magazine Brigitte.

And this powerful post by Amanda at Offbeat Mama

“I don’t want my girls to be children who are perfect and then, when they start to feel like women, they remember how I thought of myself as ugly and so they will be ugly too. They will get older and their breasts will lose their shape and they will hate their bodies, because that’s what women do. That’s what mommy did. I want them to become women who remember me modeling impossible beauty. Modeling beauty in the face of a mean world, a scary world, a world where we don’t know what to make of ourselves.”

And finally this powerful performance by Kate Makkai: Now for sale: Daughters $10,000 each

“When my daughter asks me if she’s pretty, I’ll say no! The word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be. And no child of mine will be contained in five letters. You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing, but you will never be merely pretty.”

How do you celebrate your beauty? And what has your journey been?

Note to Self

I am delighted to share with you my contribution to a very special book which has just been published.

Note to Self : The Secret to Becoming your own Best Friend invites you to discover the beauty and power of self-love, acceptance and becoming your own best friend. Exploring topics such as Healing, Menstruation, Motherhood and Body Image, Note to Self shows you how to embrace who you are and write love letters for your soul. It includes a collection of letters from 30 inspiring women around the world including Tabby Biddle, Jane Harwicke Collings … and me!! Continue reading

Embracing the moonlight in my hair

The first thing you would notice about me, after the colourful skirts on my ample hips, the necklace resting on the blossoming bust, and my bright tights, is my hair, which is rapidly turning silver.

I got my first grey hair aged 12, and now, aged 32 I am nearly at the tipping point – the grey is winning the battle!

Me two years ago

I am young to be going grey I know. But I have always been older than my years. My mother always said that when I was born she looked into my eyes and saw an old soul. Many people have said I am wise beyond my years. And now my hair proclaims that fact.

But I notice, that even amongst women 10, 20, 30 years older, I stand out for being my natural colour. For embracing the moonlight in my hair, rather than covering it up with a bottle. And it makes me feel unsure – do people think I am old, or ugly, or embarrassing? Or do they think this about themselves? What is so wrong about women getting older and fleshier and more fully themselves, echoing physically what is happening spiritually? It seems perfectly acceptable for men in our culture… so why not us?

What every woman does to feel good about herself and her body is her choice. But in this culture of ours it often is not a free choice, but one made out of shame, embarrassment and conformity. I remember reading a feature in The Guardian not that long ago on older women in the media – aged between 50 and 75  – and not not of them had a grey hair on their heads.

What I know is that for me, every silver hair is a strand of wisdom, a lesson learned, an experience gained, a shock survived. Each one is a precious part of who I am, so I am not about to cover them up.

Just as I am not going to diet away my voluptuous curves. I am a woman embodied in time and memory. This is my body – each curve, each stretchmark tells a story of love and loss, hard work and heart break, and joy in abundance. Why would I choose to smooth it away and pretend I was still a teenager.

I was a teenager once. And I hated it. Hated my body – which was “perfect”. Where now I know who I am and find great satisfaction in it. Most of the time!

However, I reserve the right, at some point in the future to dye my hair a rainbow – not to cover up, but to shine and embrace my Creative Rainbow Mama in all her glorious colours!