Making Waves: Molly's Body Story

January 17, 2024

Making Waves: Molly's Body Story

Coining the phrase 'body happy', Molly advocates children's positive body image through education for schools and parents. Her book Body Happy Kids helps parents navigate the tricky subject of raising children who are content with their bodies - especially when, like Molly, they've grown up in society that makes us feel the opposite.

But is it up to mums to wear the bikini and show children body confidence? In her Body Story, Molly tells us why she thinks not. Whether you're a mother of young children, grown up children or simply concerned for future generations, Molly's story is inspiring and infinitely relatable. 

Where are you in your life right now?

I'm a mum of two, an author and I run a social enterprise company called the Body Happy Organisation. And I’ve just turned 40, so I'm entering a new season of my life, which I'm kind of excited about but I’m also trying to unlearn all the conditioning that comes with thinking that getting older is a bad thing.

Deakin & Blue Essential Swimsuit Black
At the crux of what you do is this idea of being ‘body happy’. What does that term mean to you?

I think about bodies in a different way now to my cultural conditioning. I think about them through a frame of kindness, acceptance and eventually positivity; not just my own body, but those around me. I came to that mindset and understanding from quite a selfish place of wanting first of all to feel better about my own body and secondly, to raise daughters who felt good about theirs without having to go through a period of unlearning that I had to go through. And the more I became aware of how many contradictory ideas and messages were around in opposition to the positive messages that I was trying to give them, the angrier I got. That was what led me to start campaigning and eventually to doing the work that I do now.

You’ve spoken about mothers being responsible for raising body positive children. Can you tell us why you find that problematic?

The idea of wanting to raise children who feel good about their bodies is probably the way that a lot of mothers come to this conversation. This is particularly the case if they have daughters because they might be aware of how the patriarchy has conditioned them to think that they're only worthy and valuable if they look a certain way. But that's quite a surface level way of thinking about body acceptance and body kindness. It's also a very palatable, easy concept to package up and sell.

We often see beauty campaigns around mothers wanting to raise empowered daughters and the irony behind that isn't lost on me. But actually, I've come to realise that when we get stuck on the idea that it’s the mother’s responsibility to raise, in the words that I use, body happy children, all we're doing is perpetuating this cycle of patriarchy that says it's a woman's responsibility to undo some of the harms and oppression of this system that we're living in. That not only adds more mental load, more emotional labour to a mother's day job that’s already over brimming, but it also lets dads off the hook.

I also think that it undermines the bigger role that society at large plays in a child's life to make them feel contented and happy and at peace in their bodies. So, although modelling body kindness and acceptance to our children is an important piece of the puzzle, it’s also about the teachers and the doctors and the fathers and the extended relatives and the grandparents and all the important adults that play a role in a child's life. I really want us to move on from this stuck record idea of saying, just show your children you wear the bikini on the beach and your children will feel good. That’s all positive messaging, but it I feel like no change is going to happen for as long as we stay stuck in that place. We also need to recognise that for many mums, it might be really difficult to role model body acceptance and body kindness if they're having to undo so much conditioning around these ideas. They might be married to a partner who's perpetuating the idea that actually the way they look is the most important thing, or that you have to look a certain way to be healthy. If we don't start bringing other people into this conversation, then like we're not going to have any change.

When it comes to social media, I know that a lot of mums follow me on Instagram, and that’s great and natural. But what I really love is when dads engage with my work, or when male teachers sign up for a Body Happy Org CPD workshop. I love that because it shows that they're just as invested in creating change. It also minimises the harms that poor body image can have on young boys, and also trans kids and any gender nonconforming kids. We know that poor body image doesn't just affect teenage girls, but often when we see campaigns about this issue, it's around the social media harms on young girls. Actually, children of all genders and all ages struggle with this; children as young as three-years-old, and they're not on Tik Tok. So, I want to move away from this kind of palatable, fluffy, easy idea about mums modelling body acceptance – it’s a great place to start, but it's not the best place to stop.

Was body happiness something that was modelled to you as a child?

My parents were both secondary school teachers. My mum was a feminist and I don't remember ever being given the message that the way I looked was the most important thing about me. I don't really remember them dieting and talking about bodies. I think, for their time, they were pretty progressive, but they were still products of their culture, so there were probably moments where they would imply that it was bad to be fat.

I do think that ideas baked in anti-fat bias were in my mind very early on because I'd absorbed them from elsewhere. Like, in primary school, if you wanted to insult someone, you would call them fat. And reading Roald Dahl books, there's a lot of anti-fatness. I loved Roald Dahl, but when you read it now, some of those tropes haven't aged well. I was born in 1983, so looking back through the 80s and 90s, I expect that if I was to do a deep dive into the media that I was consuming, there was probably a real lack of representation there. And all of that would have been creating this bubble.

I also lived in a non-disabled, thin, white body, so the instances of oppression that I was likely experience were minimal. In many ways, I had what we’re told good bodies look like. I was quite athletic. I enjoyed swimming and did loads of dancing and never thought about my body in any way other than what it was doing for me. So, I wasn't really conscious of my body until I got to secondary school.

When did ideas of good and bad body image start to creep into your consciousness?

When I was in year seven, so aged 12, I had my hair cut really short. I had spots and my body was changing. I remember going from feeling confident, happy and at peace in the world to people starting to comment on the way I looked, making fun of my spots or hair. I also started to be aware of boys – very normal adolescent stuff.

Looking back though, I think there were some key people in my life who did have a negative impact on my body image. Not my parents, but other adults in my life whose opinions I respected who were very deeply entrenched in diet culture. It was a shock when heard some of these things that they said. I remember comments about my appetite. I've always loved food and would get excited about it – as a family, we’d be excited about going to France and eating mussels. But I remember someone (not my parents) making a comment about my appetite. When you're fourteen, you pick up on those things and I remember thinking it was wrong. I also overheard people talking about their diets and the irony was that I was still a thin, young girl but I really felt that in order to hold that place in the world, I had to keep control of my body and I started going on and off the diet bandwagon, trying the diets that people around me were doing and going through phases of working out. It was all about changing the shape of my body, keeping my body in check and having control. And that lasted all the way through university and my working life as a journalist.

Working in the media world that was often really appearance obsessed, talking about and interviewing celebrities and pop stars like Girls Aloud, I remember thinking that I needed to look like that too. It reinforced all that cultural messaging that I'd had growing up. I didn't grow up in the era of social media, I grew up in the 90s – the era of magazines, beauty tips and Kate Moss and Paris Hilton – all that noise was all around me. Coupled with those earlier messages about my appetite and hearing about people’s diets, it was just layered on top.

Deakin & Blue Sweetheart Swimsuit Beach MeadowCan you identify a tipping point when you realised that you needed to unlearn all this?

It's really hard to say and I often talk about this. When I had my first daughter, I suddenly started becoming quite aware of the things that I'd been doing, particularly up to my wedding. I had a baby and then we were getting married and I was restricting what I was eating. Then I started noticing it and pulling myself back from it.

But then I went back into a bad place after I had my second daughter. There's something around that period when you've got a new child and your identity feels like it's changing. For me, trying to reclaim some kind of control over my changing identity became trying to claim control over my body because everything else was out of control. When I look back at some of the things I was doing, it was so unhealthy and I was doing it in the name of health. But now, through a professional lens, if I knew someone who was doing what I was doing, I would say that’s a disordered relationship with food at the best and at the worst, the beginning of an eating disorder. For example, I was making something different for myself to eat from the rest of the family, and weighing my food and trying to work out macros. I remember this moment when my eldest daughter asked me why I was weighing spinach, and that was a moment for me because I didn’t know how to respond.

Why do you think there’s so much commonality between dieting behaviour and so-called healthy eating?

First of all, I need to like caveat this with the fact that I'm not a healthcare professional. But I am a person who has been responsible for perpetuating some of this misinformation when I was working in the media as a journalist.

There are certain ideas that we hold as a society about health that go unchallenged. The first is this simplified idea that health is this tangible thing that we have control over – if we do the right things, eat the right food and move our bodies in the right way, we will not only be healthy, but we will also be good, moral, valuable, worthwhile productive citizens in society. This idea of health is rife with ableism and anti-fat bias. It comes from colonialism and white supremacy. I remember reading a book by Sabrina Strings called Fearing the Black Body, which puts together this idea of how we view worthwhile bodies and how it all goes back to the transatlantic slave trade. It’s about how we elevate some bodies over others and this idea that we can not only tell how healthy someone is based on the way they look, but we can also tell how moral they are. If you look at the temperance movement in America, it promoted the idea that in order to be like a good Christian, you should sleep on a hard bed, eat boring food that didn't excite you, you shouldn't masturbate or enjoy sex – you shouldn't partake in any kind of bodily pleasures. And you can tell how moral someone was just by looking at them because if they were fat then they were clearly greedy and probably lustful. This was wrapped in racism because it was thought that white people were somehow morally superior. And that gave them justification to go and kidnap and enslave black people in Africa. That’s a massively oversimplified explanation. But Strings explains how we're still carrying, now in 2023, the legacy of some of these ideas and systems of belief, and that's why poor body image is a systemic issue baked in with other forms of oppression.

The idea that you can tell how healthy someone is by looking at them is untrue. I say this from having interviewed so many people and read so many research studies. The reason it's untrue is because, actually, our bodies are all made to be different. Body diversity exists. Even if we all ate exactly the same food and moved our bodies in exactly the same way, we would all have different shaped bodies.

Beauty standards are often linked with this idea of wellness. When I was growing up in the 90s, diet culture was really obvious, but now it's morphed into something else that’s hard to spot. And it's often perpetuated by the very people we uphold as gods of our society like doctors. If something's wrong with you, you go to the doctor because you trust that they're going to make it better. But doctors are flawed human beings too, and many are not trained in the full scope of weight science, which means that they don't understand the health implications of weight stigma. They're also working under a flawed system that doesn't necessarily have funding to research anti-fat bias. So, you go to a doctor and they might tell you to go on a diet, that you need to lose weight rather than looking at managing your stress levels or looking at your support systems, capacity for adding movement into your life or access to a wide range of food.

Deakin & Blue Essential Swimsuit BlackCan weight loss ever be a healthy behaviour?

The idea that we have control over our weight is a fallacy. It's not a true concept because there are so many different things that impact our weight. Up to 80% of our weight is impacted by our genetics, for example. But also, there are environmental factors that we don't have much control over. So, when we conflate weight with health, it can actually lead people to do some really unhealthy things.

I'm really mindful that we need to let kids know that health behaviours are just one facet of our overall health and not everyone has the same access to those health behaviours. If your child grows up in a low-income family and experience food insecurity, maybe getting their food from a food bank, they’re not going to have access to the same types of food as a child growing up in a financially secure family. So, when we're talking about what kids and grownups eat and how they move their bodies, we're ignoring all these other bigger systemic factors. And the irony is that doing that is independently bad for health.

Health is just such a complicated thing. And when we flatten it down to, just eat vegetables and move your body, we're ignoring so many factors. What about mental health? We haven't even talked about that. I don't like the way that diet culture has morphed into this thing where people think that if they eat the food and do the thing, then they'll be healthy.

The National Child Measurement Programme is something that you campaign about. What is it and how does it impact families?

In England, if your child goes to a state funded school, they'll be weighed at school in reception and then again in year six. So, we created this information pack to inform parents and caregivers about this programme and give them the full story that they might get from their school nursing team or local authority.

I don't support the weighing of children in schools, because at best, it's pointless and at worst, it's actively harmful. The programme itself is based on the idea that fat is bad and BMI is a useful tool to measure health, which is untrue. But we’re not campaigning for the programme to end; that would mean lobbying government. It's about campaigning for people to be aware that it exists and that if you don't want your child to be weighed at school, then you need to opt them out. What's really interesting to me is that loads of parents aren't aware of it or that unless you opt them out, they will get weighed.

You might be thinking, what’s wrong with children being weighed in school? But again, it's this idea that we're equating someone's health with their weight and it teaches children from a really young age that their weight is an important measure. Now, if we didn't have weight stigma and anti-fat bias in our society, it wouldn't matter because it would just be a neutral number. But what happens once they're weighed, is that if they don't fit the ‘healthy’ part of the scale, their parents will get a letter home informing them that their child is an unhealthy weight. And then what happens? Well, they might be directed to some kind of weight management organization, which literally could be Slimming World or Weight Watchers. Or it could be that the parent then decides to take matters into their own hands and start restricting their child's food intake. And it might mean that parents then unwittingly start to foster a really unhealthy relationship with food in their child who might be as young as four years old.

Research shows that when we start restricting kids’ access to food that can cause all sorts of problems with eating. We also know that children are developing eating disorders and body image issues at a younger and younger age. And we know that the number of kids who are currently being referred for eating disorder services is higher than the amount of support those services are able to give – eating disorders services in the UK currently overwhelmed.

What's really interesting to me is that whenever I talk about it, I get a lot of support from teachers and parents. And there are lots of school nurses who support the work that I'm doing. I'm not bashing school nurses because they do an important and difficult job.

Deakin & Blue Sweetheart Swimsuit Beach MeadowWas it this idea of conflating weight with health what inspired you to up Body Happy Org?

I was actually campaigning against the way that diet and weight loss brands were allowed to advertise around children. My particular issue was with diet clubs putting their banners on school gates and community halls, so children are exposed to their branding and messaging. There are quite strict advertising laws about how those brands are allowed to advertise on TV and radio around children, but there are no laws to stop them from putting their posters and massive banners on the school gate where children are walking past every day.

So, I was campaigning around that and we held a roundtable event. And one of the things that came up was if teachers were more aware of some of the harms of diet culture and negative body image, we’d be able to connect the dots see how a diet brand on a school gate might be reinforcing the idea that there are good bodies and bad bodies. And that might be contributing to the number of children who were struggling with their own body image and their own relationship with food. So, we put together a workshop for teachers and crowdfunded enough money to run it for free. But the demand was so high, and the more we dived into it, the more we realised that it needed to be a thing. We were getting asked for teaching resources and then parents were asking what resources we had for them. And that was how we ended up forming as a proper social enterprise company.

Over the last couple of year, we've not just done workshops for teachers in the UK, America and Europe, but also for sports clubs, youth organisations, the NHS, charities and foster parents. This education is really wanted, and before we were doing it, it wasn’t easy to access; it's certainly not mandatory; it's not part of teacher training to learn about body image and mental wellbeing. Body image is a safeguarding issue. It can also impact kids’ academic attainment and their engagement in class. When schools realise that, they realise that they need to know how they can support pupils and create an environment that allows body image to thrive, allows them to support other kids whose bodies might not look or function like their own.

How has diving so deeply into this subject affected your feelings about your own body?

I think I go through phases of really loving my body and feeling really grateful for it and feeling ambivalent about it. And I go through phases of feeling self-conscious and not liking my body. Body image is not a linear thing; the way we think and feel about our bodies changes all the time. And we are culturally conditioned to hold and carry anti-fat bias – it's within all of us because of the society and culture that we live in. So even when you do this work, it's still there. The one thing that has changed is that however I feel about my body, I'm now able to separate it from how I feel about myself as a person. And that isn't always something that I was able to do before. I know that my worth and my value as a person is not linked to the way I look, just as it’s not linked to the number of my bank balance or how productive I am or how often I go to the gym.

That's why body image is linked to – productivity, culture and hustle culture and capitalism and all these massive ideas. I think, particularly as women, we really feel the brunt force of that because so much is expected of us. Not just to look a certain way, but to be the perfect mothers, to keep the perfect house and to have an amazing career and create social change. I put so much pressure on myself to do all the things that I do, but I have to constantly remind myself that I am not those things. If I'm lucky enough to reach old age and looking back at my life, I'm not going to remember how great my hair was or that I had that sofa.

Deakin & Blue Essential Swimsuit Black

What about your D&B swimsuit – will you look back on that with fondness?

One of the first things that I realised about diet culture was that it wasn't my body's job to fit the clothes, it was the clothes job to fit my body. I regularly clear out my wardrobe and if something doesn't fit or feel comfortable, I don't keep it. I actually got rid of a whole load of swimwear at the beginning of this summer because it dug in or wasn't comfortable. So, while our clothing doesn't give us moral value or make us a better person, being comfortable is important for body image. If you're wearing something that's digging in or not supporting you in the way it needs to, that immediately causes you to get in your head, objectify yourself and not feel at at peace in your body.

The thing I really love about my D&B swimwear is that I can put them on and then I can just swim and enjoy what I'm doing. They look pretty, but that isn't the thing I love most about them. It's that they're dead comfy and they fit really nicely. I can go for a swim in the river with my kids or go to go to the swimming pool and I'm not having to pull out a wedgie or rearrange my skin inside. It feels like a second skin, which is what good swimwear and good clothes should feel like.

Molly wears The Essential Swimsuit in Black in size 14 Hendricks and the Sweetheart Swimsuit in Beach Meadow in size 16 Monroe

Read more:

Did you enjoy reading this Body Story? Discover the other stories in our Making Waves series, and read about amazing women whose life-changing work inspires and moves others.

“I had a giant mermaid sculpture made of recycled plastic to highlight the plastic pandemic, and I swam the length of the River Thames as a mermaid. Then, one day, I rescued a drowning cow and my story made it into The Sun newspaper.” Read Lindsey’s story.

"It’s relentless how I continually got labelled growing up. I didn’t know if I was coming or going: I'm a child, I'm a woman, I'm fat, I’m too tall, I'm beautiful. It was totally bloody bonkers." Read Farrah's story.

“The ocean feels like such an inclusive space. I think that if you feel that connection to the sea, wherever you come from, whatever your interests are, you find that sense of belonging and of being held and supported by the sea.” Read Pippa’s story.

“I watch people and I have an obsession with how they're standing and how they're moving; it's probably just what I zero in on… I notice the way anatomy hangs together and the way people stand.” Read Nancy’s story.

“For me, it was this acceptance that this is how my body looks and I need to stop looking at it as a transitional body and just get on with it… Life happens and you can't put everything on hold just because of the size you are; you just need to carry on.” Read Becca’s Story.