The naked reality of body image

Innoculate against body image disorders


Surrounded by real, live nudity I had to ask myself how I wanted to represent the human body to my children.

It had been a while since we had camped so I tracked down the nearest family-friendly festival. When we arrived at the entrance the woman taking money had no pants on. Just a shirt. She chatted merrily with us and then directed us to a man, also wearing only a shirt, to give us a tour.

Oh. Clothing optional. I hadn’t read the fine print.

Once our rainbow-shirted man had left us to unpack I turned to the kids, who were gazing at some jiggling flesh as a couple walked toward their tent, butt-naked.

“What do you think?” I asked them. “It’s not too late to go home.”

“Do we have to be nude, too?” asked my son.

“No. You can do what you like.”

“Ok. Then I think we should stay.”

Here we were, fully paid up and ready to unpack and relax. But… was this a healthy environment for my kids? They aren’t so young anymore that they might remain oblivious. Plus, I could just hear the news on the first day back at school:

“We went to a nude festival! Everyone was naked and swinging off ropes into the river!”

Groan. But I think asking my kids to keep things secret is a good way to confuse their moral compass and set them up for manipulation down the track. Either own what you do or don’t do it, don’t ask a young child to keep it a secret for you.

It wasn’t as though everyone was naked, in fact more people were wearing clothes than not, but the nudity stood out to us because it was unusual. Right then I saw a really really large woman. Every bit of her shimmered as she walked without a shred of clothing and without a shred of shame.

And suddenly I remembered the first time I went to a music festival when I was 20, where the rows of womens’ showers had no doors. Some women showered in their swimmers, others kept their back turned and bathed as fast as they could and others stood around with nothing on chatting to new friends and then had a delicious shower, baring themselves without a care in the world.

That day I learned it is a lie that we have to look a certain way to feel acceptable. There was zero correlation between what those women looked like and how they felt about themselves. Zero.

I was struck by all those different female bodies because in my 20 years I had seen very few naked female bodies that weren’t photoshopped. The real thing was very different. And incredible. And humbling. They were all beautiful and I was so grateful to the women who couldn’t give a damn what anybody else thought. They were a gift to the world. I decided right then that I wanted to be one of those women.

Now I realised that my own daughter was watching as that shimmering woman gave an old friend a hug and then called out to another friend. Her bare white flesh, cellulite, jiggling, mesmerising hips and thighs and belly all disappeared. She was a person.

Just a person.

My son was right. We should stay. I would much rather my children see the real human body, all of it, than idealised versions of it. I would much rather them see real people doing real things than porn, violence, depersonalised competition and the sexualisation of… everything. I would much rather them be comfortable with what IS, rather than what we make believe to be. Penises and vulvas and breasts are body parts whose very name doesn’t have to make us squirm, and which don’t have to be mysterious and powerful weapons of war to be used against each other.

My daughter was seeing something new, something I had only really seen at the age of 20, and the way I reacted now to the sight of real, live nudity would partly determine the way she saw womens’ bodies, and her own, forever.

I put my arms around them and let myself relax. “Right, let’s get our tent up!”

My children loved that weekend. They loved the 45 different nail polishes (and tried every one of them on each other, and on me), the intricate face-painting, the talent show, swimming in the river, drumming and singing, blowing bubbles with the other kids, drinking chai and eating all together by the fire. They loved the community. They loved that nobody was judging. They forgot entirely about the nudity.

And I loved that during that whole weekend I never once heard a single person comment on anyone’s appearance, diet or clothes. There was no media, no magazines, only cold, hard reality. Actually this time reality was warm and soft.

I am all for carefully grading what our children are exposed to. But when we choose what our children are watching I think we need to ask ourselves what life we are preparing them for.

Take a look at Taryn Brumfitt’s moving trailer for Embrace and see if you think the joyful embrace of reality might be the best possible innoculation against body image disorders.

Tanya Burke is the creator of the Wise Child Happy Child series of practical tools for teaching Emotional Intelligence and co-author of A Doctor’s Dream.

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