Tag Archives: parenting

Beauty and Shame

I’m thinking a lot lately about beauty standards, shame, body confidence, and how I want to be and how I want to parent.  It reminded me of something that happened on one of our trips last summer.

The beaches in Menorca are all topless.  Actually, at every beach we went to, bottoms seemed optional as well – many of the kids at the beach, up to even age 8 or 9, went naked.  And one older gentleman, deeply bronzed with nary a tan line to be seen anywhere on his body, was completely nude as well.

Shortly after we arrived at the beach the first day, I realized that it was topless.  I didn’t mention anything to the kids; I figured the less of a thing I made it into, the less of a thing it would be.  Bridget caught on pretty quickly though (to be honest, there were boobs everywhere) and shot me a wide-eyed look of shock. 

This seemed like a parenting watershed moment. My response would become her response.

So I shrugged.  “They’re just boobs,” I said. “It’s only weird if you make it weird. Every woman has them.”

She considered that and nodded. “And some men, actually,” she replied, “and they don’t cover them up!”  We both laughed.  And that was it.

As we were talking, though, Gabe walked over and caught the end of it.  He asked what we were talking about.

“It’s a topless beach,” Bridget said. 

Gabe hadn’t noticed, but his head whipped around at that, and, confirming that she was right, he turned back to me, mouth agape and eyes popping out of his head.

I repeated my statement: “It’s just a body part. It’s only weird if you make it weird. For everyone here, it’s totally normal to be topless at the beach.”

He looked around some more and then nodded.  He could accept that. 

Obviously though, Gabe went directly to both of his brothers and shared the information.  Two more sets of wide eyes and questions. Matt and I both made it clear that it was simply the way things were.  The boys asked why.  We said why not.  And that was it.

I realized over the course of the three days we spent on the beaches there though, how much healthier an attitude toward bodies everyone simply had, how much less shame there was all around.

There were women of every shape, size, weight, and age at the beach.  Nearly every one of them wore a bikini, and it didn’t matter what they looked like.  And many, many of those women took their tops off.  Old women, young women. Thin and fat, fit and not fit.  Moms and grandmothers.  Boobs everywhere. 

The women inhabited their bodies unapologetically. It was refreshing.  It was gorgeous.  It was so much healthier than the covered up shame you see in so many other places — England and America right on the top of that list.

I was jealous of all those women happily living in their own shapes and sizes.  I wanted to feel so completely comfortable that I didn’t think about sucking in my stomach or wish the bathing suit top I wore had a bit more padding or my butt took up just a bit less space.  I wanted to feel unencumbered.

I left my top on though, and I kept sucking in my stomach. 

Here’s why:

My children were not brought up in a place where seeing topless women is the norm.  They could handle it in Spain because, if nothing else in the last two years, they’ve learned to adapt to different cultural norms pretty quickly.

But having their own mother topless would not have sat well.  Not with them.  Not with me.  We can live with the norms of other cultures, but we live WITHIN our own.

So my top stayed put.  But I learned something about shame and beauty, and that will come with me wherever I go.

Pretty

When I was little, and didn’t want to sit through getting my hair brushed or styled, my nana would say “It hurts to be beautiful”. It’s a statement I’ve known all my life and one I still say to myself. 

And to my own daughter.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged and accepted.  If you’re a woman, it hurts to be beautiful. 

We color our hair, wear make-up, wax our eyebrows, our lips, our bikini lines.  Totter around on stilettos that make our feet bleed and bruise.  Cram ourselves into spanx and forego food for a day to fit in one specific dress.  Inject our faces with botox to eliminate wrinkles.  Undergo surgery to lift our boobs, tighten our necks, smooth our tummies, all to defy the effects of gravity and motherhood.

I’ve done most of those things.  In the end I’ll probably do them all.  If I leave the house without at least a bit of make-up on, you can be pretty sure the only place I’m heading is to the gym.  I’ve got a fair bit of grey in my hair, and I will continue to cover it up with dye for the foreseeable future.  I own — and wear — shoes that bruise my toes so badly that I can only wear sneakers for the next three days after a single night in them, and spanx that squeeze the thickest part of my thighs so hard they leave indentations that last for hours after I’ve taken them off.  I have worn clothes that made deep breaths difficult and eating impossible.  I regularly have hot wax smeared on my face and ripped off to remove the shadow on my upper lip and the caterpillar eyebrows I inherited from my dad.

I participate in my own torture, willingly, because I have been conditioned to believe that I am only beautiful if I do those things.

I hate the concept, but continue to play the game.  And I’m teaching my daughter to play it as well.  I wrestle with the messages and the practices, both as a mother and as a woman.  Am I doing the right thing?  Am I teaching her the right thing?  I’m uncomfortable with it all, but we live in a society that says “this is what it takes to be pretty” and so we follow along. 

Some of it I can paint as pretty harmless: I like make-up, and it’s fun to play with and it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Coloring my hair isn’t painful, just time-consuming, and I like changing my color to suit the season or my mood.  I enjoy getting dressed up and I don’t really mind sucking in my tummy for a while to make the line of a dress lie more smoothly.

But there’s nothing fun about getting the hair ripped off your body with hot wax.  Nothing fun about wearing shoes that bruise and pinch and underwear that squeezes and compresses and clothes that hinder your movement and breath.  I can’t pretend there’s any message but self-torture in there.  And yet I teach my daughter.

Society places a high premium on looks, and the standards to which men and women are held are comically different. 

Why doesn’t daddy look bad without make-up on? Because society hasn’t told him that he does.  His skin isn’t a blemish- and blotch-free poreless canvas, highlighted and contoured in all the right places.  He has circles under his eyes because he didn’t sleep great last night, but he doesn’t need to hide them.  His eyebrows are a bit scraggly.  He has grey in the hair on his temples.  He’s definitely not clean-shaven.  And yet all he has to do is run a warm wash cloth over his face, comb his hair, and he’s done.  Handsome even. 

Can you IMAGINE if men had to undergo the physical modification women regularly submit to in the name of beauty?  Good lord would our standards change quickly.

I have no answers, only questions.  I will still dye my hair and wear make-up.  I will still wear shoes that hurt and underwear that squeezes.  I will continue to have my hair waxed off.  And I will forever ask myself why I do it, what would really happen if I didn’t, and whether I’m teaching my daughter the right lessons.

It hurts to be beautiful.

March

Despite the cold and wet and snow, despite a train cancellation that added 90 minutes to our journey, despite a million other things we could have been doing on a Sunday afternoon after a busy week, yesterday the six of us made our way into London for the Women’s March. 

It was my babies’ first protest.  Not their last though, I’m willing to bet. 

When I first mentioned I’d like to go, Matt of course was all for it.  Love that man.  Bridget was ALL for it. Quinn was all for it, in his absolute unwavering happiness to do whatever it is we’re going to do.  Gabe and Owen were not as convinced.  But mama was adamant, and so we went.

It was COLD in London yesterday.  And so wet. But we made our way to Downing Street and saw the crowd and heard the chants and read the signs and it was all worth it.  My boys were ALL IN then. 

They chanted.  “We want justice, not revenge.”

“Time’s Up” they cheered. 

Bridget took the good camera, because she’s a good photographer and I am not, and wound her way as far into the crowd as she could get without losing sight of us, snapping pics all the while. 

And then it snowed, but not a light, dry snow.  Big, fat, wet flakes mixed with big, fat raindrops made a sloppy mess of the sidewalks.  And my children stood shivering and uncomplaining in a crowd of people who were all there to make a point and make a difference.

But a mama can only ask so much, and so we cut out after about 45 minutes and made our way 15 minutes across the Thames to Wagamama for a bowl of warm ramen.  And the restaurant was closed.  But the one wayyyyy back where we’d started was open, according to the sign.  I felt so guilty — we’d walked a long way and it was cold and windy and snowy and rainy and everyone was damp.  And they were all out there because of me, mostly.   

“Nevertheless, we persist!” Gabe shouted out.  The kids all cheered. 

I’m not gonna lie, I almost cried.  I held it together though, and Matt and I grinned at each other, and we rallied.  We walked back across town to the open Wagamama, ate our lovely spicy ramen, and warmed our freezing fingers and toes.

It was a good day.  One of those days that makes me proud to be their mother, proud to be his wife, and excited to see what the future holds for these babies who are paying attention and want to make a difference.

Winter Break Fun

There are really and truly few things I enjoy more than spending time with my children.  But they have been on school break since December 15th and we still have five days left before they go back and hoooo, boy am I ready for them to be at school all day for a few weeks.

My kids, at ages 13, 11, 9 & 7, are pretty self-sufficient in terms of entertaining themselves.  Because there are four of them, they always have someone to play with. But having four kids in the house all day, every day ALSO means they always have someone to annoy and argue with.  Always.  Like, every hour of the day.  Which makes me abso-freaking-lutely insane and despite the fact that I know I should let them solve their disputes themselves, I end up mediating and then losing my patience and shouting at them to stop bickering over and over.

The kids get up before me most days on school break and make their own breakfasts.  Five years ago I could only dream of the day that would happen, and make no mistake, I appreciate it.  But they eat like locusts.  We’re going through food at a rate so alarming, I am almost afraid someone is hoarding it in a cupboard upstairs somewhere.  And although they are reasonably okay at cleaning up after themselves after making a meal…actually, no.  Not true.  They’re generally rubbish at cleaning up and I end up reminding them kindly and patiently several times a day and then screaming and yelling like a lunatic to just put the bread away already, goddammit.

Luckily it’s not as cold here in England in winter as it was in D.C. (or is on most of the east coast of the U.S. right now) so the kids can still play outside for a few hours almost every day.  But it IS wet and rainy and that means it’s muddy and I don’t mind them playing in mud and getting dirty until it’s time to do laundry and I discover that they’ve actually worn three different pair of warm-ups and two different pair of socks each in a single day because they kept getting wet and dirty and then changing and leaving their dirty, wet clothes on the floor.  Then I give long lectures on making unnecessary work for other people when you could just wear one outfit a day or two AT MOST and not go back out once you’ve already changed into clean dry clothes.  And then I spend twenty minutes teaching people how to do their own laundry.  And then we all spend an hour every other day folding and putting away clean clothes while I threaten the lives of the children if they don’t stop changing outfits multiples times a day.

So.  Winter break has been fun.  Lots of fun.  Lots of movies and baking and cooking and board games and reading and laughing and good times. 

But my goodness, I’m ready for the fun to end.

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