Essays on being a woman

Essay One

Knowing me, knowing you

My partner and I are preparing for the imminent arrival of our baby daughter. This largely involves the drafting of complicated lists that require multiple visits to Baby City, and sharing our bed with a pregnancy pillow that resembles a gargantuan pair of plushy fake legs (amazingly comfortable for me, not so much for Mister).

Being first time parents over 40 means that most of our friends have already had kids, so we’ve gone all in and signed up to every baby/birthing class out there. Antenatal, breastfeeding, calm birth, virtual visits to the hospital, endless questions for our amazing midwife … you get the picture.

Yet sitting alongside all of the practicalities there’s another type of preparedness that I find myself wanting to address the closer we get to our due date. This is adjusting my lifelong battle with negative self-talk, and my lack of acceptance around the body that I inhabit. This is not just for my sanity but so that I am equipped to support my daughter as she grows up in a society soaked in the rigidities of self-surveillance and perceived personal empowerment through external validations.

I know there’s no magic bullet for this, that self-worth is developed via a multitude of environmental and emotional factors, but it’s made me think about the origins of my lack of love for my body and how intrinsically this has been woven into the fabric of my psyche since puberty.

If I’m honest it goes back even further than that as I had a serious sugar addiction from a really young age. One of my earlier memories is going to a birthday party of a kid in my class and gorging on so many sugary treats that I vomited in the car on the way home. I can remember standing at the party and cramming the chocolate rice krispies into my mouth, every sensory in my body on high alert as I focused on the table of treats.

I scored an after school job when I was about 14, at the fruit shop down the road from where we lived in Wellington. The owner would pay me cash at the end of each shift and I wish I could say that I had the makings of an eager little capitalist who carefully stashed the money into a piggy bank. In reality, after I finished there I’d pay a visit to the local dairy on the way home where my money would be spent on sugary delights. Milky bars, Crunchies, $2 lolly bags, Crème Eggs, Mars Bars, although sometimes I’d mix it up and get some kind of delicious (rank) orange corn snack like Twisties or Cheezel’s.

Maybe this craving for sugar would have levelled out on its own at some point as I grew into an adult. Who can say? Unfortunately I hit puberty before my brain had time to sort through the pitfalls of regular, excessive junk food consumption. I went from being a teenager who could eat like 1970s Elvis with no impunity, to one who wore these dietary transgressions as a solid layer of puppy fat.

Almost overnight, my relationship with my body became dysfunctional, as I bitterly resented the fleshy deposits that were taking up residence on my thighs, and stomach. Even more confusingly for my hormone addled mind was the appearance of my boobs. I went from being the girl at my co-ed high school who was teased about my flat chested-ness, “Hey Emma, stop bending over backwards like that the planes can’t land”, to having size DD breasts that felt huge and foreign. Like someone had attached them onto my body one night while I’d been sleeping. I had no idea how to look after them let alone respect, or grow to love them.

None of this felt like it could be a problem halved if shared with my parents. Which is a shame as they were (and are) kind and reflective and definitely would have come up with some sensible, empowering advice. I think that’s just the nature of being a teenager. Each tiny drama is inextricably linked to the next tiny drama so the whole of your existence becomes a gigantic venn diagram of overlapping complexities. Trying to unravel and explain any of this to adults can be overwhelmingly challenging, well it was in my experience.

It was also around this time that I became obsessed with comparing myself to others around me, which worked flawlessly as a plan to permanently erode my self-worth. Everywhere I looked, my universe was populated with skinny girls, happy skinny girls. Being a self-obsessed teen it was impossible for me to fathom that each and every one of those young women would have been going through their own pubescent challenges. I also created further damage by voraciously watching television shows and movies that featured gorgeous young women. To me, they all appeared perfect with curves in just the right places.

Today, when I think about that 15-year-old me, I wish so badly that I could zip back in time to perch on my teenage shoulder and whisper words of encouragement and love into my ear. That these words could have drowned out the persistent discourse of “you’re not the right size” that has become one of the deepest cognitive trenches in my internal landscape as I’ve progressed through the years.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy over my adult life attempting to force my body into a shape that differs from its natural state. Memories of my twenties are littered with dysfunctional eating patterns that served no other purpose than to reinforce those ugly thoughts I had towards my body. By the time I got to my thirties I figured out that nutritious, unprocessed food was actually better for you. But I was still attached to this untenable notion that I had to be a certain size, which was always smaller than what the scales were telling me. So, true to form I just developed unhealthy eating habits by existing on raw veggie salads and protein during the week, then embarking on sugar binges in the weekends to rival that long ago kids birthday party.

Rob and I started trying for a baby when I was 38 and it’s taken us 4 years, a miscarriage at 12 weeks and several rounds of IVF to get us to the point where we are now – which is eight months pregnant. Whether it was intentional or not, I have also used this time to try and alter the negative way that I view my body. Going to a therapist regularly has helped immeasurably, as has talking to family and friends about their own challenges with that feeling of not-good-enough-ism. I’m learning that the narrative I created all those years ago about how I look versus how I want to look matters to no one but me. And that it’s ultimately impossible to conclude that particular story with a happy ending because it doesn’t deserve one. Happy endings should never include restrictive diets and endless, rigorous self-body shaming.

So as I prepare for the birth of my daughter I am doing all the practical things that expectant parents do, attending the antenatal classes, freaking out about the first 6-8 weeks when your life becomes feeding, no sleep and … more feeding. Yet I am also thinking a lot about my future teenage daughter and the conversations she might have with herself about weight and self-worth. I have no idea if anything I say to her will make a difference as she gets through those challenging formative years. But I do think that action can step in when words fall on unreceptive ears. So I’m making a promise to her now that I will try every day to love myself a little more and to treat myself with kindness so she may learn from this. I do not want my lifetime of distorted personal inadequacies to be the legacy that I pass down to her.