I’ve always had a complex relationship with my body. From shame to self loathing, from self depreciation to overindulgence, it’s been a never ending cycle of not feeling good enough. Not slim enough, not healthy enough, not styled enough.
I am sure like many other mothers, my body changed dramatically after having my children. I didn’t ‘snap back’ or even come close to the shape and size I was before I held those babies so intimately within my womb. There is a deep rooted beauty with every line and stretch, every layer of unwanted skin, and it all reminds me of the blessings Allah has bestowed upon me, of the life that he allowed me to grow and nourish. There is no doubt that our bodies and their miraculous abilities are a testament to Allah’s power and the intricacies of His creation. However, despite knowing this and feeling grateful, human nature clouds our better judgement and we can often be left feeling less than inadequate.
My body became home to my deepest insecurities, it became a vessel that I filled thoughtlessly when I was unable to process my emotions. It became something I was ashamed of, that I covered not just out of a desire to be modest, but out of embarrassment. The worse I felt, the more I abused it, the more I talked down to it, the more I hid behind it. I was so enveloped in motherhood itself, trying desperately to raise conscious children. But whilst trying to pave the way for them to live wholesome lives, I did not realise the extent to which I was negatively influencing them. It was not until I found my seven year old daughter crying as she looked at her reflection in the mirror, that I realised the impact my own body issues were having on her. Her words echoed many thoughts that I had clearly voiced out loud. “I feel fat, I feel ugly, I don’t like the way I look.” I could hardly believe the words that were falling from her mouth at such a tender age. But then I considered what she had witnessed through those influential years, not just the negative self-talk but the onslaught of visual messaging that she (and I) had been exposed to everyday. The scantily clad girls and women, the questionable clothing options available in the shops, the adverts on the sides of buses of shapely legs and botoxed faces. For Muslim girls in the West this is an even greater challenge because no matter how much they may learn about respecting their body and covering for the sake of Allah, they are surrounded by a societal maze that communicates a different view of a woman’s worth.
As a mother of three girls I realised I had so much work to do, if I was going to help them build a strong sense of self esteem in relation to their body, I needed to show them the importance of respecting what Allah has given us. I needed to show them how to be at peace with their unique physical appearance and to take heed of their internal strengths rather than seeking validation from their beauty and their body. As with most of these lessons that we hope to instill in our children, this one, more than ever, had to begin with me. Not surprisingly, most conversations concerning a girl’s body occur between mother and daughter. But how can we teach our daughters to love their bodies when we haven’t even learnt to love our own? Gone are the days where children are raised within extended families, surrounded by tribes and groups of women with a range of different body types. Often it is now us and them, behind the walls of our own homes, comparing ourselves to an endless array of seemingly perfect images, whilst scrutinising our every crevice.
We may see our daughters as separate individuals, but it is inevitable that we will project our personal experiences onto our daughters. It is such a fine line between supporting and empowering our girls. We live in an extremely weight conscious society and children already know when we see them as over or underweight, they know when we are pressuring them or when there is a hidden agenda behind the words that we say. However, we need to enable our daughters to feel free to initiate conversations about their bodies and we need to be in a place with our own body image to engage in those conversations with warmth and love, not judgement and shame.
Alongside what we say, we need to consider what we do and how we can create a lifestyle that is conducive to maintaining a healthy body. This can be a challenge if we are not even there yet ourselves, but it isn’t impossible and nor should we give up hope. If we remind our daughters (and ourselves) daily that Allah has entrusted us with our body, He has gifted it to us for a period of time and when it is returned back to Him, it will testify against us regarding how we treated it. Our religion should be a motivation for improving our lifestyle, to better ourselves for His sake, to please Him so we can be in the best of health in order to worship Him. This continuous reminder is a gift that we give to ourselves and also to our daughters.
I am on this journey alongside you, through the pain of facing my own distorted sense of body image and through the work I still need to do. But it’s so important that we create space to have these dialogues, to unpick the difficult things that need our attention within the context of our deen and within the support structures of our sisterhood.
Join me in Part Two of this series, where we will look at some ways in which we can encourage our daughters to adopt a healthy association with their bodies through different ages, environments and contexts.
If this is a topic that you can resonate with – Keep an eye out this week for the launch of Shelina Janmohamad’s brand new book, ‘BeYOUtiful. This is NOT a book about what to wear, how to put on make-up or pose for a photo. This is a book about what it means to be beautiful. It will teach you how to decide FOR YOURSELF what beauty really is, and give you the superpower to say, “I’m beautiful!” – and mean it!
Funny, inspirational and from the heart, BeYOUtiful is full of practical tips on how to feel positive about the way you look. It breaks down why images you might see around you aren’t always what they seem and gives advice on how to navigate social media. You can also discover how ideas of beauty vary around the world from culture to culture and through history. Explore how people’s opinions and ideas are shaped by others and read real–life stories of amazing women.
Sarah is a freelance writer, social media manager and homeschooling mama to three girls. On her personal blog she loves to reflect on the raw, unspoken sides of motherhood. She is passionate about alternative education, creative arts and the transformative and healing power of spoken and written words.