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Archive for the ‘Body image’ Category

Naked in Berlin

Display on nudism in the former East Germany. DDR Museum Berlin, by Karl Gunnarsson

It’s ladies day at the sauna in my local gym in East Berlin and I’m almost mesmerized by the amount of flesh on show. I’ve found myself sharing the small wooden enclosure with three elderly East German ladies all of whom are blessed with ham-like thighs and the most impressively enormous pendulous breasts.

The women are nattering away as I slink in and soon draw me into their conversation. They tell me about growing up in the area and how much it has changed. They all worked as nurses and in their day they had no time for hanging out in cafes with their strollers like all the current trendy mums in the hood. I nod and smile and sweat, all the time slightly mortified because I am Irish and NAKED IN FRONT OF STRANGERS.

It’s something I’ve had get used to in a city where people whip off their clothes willy-nilly. In saunas, at the gym, badminton courts, the parks, a friend even reported seeing someone wearing just a purse and flip-flops in a shop, the Germans are happy to let it all hang out, no matter what the size or shape. In the summer you can barely go a week without encountering a bronzed-to- within-an inch- of-leather figure coming at you.

Coming from a nation that should get a prize for the ability to put on swimsuits with one hand while clinging for dear life to the corners of a towel with the other, this can be a traumatic encounter. And eventually there is little choice but to join in. Never mind the bratwurst and the biergartens, the sign of true integration is being able to get naked with the Germans.

And far from being some kind of army of extras in a Leni Riefenstahl film, they are not really that dissimilar from us. A bit taller, a bit less pear-shaped, not quite so pasty, but they have scar tissue, purple veins and knobbly knees too and the weight of gravity works as much on their breasts and buttocks as on the rest of us.

It’s just something they have no absolutely no self-consciousness about. Nudism has been something of a cause in Germany since the 19th century and in the 20s became associated with all kinds of utopian ideals. FKK, Freiekörperkulutur (free body culture) is as ingrained as having mayonnaise with your chips or a strange obsession with white asparagus.  In the former East it was particularly popular, a sort of escape from the preponderance of uniforms, pins and badges that declared one’s loyalty to the communist regime. In nudity everyone truly was equal.

Public disrobing has become easier over time. It is simply quicker and easier to perform a clean strip at the swimming pool or sauna than all that rigmarole of hiding the bits that everyone else is displaying so nonchalantly. And the city is also full of great Turkish baths where you hang about semi naked for hours, popping in and out of the saunas and steam rooms and sipping mint tea. No one is batting an eyelid so in the end you don’t too much yourself, at least not too much. Somewhere the Catholic schoolgirl within is still uncomfortable with so much brazenness.

My first real plunge was back in the mid 90s. I shared a ramshackle flat with two other Irish lasses in the former East. The toilet was out on the landing and there was no bathroom but for a few blessed months the contraption of a shower that had been erected in our kitchen worked fine. It took half an hour to heat up the water in the tank per shower, and we often had another 3 or 4 people sleeping on our floor, but that was what mornings were for, to sit around drinking tea and coffee and talking about maybe looking for a job as a cleaner that afternoon… or tomorrow… or next week.

Then the shower broke and our neighbour downstairs came to the rescue. Martin, an East Berliner, had the luxury of a bachelor pad all to himself, though this consisted of one room, with open plan kitchen and shower. I didn’t know Martin that well, I had arrived to the city later than the other two and had managed to avoid this exhibitionist cleansing ritual by having a boyfriend not too far away with a tremendously fabulous bathroom. Then me and the fella sort of split up and it was perhaps the white tiles, the gleaming taps and the shower nozzle that I missed the most.

So off I trudged to Martins with my towel and shampoo and not a little trepidation. He flung back the door, wearing his tie-dyed t-shirt and a bleary-eyed look from too much of something, and pottered back to his armchair to listen to dub music; Martin only ever listened to dub music. Here goes, I thought. I quickly shed my clothes on the floor, hopped into the shower unit and had the fastest soap and scrub known to womanhood, before shoving on my clothes again, grunting Danke and running back upstairs.

A few hours later my flatmate came back from her own shower hooting with laughter. “You stripped in front of bloody Martin!”  “Er, yes isn’t that what you guys have been doing?” She snorted in disbelief. Oh no, like the demure well-brought up ladies they were, they always brought an extra towel to hang over the side of the shower, shielding them from their host’s gaze

From then on Martin was a lot friendlier to me, not in a creepy way, just in a way that implied acceptance and respect. That said: Hey, Mädel, you are one of us now.

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Came across this project when someone tweeted about it recently: the Look At Me! project. Based at the Department of Sociological Studies at The University of Sheffield, it aims to harness the power of the creative arts to transform the way society views older women.

This project uses a variety of visual methods to enable older women in Sheffield to represent their own experiences of ageing.

Useful? Interesting? Any thoughts?

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Get your body beach ready! Get your bikini body now!
What? Why? My body IS beach ready thank-you, lumps, pale skin, wobbly bits and all. I just want to swim, not to enter Ms South Beach. I’m not going out there to titillate the surfers. I simply want to build an enormous moat with the kids, skim perfect pebbles, and maybe look for interesting critters in the rock pools.
What I do want though is a new swimsuit. No, actually I want genuine fullblown swimming costumery, preferably Victorian, something that ends at my knees, that blooms over my bumps, that shovels up the ole boobs into a grand shelf and hides at least some of my sins.
I want to be comfortable.
I want it in stripes.
I want.

What I really want (from a 1950s Vogue photo shoot) only in Lycra, with support panels please.

I suspect Nigella Lawson wanted the very same when she tossed her languid, luscious self into the ocean off Australia dressed from head-to-toe (quite literally) in a startlingly unflattering black burqini. You’ve seen the photos taken by the paparazzi she was doubtless trying to avoid: our lovely Nigella plopped about in the waves looking remarkably like a clumsy sea lion with her button nose and shiny black roundy body, and I sighed in deepest sympathy, along with thousands of women on the curvy-to-morbidly-obese spectrum the world over.
Nigella, I feel your pain. I don’t want to prance about on the beach in the equivalent of Lycra underwear either.

Hold on a sec though: did I say I want a new swimsuit? Actually, I want a swimsuit full stop, with no “new” about it, for I currently don’t own one. Several years of swimwear shopping trauma, changing-room rage and scuttling to the water in baggy T-shirts worn over whatever I can borrow have brought me to this sorry point.
See, swimwear is not made for women like me and Nigella, women with hips and thighs and, dare I say, real-life labia. Swimwear is all bikinis and tankinis, with tummy-tucking ruching and breast-hoiking cups for those jugs, but I have yet to find a cossie for the classic pear: smallish on top but abundant down below. Equally, there’s nothing out there for the Nigellaesque hourglass either, unless she’s a size eight.

Nigella's burqini

The hot-pant style often suggested to us pears simply cuts straight through the meaty hip-thigh circumference like a rubber band, causing the sections above and below the elastic to bulge much like a squeezed balloon. The legs (often dumpy on a pear) are foreshortened, the bum oozes out and the body is often too short (we pears are long-trunked). Trying on a longer body and bigger size means the straps are too long and sad little boobs are left stranded, a couple of floppy fish sagging in spandex.
You can get two-pieces that are meant to do the job, with high-waisted bottoms to marshall the gut and a cute, padded bikini top — handy because two-pieces can be ordered in separate sizes for each half — but again, the bottom cuts straight through the leg at its widest point. There are great 1940s and 50s styled swimsuits out there too, but I just look squat in them all.

So I want a modern take on a Victorian swimsuit, only body-fitted, and with Lycra and support. All my friends want one too. It must end at my knees, lift my boobs, support my tummy and not go transparent when it hits the water. A cute frill (sewn down so it doesn’t billow in the water) or a bit of ruffle is optional. It must fit a size ten on the top and a size twelve… okay… size fourteen at the bottom, with a long body.
I have scoured the internet. The closest I’ve come so far is a picture of a cartoon hippopotamus doing ballet. It’s either that or a wetsuit.

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Pic: Fly on Gorse by Maura McHugh

Adverts on the telly are like flies in the garden – you know they are part of the ecosystem but mostly they irritate the hell out of you despite your attempts to cultivate a Buddhist policy of compassion for everything. Sometimes you just want to crush the blighters out of existence.

Nothing knocks me off the track to spiritual enlightenment more than beauty products adverts on the telly targeted at women. These adverts create a glamorous illusion containing a lie that you too can look that way as long as you buy product X. Despite the fact that they’re asking you to identify with underfed waifs, while tricking them out with the help of the best make-up, stylists and hairdressers known in the PR world.

This image of physical perfection has always been difficult to live up to, but at least in the past the myth was achieved using real products, along with ace lighting, a catchy song and savvy direction. Over the ten years advertisers have been employing a battalion of crack CGI geeks to spruce up every pixel. Eyelashes are impossibly long and clump-free, hair shines with elven luminescence and wrinkles are non-existent. Thighs are long and firm, teeth are even and whiter than our disappearing polar ice caps and skin tone is lightened with appalling regularity.

When employing these effects advertisers are lying. There is nothing a woman can do to look that good. Worse still – and this is the part that crooks my dharma – is that the advertisements admit they are lying. In fine, hard-to-read print along the bottom you’re told ‘eyelashes enhanced in post production’ or ‘natural hair extensions used’. When outrageous claims are made about how much women love the product you discover that it’s actually 30 out of 38 women, drunk at a hen party, who concur that it reduces wrinkles on a night out. They don white coats and babble pseudo-science, hoping the graphics will mesmerise you long enough so you won’t notice the actual statistics quoted underneath.

Not only are the advertisers acknowledging their falsehoods, but they expect you to buy the product anyway. It’s been my policy now never to buy a product that employs these tactics. But I wonder, do advertisers think women are stupid? The answer must be yes, judging the way they pitch products to us.

After all, apparently we’d love to videotape our hair swishing and upload it to a web site. That’s what girls love, don’t you know: preening and competing with one another online. Every time I see that ad I want to hammer a fly into oblivion.

Here’s a video of a fabulous sketch from That Mitchell and Web Look, which in less than a minute deconstructs how advertisers pitch their products to women (and compares it to how they are pitched to men).

Don’t believe the hype ladies. Better still, don’t buy the hype.

Maura McHugh is a writer and blogger who lives in the West of Ireland and is happy to call herself a feminist. She’s a geek and a fan of horror cinema and comic books so she long ago developed a thick skin about not conforming to ‘normal’ womanly interests. She also likes fashion and make-up, but not when it costs her peace of mind. Maura blogs at http://splinister.com/ and is on Twitter: @splinister

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It came out of the blue. At a family Sunday lunch in a local trattoria, my eight year old daughter made an announcement; “I want to be a thin girl”.

Her dad and I exchanged significant glances. Where was this coming from? Food, weight and dieting have never been an issue in our house. We own a set of scales but they spend most of their time covered in dust. We all love food and have been visiting restaurants regularly as a family since the children were babes in arms. They eat everything, from Chinese dim sum to big bowls of mussels on holiday in France. We encourage healthy eating but are not puritanical about treats, and have never forced them to finish everything on their plates.

Not something an eight year old should be doing

The thing is, she is a thin girl. She’s tall for her age, slim and, most important of all, healthy. The last thing I want is for her to start obsessing about food or feeling guilty about eating the things she enjoys.

Slightly floored by her declaration, I told her that she is already a perfect size. “But I want to be thinner” she replied. At this point I felt like shouting “Where are you getting these stupid notions?” My mind was racing. What is she hearing at school? Is it the American teenage comedies she watches on TV? Or is her desire to take up less space in the world the inevitable outcome of being surrounded by images of ridiculously thin models and celebrities? I bit my tongue and just told her that if she carries on dancing, cartwheeling and rollerblading she’ll be fine.

We moved on to other topics of conversation and she happily finished off her pasta and ice cream cone. No need to worry then – for the moment at least.

(Photo by puuikibeach on Flickr)

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When I was little and we got the giggles in ballet class, the teacher told one of the big girls off for saying we had laughed so hard that we “literally hosed ourselves”.
We hadn’t, obviously.
But then we hadn’t had sex, been pregnant, given birth to children, or had hysterectomies yet either. Nowadays, one in four of us probably do “literally hose ourselves” every time we get the giggles. It kind of robs the joy out of life. We also hose ourselves if we try to sneeze and walk at the same time, or if we shout at our offspring, the very offspring who popped our poor bladders into our vaginas when the ingrates were in utero, ever after rendering us vaguely incontinent, then adding to the mortification by demanding we jump on the trampoline.

Oh, that'd be nice...

Jump? God knows, even dancing is getting embarrassing. Perhaps that’s why so few gals over 30 are found in night clubs: it’s not that we’re too tired, but that we’re scared of piddling a little while in the clutches of the boogie-monster. No one wants to be the old lady in the night club smelling faintly of wee and broken biscuits.
And as for exercise, if another gym bunny yells “cardio” at me I’ll scream. That’s why all my workout sweatpants are black. You try jogging with your bladder dripping every step you take. You try the step machine when every ten strides needs a change of knickers and a change of gyms too due to the sheer shame of it all. One optimistic bunny insisted we go outside to do some leapy little sidesteps. Did I say leapy? Should have said leaky…
“You obviously never did your pelvic floor exercises,” she said haughtily.
“I’m doing them as we speak,” I snarled back. I’ve been doing them ever since I gave birth at the age of 19, and then again at 27, and all the way through that second pregnancy, particularly after staying with a physiotherapist aunt who reminded me constantly, saying I’d be sorry if I didn’t.
A friend with four children of her own said memories of me post-birth had ensured she still does her own merry Kegels every day — she recalled how every time I stopped at a red traffic light I’d shout “Pelvic floors, ladies”, and we’d all start squeezing. I did it at traffic lights when on my own too, and sometimes I even did it at green lights for good measure. I did it, oh yes, and I still do

But for what? To be in my thirties and unable to run, or jump, or even dance with any feeling? To be terrified of tickling contests with my bloke or playful rugby tackles and bear hugs from my boys?
I never spoke about it because how could I? I didn’t want to tell the people I love that sudden movement makes me wet myself. I’d rather be on a pedestal than in the litterbox, and what woman wouldn’t?
I finally mentioned it to my doctor who said “pelvic floor exercises” then looked at me knowingly when I protested that I did, that I do, that I can (sort-of) stop my urine mid-flow so I know I’m pulling the right muscles. “Keep practising,” she said very unhelpfully, because if 20 years of traffic light Kegeling ain’t helped yet, then it ain’t going to, frankly.

The forecast is wet.


So I looked into it, and that’s when I discovered the one-in-four figure and realised I was not all alone in a corner with the old ladies, air freshener and a maxi-bag of incontinence pads. No, instead I am in the esteemed company of numerous mothers — whether they’d given birth by Caesarian or naturally, because it’s the hefty baby in the womb that juggles the bits down below. I am also in the company of hysterectomy patients, prolapse sufferers, and both overweight people and serious sportswomen (it’s the bouncing again, the hardcore gym-bunny bouncing!).
It seems to be a flaw in the very design and manufacture of women, and a mortifying one at that. Are you listening, God, because I’m shaking my fist, gently though so as not to pee myself?
Apparently, tragically one of the main reasons old women end up in nursing homes is incontinence.

 

But is it actually fixable? I don’t know. I know you can have an operation. I know it’s not always successful, and if it fails it’s not easily repeatable. I know online there are countless pelvic floor toners. I know they offer results in anything from two to twelve weeks. I know I bought one based on positive reviews, and it arrived on Monday, all parcelled up in surreptitious brown paper. I know it takes batteries and comes with a probe and now I know it makes me squeak if I set the power too high.
Yes, I am trying to fix my fanny by electrocuting it.
Bet that made everyone squeeze the old pelvic floor…
I’ll let you know how it goes, or maybe you’ll just hear my whoops of joy as a bounce ever higher on the trampoline.

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I have two daughters aged nine and nearly seven.  And I think they’re gorgeous.

That’s all the validation I need – my own Mammy-eyes, which would view my children as gorgeous no matter what they looked like.

I don’t need to enter them in pageants for strangers to assess them and decide whether or not my two measure up to some one else’s notion of beautiful.

It seems, however, that one woman is of the opinion that there are enough parents in Ireland who disagree with me for her to make a few bob. This woman, Jorja Gudge, is hoping to bring a beauty pageant for girls under the age of 18 to Ireland next month.

Entitled ‘Miss Princess Ireland’ this pageant is slated to take place on April 30th in Dublin. According to Ms Gudge,

‘There will be three rounds which are; Sportswear this is any sporting wear (with a glitz touch). It  could be dance wear, swimwear, football, gymnastics etc… any sport at all.’

Leaving aside the fact that I don’t think dancing is a sport, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of young girls parading in sports wear – whether or not said sportswear has a ‘glitz touch’.  Virtually all sportswear is form-fitting and skimpy.  I don’t think it’s appropriate for little girls to be dressed in bikinis or leotards and paraded in front of strangers who will then grade them on how beautiful they are.

Wearing form-fitting sportswear for actually playing sport is, of course, a completely different matter.  I am happy to acknowledge that not all  sports outfits that are form-fitting, but I’d be willing to bet that any child turning up in a tracksuit won’t win a prize.

Next up in this pageant is what Ms Gudge calls ‘wow’ wear/ outfit of choice. This can be ‘anything at all – fashion wear, occasion wear, fancy dress or theme wear.’

This is a bit vague, but I’d guess that the idea is to dress your girl in her most eye-catching gúna and hope she catches the eyes of the judges.

Last of all will be formal wear. Formal wear for children sounds innocuous enough – it makes me think of lovely summery flower girl dresses from Monsoon, but I don’t think that’s what Ms Gudge means. I googled ‘Beauty Pageants for Children’ and got lots of very disturbing images of little girls in flouncy, tacky, meringue-y, dresses that were obviously styled along the lines of ball gowns for women.

‘Also make up, hair pieces, tans etc are all permitted as this is a glitz pageant, but I will leave the decision to you on which level of glitz you decide to use,’ the organiser tells me.

Again, this is disturbing, because it implicitly tells children that they are not good enough or acceptable just the way they are. Why on earth would anyone want to use make-up, hair pieces or tans on their children in an attempt to win an ‘American-style crowns, sashes and tiaras’? What does that do to the self-esteem of participants?

When they grow up, how will these girls view themselves? Their sense of themselves, surely, will be very extrinsic? Surely, their confidence – instead of being bolstered will be damaged? And what is the use of telling a child that their worth is based purely on how they look – or how they can make themselves look by the addition of chemicals and synthetic hair-pieces?

I’m also disturbed by the fact that people attending will also be able to bring their video cameras, although they will only be permitted to video their own children. I do wonder, however, how the organiser hopes to police that one.

I don’t think that these kind of pageants do the children who take part any favours at all. I don’t think they learn any positive lessons from them – and I think they are more about satisfying the desires and dreams of their parents (usually their mothers) than anything else.

I am hoping that the parents of Ireland will avoid this pageant – and ones like it – and spare their children the damage that could potentially be done to them.

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