by Ellie Thouret
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 woman, 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 14–16, 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 good. 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.
Eventually, she had a mastectomy and afterward wore an 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 nine.
“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 cannot imagine how hard it was for her to have a breast removed while in her late thirties, 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 a year younger than my mother was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, something I think about often, and I know I’m lucky to be healthy. 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 our bodies are amazing, beautiful and deserving of wonder. Just like her grandmother was.
Ellie Thouret writes fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. She lives in the UK’s North West and can usually be found behind a book.