Some months ago we spent a few days in one of my favourite places in the world, a house high in the mountains outside the Karoo town of Montagu. I love it there because there is nothing to do but swim in the dam, go for walks, read, eat and sleep. I can’t get agitated on social media because there’s no signal and my partner, removed from email, can’t worry about work. So we drink wine and make fires and sit long under the stars and our children are happy and it’s heaven. On our first evening there we came back from a late-afternoon dip and, as the shadows of the pines starting getting long and it was time for that first glass of wine I put on a sweater, went into the bathroom and automatically reached for my lip-liner. Because we were going to have drinks and snacks and chat and admire the view. Because I had been in the water and my makeup had washed off. Because… I’m a girl and if I don’t look pretty? Well, that’s a problem. I saw my reflection in the mirror, a woman of 43 with two children and a career and opinions and a brain and I looked away, out the window, at the trees and the big, blue mountain and I thought what the fuck am I doing?
Here I am in a remote holiday house with my husband and two daughters – the people who know and love and get me better than anyone in all the world – and I’m putting on makeup? It was a strange and sad moment where all the terrible, messed up messages I have internalised during my years on this earth hit me in my gut. I put the lip-liner back and went outside and looked out over the beautiful valley and tried to remember the incidences in my life that had led me to believe so doggedly in my own unworthiness. And how, in this world, I was going to save my daughters from the same fate. I remembered the earliest message where, compared to my cousin of the same age, I was labelled by family members as the ‘clever one.’ And, as any girl will know, you don’t want to be the clever one.
I remembered, many years later, a boy I was desperately in love with telling my best friend at the time he didn’t like me anymore because I was ‘fat’. I was 15 at the time and while I was never skinny, when I look at pictures of myself at that age I was definitely not fat. Still – I was mortified and ashamed, and it was the first time I have a clear memory of declaring war on my body – reading up on diets; taking small green slimming pills that made my heart race; sprinkling artificial sweetener on my All Bran Flakes and weighing myself every day. The idea that there was something wrong with me had taken root in my unconscious mind, and this belief would become more pronounced as time went by.
And, while I have learnt a lot in my time on earth, this is one thing I don’t really know how to change. How do you unlearn the negative messages that have been reinforced your whole life long? How do you decide you’ve had enough of this nonsense and you’re going to accept yourself just as you are – if not for yourself than for the amazing, clever girl children you’re preparing to send into the world? I read something once that posed the simple question: ‘when will you be thin enough?’ and I wept. A while back a girlfriend said something to me that was very scary and very true. She said, ‘your children don’t watch you with their eyes; they watch you with their whole being.’ I can tell my daughters what I think – propagate feminist values; go on about women’s rights; insist that no matter what they look like they are important and they have value, but when they see me unhappy because my jeans are tight; when they watch me eat salad while everyone else has pasta – all the words amount to nothing.
Last week my 8-year-old brought her school photos home. I could see she was unhappy. She sat beside me on the couch in silence and I let her be until I saw the big tears running down her cheeks. It took a while for her to admit that she was crying because one of her school friends had said she was fat and now that she looked at the photos of herself, she knew that it was true. I turned the TV off and I asked her sister to give us a few minutes alone. I didn’t really know what to say, to be honest. It was one of those parenting moments when you want to go, ‘hey, you know that manual? Now would be a good time.’
I opened the iPad and showed her pictures of herself taken at a recent ballet eisteddfod. I asked her what she thought of that little girl in the pictures. We found more pics, holiday snaps taken on the beach. I asked her if she agreed with what her friend had said. My daughter is little; there is no fat on her body. She had to concede that what had been said to her might not, after all, have been true. And then we talked about the fact that everybody is different. Some people are shorter, others are tall, some have dark hair and some are blonde, and some people will be heavier while others are lighter, and that the way you look has no bearing on who you are. I reminded her of the importance of always being kind and remembering that the outside of people says nothing about the inside. And she cheered up and started smiling again and we went and made hot chocolate, but it was a sobering moment which made me wonder, in spite of my best efforts, if I have failed miserably at my job.
Because the truth is, while I’ll order the Hunga Busta burger, throw back beer like the best of them and roll my eyes at women who succumb to cosmetic surgery, that’s only part of me. There’s another part, and one I’m not proud of, that looks at herself in a bikini and feels dismay. That has to beat down the guilt of devouring an XL portion of fish and chips on a Sunday in Kalk Bay. That secretly, while planning a holiday, determines to lose 3kgs so I can wear all the clothes I like. And who is very much a product of her environment. And what if it’s that version my daughters really see? How do I project an image of okayness when it’s not something I always feel?
But then, more than projecting a Stepford Wives-type image of perfection (which I could never achieve anyway) I’ve always been a firm believer in leveling with your kids and being honest no matter what. I mean, they see through your lies anyway. Could it be that there is room for ambiguity and contradiction in this ongoing conversation? After all, little about life is simple. Maybe if we keep talking and I ask them the right questions their (really awesome and strong) sense of themselves will be their lifeline when society tells that them the way they are is wrong. And maybe – this is my hope, anyway – because of the way they’ve been raised, they’ll be better equipped than I was to bounce back from the blows their self-esteem will suffer. For me, all I can do is put the makeup bag down, take a deep breath and go hang with the people who love me.