Battling with Body Image

CW: negative body image.

Overexposure to the media and the impossible standards set by society have done nothing to improve our relationships with our bodies. This is old news. However, I would like to believe that this narrative is, slowly but surely, changing for the better. Clothing brands are actively becoming more inclusive, and the unrealistic expectations of beauty that are set by marketing and media are being challenged by more and more people.

For example, who remembers when they cancelled the Victoria’s Secret fashion show? After swathes of complaints about the lack of diversity and inclusion in the brand, 2018 became the last and final of the iconic fashion shows to air. Despite understanding the justifications for why the show promoted toxic ideals to the young and impressionable, I remember thinking, but why shouldn’t these women show off their bodies which they worked so hard for? Why should they be shamed for conforming to an ideal that society has always rewarded and upheld?And how, most importantly, does this PR circus create such excitement and dread in people across the world? Our collective obsession with the images of these women and the bodies of other men and women in the public eye both fuels and reflects our preoccupation with our own bodies and how we wish they did or didn’t look. The problem isn’t with their weight or their height or however their healthy body looks, it’s with the pressure that comes with your worth hanging in the balance.

I can’t find it now for reference and credit – if you know what I’m talking about please let me know! – but over the summer I remember seeing a post on Instagram from a girl who said she found herself comparing her adult body to her teenage one. She found herself romanticising her developing, childish body more than the one she currently lives in, purely because it was the thinner version. This is definitely something I can relate to; I try on clothes that fit me years ago when my body was still changing and I was determined to miserably restrict what I ate, and feel an irrational shame that they don’t fit me anymore. It’s not even that I would want to look like I did at 16, but the habit of associating body image with self worth, particularly after developing some less than healthy habits, leaves it’s mark on your mental health and creates a unique sense of anxiety about being out of control of yourself. This is not always the result of a desire to look a certain way, but of a desire to hold some form of monopoly over ones life and choices. It should be acknowledged that people can develop unhealthy relationships with food, exercise and their body image for many reasons, and not always out of a desire to be deemed “skinny”. Men and women both have continuously struggled to achieve the current vision of physical perfection. You don’t need to look a certain way to have a negative relationship with your weight, and you can’t assume by looking at a person what their insecurities are; for this reason I avoid commenting on a person’s weight or size altogether, because you can’t know how that will make them feel.

Not only has 2020 given me more time to get a bit out of shape, it’s given me the time to notice. After enjoying feeling more body confident than ever, for the first time in my life I was alarmed to see my body changing. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. I had to take a moment to remind myself that although it’s important to look after oneself and to practice a healthy lifestyle (here’s hoping, one day) especially during lockdown, there are also many positive implications that a little weight gain could have. Yes, I was skinnier at university, but I was also not eating particularly well, running myself ragged on nights out, and often felt pretty stressed or unhappy – don’t get me wrong, these are normalised elements of the student experience, but it’s certainly not the healthiest lifestyle. All of these things meant that I didn’t have to concentrate on my weight, but they occupied other negative space in my mind.

Since moving home, food has come to mean socialising with friends, home cooking with loved ones, and in many ways an overall happier mindset. I am not here to tell you that any one weight, shape or size is better or worse than the other, because it is impossible to do so. The underlying fear I have of having to buy new clothes in bigger sizes is certainly a real one, but I have learnt as I get older that the size of your jeans means absolutely nothing, and that I will always look better when I feel better. Not only is the sizing in most retailers completely off to start with, no one else will know. They will only see how good you look and how confident you are once you accept your healthy body for what it is.

If this year has taught us anything, it is that life is precious. We shouldn’t equate being skinny with being happy, just as we shouldn’t equate weight gain with negativity.

I have seen so many friends become miserable by obsessing over their weight, so many fostering real self hate over flaws only visible to them. The thing is, our bodies will always change, and will continue to change throughout our lives. It would make sense, therefore, to invest the effort that we expend on criticising ourselves into cultivating better self esteem. It’s not easy, but it is the most important relationship of all, and the one that will stay in more consistent shape than our appearance ever will. Of course, exercise and health is important and a huge contributor towards our overall wellbeing, but in a year that challenged us like no other, gaining a couple of pounds is really nothing to exchange for making it through in one piece.

Image courtesy of Carolina Heza.

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