I remember the mirror. I remember how the light reflected in, the soft glow of the grey evening illuminating my reflection as I stood looking at my body. I remember lifting the top of my unreal Pokémon pyjamas to reveal my stomach. I grasped at my soft middle, and pinched it together so that the soft folds of my stomach touched. I remember thinking that I looked exactly like a pregnant woman. I was eight or nine years old. And I didn’t know how babies were made, but I knew I couldn’t be pregnant. I also knew that having a stomach that folded over was wrong. And such marked the beginning of my fixation with body image and having a flat stomach.
When I read When Food Is Love, the excellent book by Geneen Roth, exploring the relationship between food and intimacy, I recognised past behaviours in myself. Basing your self-worth on the control of your weight. Reducing your value and what you can bring to this world on whether you are bingeing or restricting. Being “on” or “off”. Giving over who you are, your power to better yourself and achieve your potential to this external source.
One thing that differs for me, however, was that all of these women hung up on diets and their bodies had suffered a great trauma in childhood at some stage, be it sexual abuse, physical abuse or abandonment in general. I am extremely fortunate to have grown up in a loving home, and my childhood was unburdened by such troubles. And yet, I suffered from a disordered body image. I almost felt guilty that I had suffered these things, without the “explanation” of a troubled childhood. So, why the hell did this happen to me? And how did I get out of it?
My fixation with the physical varied in intensity and different stages in my life. I have always excelled in an academic sense. I like studying, and it makes sense to me that if you work hard at something you get rewarded for it. Simple. I set high expectations for my body, just like I did for myself intellectually. You don’t get to be skinny, you need to be the skinniest you have ever been. The leanest. The fastest. The strongest. This constant striving to be “the best version of myself” actually resulted in the opposite effect. The more I focused on achieving my dream body, the further from reality it became.
I remember when I was eighteen losing a good bit of weight (see here for the rest of the story). I was never overweight to begin with in any way shape or form. But in my mind I was off from my ideal. And that was to be eradicated. I remember being happy with my body in the summer of 2013, as I was quite lean and people began to notice. I actually remember being catcalled from a car as I walked home from the hallowed halls of the Blanch centre and thinking fuck yes, this is what it’s like to have your dream body. Looking back, those people were assholes, and what the fuck?
As long as I let my self-worth be measured in the comments and perceived approval of others, be they from creepy men or friends, I would never be happy in my body. It took me a long time to realise this, and I think it’s something many women struggle with.
I’ll Be Happy When…
The I’ll Be Happy When is one of the classic lines from the Michelle Bullshitting Herself So She Doesn’t Challenge Herself playbook (the editors are trying to shorten the title, but it’s a work in progress). I have been guilty of using this in the past, to avoid questioning myself and pushing the boundaries of my identity and values. I’ll be happy when I am skinny. I’ll be happy when I weigh this amount. When I can stop at one cookie. When I have this. But that’s the thing. Body acceptance is not a physical destination. There is no sudden point where everything makes sense. You are content and satisfied with yourself on the journey, or you are not. Whether you fit a certain clothes size is in reality, arbitrary. It is a physical manifestation of your attitude to yourself and your body.
What can having your dream body do for you that your current body cannot? If you were to get your dream body now, what would change? Do you think that overnight you would blossom into this confident, self-assured butterfly? I think that if we were to answer these questions honestly, we would surprise ourselves. If you think you’re a useless sack of shit now, and you got your dream body overnight I would guarantee you would feel like a useless sack of shit, except with abs. As long as you do not accept yourself in some form for who you are, no physical appearance can help you.
I think that for women, body acceptance is one of the toughest hurdles to face. So much of our environment is working against us. Social media tells us we are nothing unless we have tiny waists and massive glutes. Society values one type of female body, and links your physical body with your human potential. But that is where our choice comes in. Society can tell you that your body is not good enough. Does that mean that your body isn’t good enough for you? Absolutely not. This is where you can choose to accept and value yourself, and fuck external expectations. And this is obviously easier for some women than others, as some of us are closer to the societal ideal.
Body acceptance and body positivity are linked, but in my mind they are not the same. I don’t think that it is realistic to strive to like your body all the time. Do you like everyone and everything all the time? Absolutely not. And your body is no different. In my opinion, creating a space where you are expected to see yourself as the peak physical specimen of human excellence sets you up to fail. It’s just not realistic. There will be times where you are dissatisfied. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with wanting to change your body. As long as you know that your physical body isn’t everything, and that if you can’t be happy with your normal body, achieving your dream bod won’t bring you happiness.
This is best summarised by a fantastic one-liner a patient once told me: You can spray paint a shite gold, but at the end of the day, it’s still a shite. Translation: a stunning physical appearance can only mask a warped interior.
When I look back on the years I wasted pre-occupied with my body image, the hours I wasted picking myself apart and worrying whether I would ever be enough, I used to feel sad. And yes, I suppose in a sense it is sad that I put such emphasis on the physical. But I don’t think I would change anything. It has enabled me to push past that, to see that there is so much more to life than calories, abs or clothes sizes. I have seen first-hand that achieving the body you’ve always wanted doesn’t mean jackshit if you are a miserable geebag underneath. As the good old saying goes: You are not your body. The external is only a small part of who you are.
It makes me sad to see so many people driven demented by an obsession with the physical. And I am by no means “cured” of vicious self-scrutiny. I think that everyone can be happy within their body, and that it is most certainly more of a challenge for some more than others. But I do believe that the greatest gift we can give ourselves is self-compassion (can you tell I’ve been reading Oprah). It is easy to say “well I’ll never be skinny so I’ll never be happy”. It is a lot more difficult to accept yourself when you’re not 100% where you imagine you need to be. And that’s the distinction.
“It is quite impossible to unite happiness with a yearning for what we don’t have.”Epictetus, Discourses