Can mothers influence daughters on how they see themselves?
Elizabeth Venzin, 56, is founder of the MindShift Foundation and mother to Gina, 25, and Daniel, 31. She lives at Holland Park in Brisbane’s south with her partner. Gina is single, runs two Brisbane cafes and a restaurant, and lives at eastside Camp Hill.
My (late) mum Margaret Gimesy really was beautiful. She looked like (English actor and author) Dame Joan Collins, but for my (late) father she was never good enough. She was always criticised and I was always criticised. I was 22 when I got married. It was unhappy.
It’s only recently I’ve felt comfortable with who I am. When you’ve had (negative messages) from your childhood and your first marriage, it’s always in the back of your mind. It is a constant battle trying to reaffirm what’s important, what values you have, being healthy.
I’m passionate, strong-willed, healthy-ish. It’s about balance. It’s not about being skinny or being fat or any of those things. If you want to lose weight, make sure you’re doing it for you and not because your father, or your boyfriend or your partner, says you’re too fat.
When Gina was considering breast augmentation, I blamed myself. I told Gina how wonderful, how gorgeous she was, and then when she said she wanted cosmetic surgery it was like I had been hit by a lightning strike.
This just goes to show the influence of all these (societal) messages people are getting about what they need to do to be beautiful, when somebody like Gina would think she’s not beautiful enough and be happy to have plastic surgery.
We get emails like this at MindShift all the time, and we talk to kids about the horrendous effects of Facebook, Instagram, and people commenting. One young girl tried to commit suicide because she went to the beach with her friends and was fat-shamed. She’s about a size 12.
Everyone thinks they have a right to give everyone else their opinion. Social media is a whole new ball game, and parents need to teach children how to use it responsibly. We have to talk to our kids about what our values are. People have lost sight of what’s important in life.
Beauty comes from within; I know that’s a cliche. Beauty is somebody I can respect, somebody I can trust, being strong, being passionate about whatever they believe in.
Gina: (My body image) is healthy at the moment. I’m the most comfortable in my skin I’ve ever been. As you get older, you get more confident in yourself.
Between ages 16 to 24, I wasn’t happy. I was always skinny, but I didn’t feel skinny. I wanted to get breast implants, I wanted to wear makeup to hide.
Growing up, I was reading all the gossip magazines with all the celebrities and those beautiful images, and now with Facebook and Instagram. It’s all been filtered and Photoshopped. It’s the desire to look perfect when that perfect look is not even close to what people naturally look like. I try to log off (from social media) more these days.
The light-bulb moment came when I wanted to get my breasts augmented. I was booked in twice, paid two deposits, had the best surgeon. But Mum didn’t want me to get them. She was going through so much anxiety and I thought, I couldn’t be so selfish. Did I actually need this?
Beauty comes from inside, caring for other people, being kind. Even now I tell my friends when they see a hot guy, that hotness lasts a second until you start talking to him, and if he’s not nice, then he’s not hot any more. Or that
girl’s beautiful but then you might talk with her, find out she’s a bitch, and she’s not beautiful any more.
Confidence is being happy in yourself. Waking up in the morning and being happy in your own skin, and not feeling like you need to prove anything to anyone. If you’re not going to love me for the way I am, you don’t need to be part of my life.
Dr Helen Vidgen, 45, dietitian and senior research fellow with Queensland University of Technology’s PEACH healthy lifestyle program, lives in Mansfield, in Brisbane’s south, with husband Pat, 46, their daughters Gabriella, 15, and Amelie, 13, and dog Monte.
The girls and I talked about this, and we don’t think about body image very much. For 20 years I’ve been talking to people about obesity and body weight, with the focus always on the health outcomes, on healthy eating and physical activity, and what your body looks like as a consequence, as opposed to the focus.
With the girls and with my own body, it’s the same – though keeping a balance of those things is really hard, especially when life gets busier.
Would we feel comfortable if you said today you wanted us all to have a photo taken in our underwear? Probably not. We all think about how we like to present ourselves, what suits us, what suits our body type, what suits our colouring, what type of image we want to give to the world. That’s probably more about your sense of self, rather than trying to look like someone else.
I’ve got a positive body image. I would describe myself as healthy and empowered. The reason I use the word “empowered” is because some representations of women (in media) don’t particularly show an empowered woman.
It’s an ongoing dialogue we have in our family because there are often incidents that come up (for example, on social media). When your body is changing, and adolescence is always a pretty awkward stage, you’re more vulnerable to thinking you need to be more perfect than you are.
If there’s a message as a nutrition professional, it is that you can be healthy at any size. Being overweight and obese are definitely high risks of disease, but the focus is on what you’re eating and how active you are, whether you’re smoking, drinking, taking drugs, all that kind of stuff – the rest will follow.
Your body is functional before it is decorative. That really kicked in when I was in labour and breastfeeding. You’re absolutely functional. There’s nothing decorative. And maybe this happens, too, when you have your first heart attack or are diagnosed with diabetes.
Amelie, 13: I’m in grade seven. I like maths, science and HPE (health and physical education). I’ve been thinking about becoming a physiotherapist, but I’m not really sure yet what I’ll do.
I quite enjoy sport, so I play netball, touch football and I often do cross-country running, things like that at school. The main exercise I do regularly is walking Monte.
Body image is the way you think of the way you look, the way you present yourself. My body image is fine. No one’s perfect, so I’m happy with mine. I’m healthy, active.
(My friends and I) don’t really feel any pressure to look a certain way. I’d rather be the person you’d think of as a polite person than someone who dresses really stylish.
If someone is described as beautiful, I think more about their personality, like they’re a kind, caring person. That would be my first instinct, not the way they look.
I do have Instagram. Recently I posted a photo of our netball team; I did a touch team one, and I’ll sometimes post when we’re at a funky cafe, drinking something out of a jar. There are never photos just of me (selfies).
The celebrities I admire are more for things they’ve done, so it’s (Queensland Firebirds netball captain) Laura Geitz and (American musician) Taylor Swift.
Gabriella, 15: I’m in grade nine. I think I’d like to do something with engineering, but I don’t really have a good idea at the moment. I do a bit of everything – ballet, netball and debating. I don’t think about body image that much, but I guess mine is positive, healthy. It’s starting to come up more often now I’m older.
Maybe like clothes and stuff, what looks good. Me and my friends often plan ahead what we’re going to wear.
Nicole Brown, 21, is a model with Vivien’s Models and a qualified personal trainer. An only child, she lives with mum Wendy, 54, an intensive-care unit nurse at Redcliffe Hospital, and dad Terry, 57, a diesel mechanic, at Narangba, also north of Brisbane.
I’m a string bean, just up and down. When people call me “skinny” I automatically think I’m skin and bones; that one word can take my confidence in a blink of an eye.
It takes a really long time to accept this is how my body structure is. I always looked at other girls growing up, thinking I want to look like that, I want to have a bigger bust size and I want to have these curves that everyone talks about, but at the end of the day that’s not realistic.
I enjoy working out and I enjoy food. I’m a big foodie. I try to cook, but I like just going out and trying new things.
I tried modelling because everyone was saying I would be good at it. I decided I would go into an agency, ask the question. Next thing you know I’m signing a contract and falling in love with modelling! ( laughs).
I get to meet a lot of different and creative people you wouldn’t necessarily meet every day. I love that it is its own little community, and we all come together to build each other up. I’m never compared to another model on the board. It’s me, I’m Nicole, I’m my own brand and I’m my own person.
(Body confidence is) just something you really have to work on, and it’s something that comes with age. Beauty is being genuine. Inner beauty is more beautiful than someone who can look good without makeup, or who looks good in makeup and a really nice dress.
You can be the prettiest person on the outside but really kind of ugly and mean on the inside, and then that 180s everything that people think about you.
Wendy: I grew up in Liverpool (an outer western suburb of Sydney, NSW), the eldest of three girls. I can’t remember that we even considered (body image). We were who we were and that was it. I don’t think there was that same emphasis on being something that you weren’t.
My mum always looked nice – you didn’t leave the house unless your hair was good, and you always had a can of hairspray and a hair brush in your handbag. She made you feel like you were this amazing person, one who could do anything. Especially her girls – her daughters and granddaughters.
At the moment my body image is not good, because I know I’m overweight. I quit smoking two years ago, after 20-odd years. I feel better, healthier, but it’s just that I’ve taken one addiction and replaced it with another. And I’m basically lazy ( laughs).
You get to a stage and think, this is how I am. Yes, I can probably do a bit more, and I will try to do that, but hell, this is me. It’s not that I don’t care, I’m just a little more accepting as I age.
When Nic was 15 she got really quite sick – she had fluid around her heart and developed a heart murmur – and she lost a hell of a lot of weight. That has actually helped her, as far as the way she looks at herself, because she has seen herself extremely thin. That really showed her that the way she looks now, that is a healthy-looking body.
When she was getting better, we’d walk to the shops and back, because that was a form of exercise she could do. There were some kids she went to school with who said she was anorexic, that’s why she wasn’t at school, and I know that played on her mind.
Nic’s come through a hell of a lot and I think she’s been spat out the other side quite well.
Other people were concerned when she started modelling but I really wasn’t that perturbed. When she started, Nicole was this speak-only-when-spoken-to little thing who didn’t have a voice and didn’t have an opinion.
Now Nicole has an opinion. She will tell you what that opinion is at every opportunity, and she’s just got so much confidence it’s not funny.
She floors me sometimes, absolutely floors me.
These Brisbane girls/young women and their mothers are learning to live with their body shapes. Pictures ( clockwise from opposite page): Tim Marsden, Richard Waugh, David Kelly
Sudanese Muslim community development worker Faiza ElHigzi, 50, lives at Sunnybank Hills, in Brisbane’s south, with husband Midhat Abdel-Magied, a migration agent, and son Yasseen, 21, who is studying aviation mechanical engineering. The family came to Australia from Sudan when daughter Yassmin Abdel-Magied, now a 24-year-old engineer on offshore oil rigs and 2015 Queensland Young Australian of the Year, was two.
When we were young (in Sudan) the ideal body image was about being full and curved, for a woman, because that reflected your social and economic status. In a developing country if you don’t have money you’re scrawny and malnourished. If you’re full and fat – if I can use that term – then you’re wealthy, you’re economically secure.
Now, women of my generation are more conscious of their weight and we don’t see that obsession of women wanting to put on weight. As Muslim women wearing the hijab, we don’t wear a swimming suit to the beach, so really we don’t have to worry about having a tummy or backside.
The mother-and-daughter conversations (with my mum, Sayda Eljindi, and in turn with Yassmin) were more about how you dress, how you present yourself and how you conduct yourself in society; that was more important than what weight you are or how does your body look.
Yassmin: (How I see my body) is relatively positive. I started going to the gym and lifting weights when I was 12. I’ve always been someone who’s very proud of the fact they can handle themselves. That is not considered feminine in Sudan. For me it’s understanding that what society tells me doesn’t necessarily have to be right. It’s accepting the fact I don’t fit the social norms, but I look at that as an opportunity as opposed to something that makes me feel less confident.
There’s that level of internal dialogue about, as a self-aware, well-educated woman, how much it is OK to care about my body, because on one hand you don’t want to be the person that’s wrapped up in their physicality but at the same time you don’t necessarily want to “let yourself go”, either. Is it just a case that if you’re feeling fit and comfortable, that’s fine?
(Working in a male-dominated industry) has actually been the best thing ever for my body image ( laughs). In a really warped way, it just made me super comfortable with who I was. It doesn’t matter to these guys what I look like, so why should it matter to me?
(On the rigs) I never wear makeup, all you have is a 20cm by 20cm mirror, so you forget what you look like. The only gauge of your size is how your clothes fit, and you’re wearing overalls so they’re super-loose anyway. You just don’t think about your body, so in a way that’s been part of me learning to embrace who I am as a woman.
NICOLE & WENDY
GINA & ELIZABETH
GABRIELLA, HELEN & AMELIE
FAIZA & YASSMIN Faiza El-Higzi ( left) and daughter Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Picture: Annette Dew