I am eight years old, standing with my mother in a Tunisian hammam. It is a female-only session and all around me are naked women of all ages, shapes and sizes. I see a small, grey-haired Tunisian women, her breasts large and extremely pendulous. “Mummy, why does that lady have breasts like that?” I ask, in the blunt manner of children. Instead of shushing me and hurrying us off, embarrassed, my mother explains that the lady has probably had a lot of babies, and has fed them with her breasts; isn’t that amazing? She whispers in awe that this is what happens after birthing and breastfeeding lots of children.
I have been told that my mother struggled with her own self-esteem and body image her entire life, but this is not how I remember her. I remember a confident, strong, uniquely beautiful woman who taught me from a young age that the female body is amazing and impressive; that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. My mother, tall and size 14, felt out of place and uncomfortable in her body, yet I don’t remember ever hearing her complain about her features – to me, she embraced her differences and celebrated others’.
When I was five, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, her prognosis not great. Over the following five years, she went through a number of chemo treatments, which caused her to lose her hair. I remember coming home from school and my parents had shaved my mum’s head – a pre-emptive strike against chemo I suppose – and I thought how cool my mum looked and what an interesting head shape she had. I also remember a boy in my class teasing me because my mum was bald – luckily, I’m my mother’s daughter, so instead of getting upset, I retorted, “Yes, she is bald – she has cancer.” That shut him up!
After her mastectomy, my mum had a sort of insert for her bra and swimming costumes so it wasn’t obvious that she had one breast. I remember seeing her pack it in our swimming bag one day and asking what it was for. She took the time to calmly explain, showed me her scar and told me why the surgeon had taken her breast (I was nice ). I cannot imagine how hard it was for her to have a breast removed while in her late 30s, but I never saw her struggle. She remained my beautiful, lovely, strong Mummy and it’s only now I have my own children that I start to see what that must have cost her.
Like most women, I struggle with my own body image. On the one hand, my body has grown, birthed, and nourished three children. On the other, my hips and thighs are huge and my stomach will never be the same again! I yearn for the body I had as a teenager, and curse my younger self for not appreciating a good thing while it lasted. I have good days and bad days, but the bad days have been more frequent since I had children and stopped having the time or motivation to make an effort with my appearance,
I am now just four years younger than my mother was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, something I think about often, and I know I’m lucky to have my health and fitness. On the days when I look in the mirror and think ‘yuck’, and there are many, I try to remember that day in the hammam. I recall the wonder in my mum’s voice as she talked about the things a woman’s body is capable of. I think about what my own body has been capable of. I don’t want my own daughter to hear me saying I’m fat, or frumpy, or that I hate my hair, because I don’t want those statements to become normal to her. I want to pass on what my mother taught me over and over again during our too-short time together – that her body is amazing, beautiful, and deserving of wonder. Just like her grandmother was.