On my way my way back from the Christmas markets yesterday, as I travelled home on the bus I overheard a conversation between a group of teenage girls; for half an hour they talked about how fat they were, how they weren’t skinny enough, their legs were too short, thighs too big, bodies to short, waists to wide, had flabby tummies, that they were disgusted with themselves and wanted to completely change their appearances. These girls were about fifteen and were all pretty and not in the least bit overweight. I was horrified by their conversation. Everything they discussed focussed on appearance, particularly people’s bodies and weight. They talked about a lady who was dating one of their parents, and one girl said “if he marries her I’ll disown him, she’s a fat little dumpy dwarf”; one of the girls asked if the lady in question was nice and the reply was all about the size of her legs.
This conversation appalled me and took me back to my own teenage years; I remember having lots of discussions with my friends on public transport about books and films and plans for the weekend. I don’t recall having such lengthy discussions about body image, and it does worry me that as a society we seem to be becoming obsessed with physical appearance. We are constantly being told that we should eat less fat, less salt, less sugar, more vegetables and there is a whole industry geared towards taking advantage of people’s desire to be thin; images of slim beautiful people dominate our televisions, newspapers, magazines and the Internet. There are dozens of reality television shows dedicated to helping people lose weight, food products designed to help you lose weight and all sorts of “weight-loss” pills, but as a nation (in fact lots of nations!) we are gaining weight and becoming increasingly unhealthy, whilst idolising a certain body-image, that for most people is simply not achievable. Anyone that doesn’t fit this ‘ideal’ is open to criticism, particularly if they have a career in the public eye, and ordinary people are putting themselves under a lot of pressure to try and make themselves look a certain way.
There has been a lot of discussion around image and body shaming in social media of late, and I think it is good that this issue is being given so much attention.
I have a confession to make – I was a serial yo-yo dieter. From the age of 10 I have been obsessed with my size, losing weight and being “skinny”. I look back at pictures of myself over the years and can now see that I was actually quite slim, but was convinced I was fat; this lead to years of self-abuse: crash dieting, starving myself, bingeing, purging, and calorie counting. All of this abuse meant that I gained and lost a lot of weight at a ridiculous rate many times over.
I would watch films, read magazines and all I could see was how thin the people featured were, and punishing myself because I would never look like that; it has taken years for me to start looking at food in terms of something that sustains you, and to think about being healthy rather than being skinny.
I’m not really sure what started my obsession with my weight; I have always been petite and curvy, and was more into reading than sports, but looking back it is difficult to identify what triggered my behaviour. As a society we can be very judgemental, particularly regarding physical appearance, and I must admit that this is something I too have been guilty of; if I saw someone who was super-morbidly obese I found myself making judgements that they must be lazy or greedy, or just have no pride in their appearance and thought to myself “how can someone let themselves get into that state?”.
A few years ago I started to suffer from problems with my health, and I would experience periods where I would have no energy, and things I took for granted like walking to the shops or to work or just getting up would be so exhausting that for periods I became housebound. During this time I gained 5 stone (70lbs) in weight. All my preconceptions about body image came crashing down when this happened to me; but I think it is a shame that it took something this serious to stop me from body-shaming other people, particularly other women.
I am managing my condition now and have completely changed my diet, as an attempt to be as healthy as possible, whereas before my focus was on eating as little as possible, to ensure weight loss. I feel a lot better as a result of the changes I have made, and have lost around 3 stone (40lbs), but this has been a side effect of the changes, rather than the motivating factor. As part of my lifestyle changes I am trying to get back into running, and have signed up for a half-marathon next year.
I look back at the person I was and feel sad for that girl, who was so unhappy with who she was; previously I would have been mortified with how I look, but now I am happy that I am putting my health first, and I try to focus on the positives. My body may not be perfect, but it is getting healthier and stronger, and I am proud of how much I have achieved in the last year.
Appearance can be important; when I get dressed up, put makeup on and wear wacky shoes I feel great, but the most important thing is to look after yourself. People come in all shapes and sizes, and you never know what is going on with their lives, try to be understanding and not judge people on how they look.