Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Dear Maria, Hayley, Fatima, Asli, Beatriz, Cassandra, Meagan, and all the other young girls who've asked me for help.

(This letter was originally published by BDC Wire. Here's a fuller version). 
I've been overwhelmed by thousands of messages of support from all over the world after my recent blog post about my experience of body-shaming was viewed over 220,000 times worldwide. The messages that pluck most insistently at my conscience are those I receive from girls as young as 12. I have three nieces: an 11-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 2-month-old. This is for them. 
Dear Maria, Dear Hayley, Dear Fatima, Asli, Beatriz, Cassandra, Meagan, and Katelyn. 
Dear Macie. Dear Phoebe. Dear Ava. 
Dear all of you. 
First of all, thank you so much for emailing me. It's a brave thing, to confide to a stranger that you're confused, or lonely, or unhappy. Sharing these concerns is the best way to get rid of them, but few people remember that (myself included). So again – thank you.
Secondly, just imagine we're chatting in a park, or at a bus stop, or at a birthday party. You see, in case you didn't know, I am in no way qualified to dispense advice to anyone. However, you took the time to write to me, so I will respond. If you really need to talk to someone proper, someone who knows how to help you if you need it, I've included some contacts at the end. 
Each of you ladies has written to me because you think you're “not normal”. Because you find it hard to make friends, or because you've never had a boyfriend and fear you never will because (exclusively because) of the way you look. You've written because you're afraid to take swimming lessons because of the bathing costumes. And you've asked me for advice on how to “make (your) body the kind that will attract boys.” 
You're writing to me (I think) because when a man tried to make me feel bad about my body, I responded with what I believe you refer to as a “mic-drop” moment. I told him off for imposing his views about my body upon me uninvited. I told him what it means when a man criticizes a woman's weight—it confirms the fear that every girl has (something that, sadly, your letters have confirmed): that it doesn't matter how funny you are, how clever, how kind, how loyal, how determined or adventurous or vibrant—if you're overweight, no one will ever fancy you. 
I am overweight. While this isn't ideal because it means I'm not at my best health-wise, it's nothing to be ashamed of. Your body should never, ever be a source of shame. Darling Girls: tuck these words into a pocket in your mind, so that you can pull them out and re-read them whenever you may need to. YOUR BODY SHOULD NEVER, EVER BE A SOURCE OF SHAME.  
You can decide you want to change your body for the better, as I have (I've lost 20 pounds by dramatically improving my diet and plan to lose 20 more). But taking care of your body doesn't mean you have to hurt it. It doesn't mean starving it, wearing it out, gorging that beautiful brain which you should be filling with books and art and driving lessons on identical, dead-eyed, alien images that insist that being white and skinny and never ever smiling is the only way for any woman to be of any worth.
Absolutely no good comes from hating your body. You must train yourself to love it. It is not an object, nor a commodity, nor is it a burden. It is not someone else's trophy. It's the only thing in this world that is yours and yours alone, and you only get one. FFS, girls (yes, I know the middle one means a swear word), love your body.
Sadly, there are people – rich, powerful people - who aim to make a lot of money from tricking you into thinking of your body as a source of shame. They'll tell you it's too big, too hairy, too pale, too dark, too muscly, or not muscly enough. There are individuals too, who will try to use this awful power to undermine you, to control and manipulate you. Do not let them. I hope that by starting an honest conversation with you now, you brave, smart girls, you'll have the tools to laugh at any and all attempts to undermine you. Challenge them. Outwit them. Show them your disdain for them. But above all, laugh at them. Then you'll have won. We ALL will have won.
Now, girls, I think I am going to give you a little advice, if I may. Find something you love and keep doing it. The world has so many beautiful, smart, enriching things to fill your head and your heart with: books and art and films, and activities like dancing, cooking, hiking, competitive spear fishing....
Try EVERYTHING. Start a band. Take photographs. Write a blog. Find out what you like and keep doing it.
In doing this, you'll meet people who share your passions. Some of those people will become your friends. A few may become something more, if that's what you both want. (I didn't have a proper boyfriend until I was 19—I know there's no point in me saying, "Don't worry about it," but please, don't worry about it.) 
One more thing: Absolutely no online dating until you're at least 25. I won't go into why. You're just going to have to trust me on this one.
Be smart and be kind, respect yourself and others, trust yourself, and take care of yourself, you clever, courageous girls. When I grow up, I want to be just like you.
Love,
Michelle xx