Body positivity and social ignorance

I have touched on body positivity in a previous post about self-esteem, but a paragraph or two wasn’t enough to do this topic justice. Body image is my Kryptonite. One of my greatest emotional hurdles, I am yet to fully overcome it but I’ll be damned if I let it beat me.

At 37 I’m starting to notice the first real signs of ageing. It’s a mixed bag emotionally, both confronting and kind of beautiful at the same time. I often pass mature women in the street who literally turn my head – hair subtly shimmering with glints of silver, sun-marked skin warm with decades of summer, delicate wrinkles at the corner of the eyes that hint at a lifetime of laughter.

What is confronting about the ageing process, aside from the fact that we tend to asexualize older women in our culture, is the ‘change’. Learning to see yourself in a new way. Seeing a different reflection in the mirror to what you expect because your mind holds onto an older more embedded image you have of yourself. It is also this mental resistance which has made body image such a difficult journey for me.

I began to struggle with body image in my teens, particularly after my first real weight gain around 18. I did everything I possibly could to avoid accepting it. Crazy diets, fasting, excessive exercise. It always worked in the beginning, sometimes even shedding large amounts of weight quite quickly. But sure enough, just like every diet warning ever uttered, I put it all back on. And then some. Throughout my twenties pretty much, each time gaining more than I lost.

Then in my early thirties I spent a year in fairly traumatic isolation dealing with the stark reality and likely outcome of a loved one’s unexpected and grave illness. During that time I didn’t have a support network, so I lent on old habits to get me through it. A combination of lack of self-care and extreme unrelenting stress led to dramatic weight gain in a short space of time. Unbelievably my loved one pulled through and life slowly returned to normal. But then I had to do physical and emotional damage control. I struggled to accept the new me, so true to form I turned to diets and exercise again, but they unsurprisingly repeatedly failed. Again. Either I just couldn’t stick to it or I lost and regained.

After literally two decades of this repeated cycle I have finally started to understand myself better. My downfall has been treating the symptom not the cause. My biggest problem isn’t that I am too large. My biggest problem is that I don’t see myself in healthy way and I don’t truly believe I can change. I, like people the world over, have spent a lifetime exposed to images of what beauty should look like. Images of young, slim, sexualised women. Photoshopped, edited, airbrushed women who don’t even look like their own images in reality. Because noone can. It is literally impossible to look like a digitally enhanced image. And yet we try. And try. And try.

And on top of that, again like so many people, I have come to associate my self-worth and attractiveness with what I look like. Here’s where logic fails me. When I think about the people I am, or have been, attracted to, it has almost never boiled down to looks. Yes a handsome face will catch the eye….for about ten seconds. Then it’s forgotten. It has zero impact on any real level. But someone who I have chemistry with, someone who makes me laugh, someone who makes me feel good…they leave one hell of an imprint. And it’s got nothing to do with what they look like. Talent, intelligence, humour, cheekiness, charisma – these are all way more attractive qualities than a face or a body. So why haven’t I been able to apply that logic to myself? Maybe because it is hard to perceive yourself through the eyes of someone else. Maybe because your flaws are often magnified in your own mind. And maybe because our society really does buy into that digitally enhanced image of beauty as ideal and healthy and it is impossible not feel like you just don’t measure up.

Ironically, if history is anything to go by, the current digitally enhanced benchmark of physical ‘perfection’ we kill ourselves to meet is likely just a temporary trend. It wasn’t so long ago being large was upheld as the beauty ideal because it signified wealth and plentiful food. It makes me wonder if history students 200 years from now will look back at the recent size zero fad and liken it to old beauty trends we now find baffling. Like using arsenic to achieve a clear pale complexion, or forcing yourself into a tight-laced corset even though it restricted the internal organs and impaired breathing. Sometimes we need a gentle reminder that fashion is just fashion and trends come and go.

Our culture being what it is, people do seem to take what the media feeds us as gospel though. Recently, a friend received a comment from a gentleman (ahem) on a dating site advising her that ‘women need to think about what men want…’s not even hard, you just fast for a bit’. Ignorant doesn’t even begin to cover that level of fuckwittery. However will I cope without meeting him. Sigh. But people really do think like this.

So let’s take a moment to unpick that. Firstly, the simplistic approach of cals in vs cals out ignores the bigger picture: cause and effect. True, too many calories in causes weight gain on a very basic level. But what causes too many calories in? It must be greed surely. Because of course all fat people are gluttonous food vacuums who have let themselves go right? Some people really do hold that limited opinion. And the media perpetuates it. Secondly, that puts all our worth into the physical. That’s a load of rubbish and a toxic way to think about ourselves. If you are prone to emotional eating then that ‘failure’ to measure up will likely lead to overeating in efforts to make yourself feel better. And there we have created a woefully destructive cycle.

Having discovered the body positive movement about year ago I have been trying to change my thought process and awareness of this. But even with a better understanding of myself and of the beauty lie we are being bombarded with every day, it has still been really difficult to do that brain rewiring. My intellect is onboard but my emotions are still playing catch up.

I’m rehearsing a play at the moment and in order to capture the movements, the team often take video clips as a visual record. It’s really helpful and a great way to see how you can improve your performance too. But my god it is hard for someone with poor self-image. One such video actually made me cry – they say the camera doesn’t lie, but wow do I ever wish it did! I don’t look like that do I? I don’t sound like that? Bleurgh. And it doesn’t stop there. Every date that doesn’t pan out well, you think ‘I’m not hot enough’. Every time you try something on in a shop that doesn’t fit you think ‘jeez I’m humongous’. Every time you catch a stranger looking your way you think ‘they must be judging me’.

It’s an exhausting way to live, to be mentally at battle with some element of yourself all the time. To really want to be positive but to still have an instinctively negative reaction to yourself. Body positivity activist Megan Jayne Crabbe makes a great point in her extremely good book. It’s ok not to make the leap to full body positivity in one go, it’s a journey. You can start with body respect and work up to body acceptance. Respecting the fact that your body has kept you alive all these years and all the things it has had to contend with in order to do that. Every illness it has fought, any medical condition it has to cope with. Your heart beating all day every day, lungs breathing, brain manning the ship etc. Then eventually you can grow to body acceptance. Being able to see yourself in a neutral light. Simply accepting that you look how you look without a deep emotional response. Or maybe not even focussing on it much at all. That’s the dream!

For now I am working on this. Filling my social media feeds with body positive posters, reading enlightening books, surrounding myself with people who accept me for me and make me feel good about myself. I am also trying to forgive myself for not feeling that body positivity 100% yet, because I will get there and I am starting to understand my own worth. I am focussing on the qualities I know are my strengths and reminding myself daily that they count. In fact, they are what define me. Not my dress size or my face.

Action Plan:

Because I know so many people struggle with this quietly and, like me, tackle that with trying to change themselves physically, I thought I’d share a mini action plan geared to changing minds instead of bodies.

  1. If you use social media, follow accounts/pages/hashtags that support the mindset you want to achieve (#bodypositivity and @bodyposipanda are a couple of good ones). It’s time to start immersing yourself in realistic and healthy images of real bodies.
  2. Unfollow anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself for any reason. Even friends. You don’t have to ‘unfriend’ them, just unfollow. It is ok to unfollow anyone who makes you feel bad about you even if they don’t mean to.
  3. Find a good book on the subject. Reading is a great way to slowly help the rewiring as it drip feeds in suggestions over time. I’m currently reading the aforementioned Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe, which I highly recommend. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf is another good option.
  4. If you have any clothes that you don’t feel good wearing or that make you feel self-conscious, donate them to charity. If you have a shortfall of clothes you feel good in, get a few new items that make you feel confident (if you are on a budget, hit the charity shops). Try to build a collection of things you feel comfortable in emotionally as well as physically. This will help you to be less focussed on your appearance day-to-day. There’s nothing like having your attention continually drawn to something that makes you feel unconfident.
  5. Try to dig a bit deeper into your triggers in order to understand yourself better. Consider whatever it is you do to extreme and then think about the moments before you do it….what sets it in motion? What do you feel in that moment? How does your action combat that feeling? Over time you will become more aware of that thought pattern as it occurs, and you can start to introduce other coping mechanisms to change the thought pattern.
  6. Look in the mirror every day and tell yourself that you are beautiful, you are worthy of love, and who you are is the most important thing. It will feel ridiculous at first. But then you may find it gets more emotional, you may even cry. Slowly, it helps your mind to link those concepts with your reflection. It is a legitimate method of building a mental association and it will eventually have an effect.
  7. Finally, if you are really struggling and it is affecting your life, get help. There are brilliant counsellors trained specifically in this area. You could sign up for face to face sessions or find something online. It is possible to do this cheap or free, so do some Googling around.

Ultimately, no matter your mindset, try to remind yourself that bodies are wonderful, amazing, baffling things designed for living in. They are not statues of immortal perfection and they will not last forever. Even the beautiful ones. So use yours. Live in it. And try to respect it for the life it gives you, no matter what its appearance.