"Wow. I don’t need to be a supermodel or be perfect to help my daughter feel good about her body." These words are what Dara Chadwick wants her readers to take away from this book. These are also somewhat tragic words, for they reflect a prevailing neurosis in our society. Why would a little girl need to be reassured about something so self evident? The dominant discourse in the media reinforces notions of beauty and health expressed as super thinness as ideal for women, for sure, but there is much more to it than this. Women have passed down the generations, daughter to daughter, introjects ("shoulds") about thinness being more valued than intelligence or moral responsibility. Chadwick’s own mother used to say, "The first rich blind man through the door is mine," implying both a depreciation of her looks and a suggestion that a man with money, blind to her looks, could easily supersede her own husband, to say nothing about the implicit sense of competition in the man-getting stakes of mother and daughter.
This is a culture where one of the most essential things of life, eating, is fraught with guilt and shame; where simple desire and enjoyment is then immediately obliterated with self disgust and even purging. This is a female culture of self hate and it seems very common in the Western world.
Chadwick locates the uneasiness that women have about their own bodies in the domestic milieu of growing up with mothers who are uncomfortable in their own skin. This is the book’s strength, and paradoxically its weakness as well. The author reiterates her experiences growing up with her mother and her own experiences with her daughter providing a strong ground to her argument, yet giving, I believe, insufficient weight to the way culture in media and oral story told by men and women alike shapes how we individual embody our world.
Deprivation also tells a different story. The focus Chadwick gives to the mothering of daughters was something outside my own experience. I had a different story: a mother who nearly starved in post-revolution Russian and was somewhat obsessed with good fresh food and its enjoyment (not fast food) and this is what was imparted to me. I was also aware from a young age, and critically as well, of media propaganda, and had a sense too, of cultural meanings attached historically to ideas of womanhood, so I didn’t "buy" one account of femaleness as ascribed solely to shape. I mention this only to highlight my contention that Chadwick’s statement about the universality of the female neurosis about food arising, practically exclusively, in the mother-daughter relationship is too simple.
It is understandable that the current book’s interest is in this mother-daughter relationship, given that it arose from Chadwick’s concern about her daughter as she, as mother, participated in an in-magazine weight loss program. Chadwick was chosen to keep a diary about her loss of weight for Shape magazine, throughout 2007, and her entries were published. She found she had to deliberately take aside her daughter and actively speak of the process lest the little one get a distorted view of femaleness. Part of this process was studying media images and showing how woman’s bodies are substantially photographically altered.
We are deeply influenced by our mothers, but our fathers also shape our view of ourselves and our world. Growing up, though, is more than the attitudes of our parents shaping us in how we view ourselves. There is influence from a complexity of directions. Our family’s values are not inevitably and unconsciously assimilated -- there are bits and pieces actively spat out in reference to our values expressed elsewhere in our culture. The danger lies in families that uncritically engage with the society in which they live and close off as invalid, for whatever reason, other cultural expressions. This idea is not completely lacking in the book under review, but insufficient is made of it. As a result the one-tracked account of mother-daughter cultural transmission of unhealthy self image tends to be repeated rather too often throughout this book.
Apart from this critique, this is a book that should be read to raise awareness among mothers to what they impart to their daughters, in words and deeds (drinking diet sodas instead of sharing in the deliciousness of ice-cream on a family excursion, or gazing into random mirrors to check on the fit of a dress).
© 2010 Elizabeth McCardell
Elizabeth McCardell, BA, BA (Hons), M. Counselling, PhD, Independent scholar, Australia.