Last week, I overheard an eight year old little girl in a bakery say ‘Oh I mustn’t have that cake, what am I like?’. Just let that sink in a sec.
To make matters worse, she said the comment to her mum who didn’t respond.
As you can imagine, this wily old feminist, who was on her way out the door stuffing a chicken mayo baguette and caramel shortbread (ooft) in her handbag, stood dumbfounded outside on the pavement unsure of what to do.
I thought I’d misheard her; surely a little girl wouldn’t feel the need to say something like that? Surely her momma would swoop in and tell her to eat the cake if she wants the cake?
And why did I feel like I couldn’t storm back into the shop, buy the little girl the whole tray of cakes and have a civilised conversation with my fellow women about diet culture and the actions we can all take to stop us unintentionally telling our children and ourselves that being thin is the only thing to aspire for?
I’ll tell ya for why, because I was scared.
I was angry, yes, sad, you betcha, but also feeling a little helpless.
The last few months have been some of the best of my life (hello, Kenya! More on you in a future blog post…) but also some of the toughest I’ve had with my mental relationship to food. Two months ago, I reached my one year anniversary of being at my Slimming World ‘target’ weight. A big milestone essentially meaning all the weight I lost a year ago, I haven’t put back on in 365 days.
I was pretty chuffed; I am the fittest physically I have ever been and am finding I am enjoying exercising more regularly but in spite of this, I was also suddenly very aware of how my body was looking. Those niggling nasty thoughts that I know are 100% irrational and unfounded were getting harder to ignore and despite me trying to block them from my mind I was feeling a bit overwhelmed, counting calories more assiduously than ever and feeling angry when the arbitrary numbers on the scale weren’t showing what I wanted to see. What SW and other weight loss schemes that control your food intake don’t prepare you for are the internal conversations that can happen inside your head.
It was overhearing a little girl say she shouldn’t have a slice of cake that hit me like a tonne of bricks and was the wake up call I needed to snap me out of my food funk. As I stood on the street, unable to comprehend what I had heard, I realised I was doing a disservice to myself by failing to practice what I have always preached so loudly.
The reason that little girl felt the need to say such a comment about a cake is sadly a stark reminder that we are still teaching young women that their only value in life is their outward appearance. It broke my heart to think that this little girl, and so many little girls everywhere, are being told subliminally and perhaps not so subliminally that their worth is measured by how their body looks. Young girls and women are constantly told that looking a particular way is desirable and if you aren’t fitting that expected vision of beauty then you aren’t valuable enough. This thought should make us all very angry. It is so darn wrong.
The power of hindsight is such a formidable, frustrating thing and I wish I could go back and tell that child that she is kind, good and important and that she is on this earth to achieve so much more than just being slim but I can’t. I also wish I could tell her mother the exact same thing.
The even more disappointing detail in this scenario is that her own mother remained silent. Maybe she didn’t hear her, maybe she is so used to hearing those sorts of comments she ignored her, maybe she herself was having a rubbish day and deciding if she should eat a cake or not.
Whatever her reason, I really wish she could have said something to her daughter.
We need to do better for our girls and I need to do better for myself. We aren’t born with a buzzer in our brains that rings out ‘YOU MUSTN’T EAT THAT CAKE BECAUSE IT IS NAUGHTY’.
This is a taught behaviour and we owe it to our fellow woman to ensure we call out the unhealthy phrases and expectations that diet culture has seeped into our society.
That little girl had heard a comment like that somewhere before so she repeated it. She felt she couldn’t just walk into a bakery and eat a cake without some form of guilt being associated with it. She was eight. If that isn’t a call to arms, I don’t know what is.
Last year I ran a workshop where I got young people to write on mirrors everything they are other than what you see. After the event, it turned out that one of the young people had decided to open up about how she felt about her body to a counsellor because of a conversation she had with ‘the H&M mirror lady’.
A short conversation had made her feel a little better about herself which was more than I could ever have hoped for when running the workshop.
I want to get back to being able to have those conversations with myself, remembering that my worth isn’t measured by the size of my waist and that I am always so much more than a number on a scale. If I can’t convince myself of this, how will I ever be able to convince others?
There ain’t no quick fix to this problem but a conversation can do the world of good. Teaching little girls that thinner isn’t better, that they are so much more than how they look and that food is only ever just food is a really good place to start.
I really hope that the bakery mum, after I had left the shop, realised what her daughter had said, had a really important conversation with her and they both enjoyed their afternoon together eating ALL the cake and laughing in the face of the patriarchy and anyone who says ‘you shouldn’t eat that.’ I really want that to be the end of this story.
I’m going to remember that little girl when I am next in a low moment and will make sure I call out those internal, negative BS thoughts for exactly what they are.
I can’t and won’t let Lizzo down again.
I for one will be telling any woman, this one included, that it is always best to have your cake and eat it too.