The stories bodies tell SheSaid: No ‘Yummy Mummy’! Thoughts about the body messages we give and receive
No one can live free of powerful cultural messages about our bodies, embedded as they are in every aspect of American life. These struggles will own us if we resist naming them.
by Shannon Drury
An essay of mine, inspired by a childhood memory of hugging my mother's soft tummy, was published last April on HipMama.com. Sharing that memory with my mother 20 years later ended in disappointment, I wrote, for her reaction was shame, not tenderness. To her, the belly fat that gave her child comfort was a source of embarrassment, one so deep she couldn't fight past it to remember her daughter's love.
I don't blame her. I've put on weight lately, and now my young daughter has a soft playground of her own. She enjoys a good stomach squish whenever she can, and it takes a superhuman effort to allow her explorations, to fight the urge to push her loving hands away from my own source of shame.
I'm no longer the same size as when I wrote the column "Perfect Diet," published in these pages in July 2007. These last two years have tested my sanity like no others, with estrangement, serious illness and death all part of my reality. My body tells this story to anyone willing to hear it. Ironically, that 2007 column challenged the assumption that a thinner frame equaled health; everyone told me I looked fabulous when devastating jaw pain meant I couldn't eat.
Nowadays, I look for refuge from stress in the snacks I munch while streaming "30 Rock" on Hulu. My balance is off, I realize, but my body itself is fighting my efforts to right it: These 37-year-old knees aren't as excited about step class as they used to be. I remind myself that a certain amount of softness can't be that bad, but I don't believe myself any more than my mother did.
The chasm between the child's adoration of her mother's softness and that same mother's hatred of her own flesh provided the spark for the Hip Mama piece. If bodies tell stories, my own could speak to the way I was raised, and the different way I want to raise my children. I don't blame my parents, or their parents for that matter, for the accidents of genetics that left the family tree touched by chronic anxiety and depression. Even without this hurdle, no one can live free of powerful cultural messages about our bodies, embedded as they are in every aspect of American life. These struggles will own us if we resist naming them.
Today, I write columns at my desk, in a pose identical to the one I held in my fourth-grade classroom-the first time I remember sucking in my gut for acceptance. Today, my belly bumps up against the cherry wood beneath my computer and is significantly larger than the one I was teased about. Do I hate myself more or less? At 37, I have the twin gifts of wisdom and perspective, yet I also have 27 more years of Madison Avenue programming. When I don't fit into my 2007 pants, I listen to the judgments of the magazines before I honor my own body's story.
Making things worse is the fad of the "Yummy Mummy." Today, 50 is the new 40, is the new 30, and so on. Once upon a time, a woman up to her elbows in the work of raising little kids could reap at least one reward-a ticket off the body-hate treadmill. No more. Valerie Bertinelli claimed that Jenny Craig got her "bikini-ready" for People magazine, but in the accompanying article she admitted to starving herself in the seven days before the shoot, just in case. Valerie is 49, 30 years past what was once considered the anorexia danger zone. Her flat tummy even sports a perky little belly ring, driving home the message that to be the mother of an 18-year-old, you need to look like one.
It's hard enough to worry about your body in fourth grade, but age used to provide an exit strategy. In hindsight, I was naïve to think that my mother would welcome a memory based upon the roundness of her body, when voices so much louder than mine shout that her abs should be as tight as Madonna's. When I shared this memory with my mother, I wished to affirm our connection. As a mother myself, I have her softened shape to offer my own children. Instead, my mother affirmed a different connection-the sisterhood of shame. Both are inheritances we pass on to my daughter, Miriam, a girl who has just turned 4.
It's a burden far heavier, pound for pound, than anything physical.
Shannon Drury was recently voted MN NOW Feminist of the Year. She lives in Minneapolis with her family and is a self-described radical housewife.