Ah, the mantra which characterised my teenage years. Also exchangeable for, “my best life will start when I lose weight”. I wish I could say I’ve overcome my self-loathing and will now present to you a list of handy tips to kickstart your journey of inward compassion. Instead, I want to offer you something which is just as much realistic and confessional as it is uplifting.
The voice of the body positivity movement has been rapidly increasing in volume over recent years. And rightfully so, since we need it to be loud enough to drown out the decades of limitations that have characterised our beauty ideals. It’s amazing to see the progress being made, not just in the representation for those of a weight traditionally deemed unworthy to be advertised, but also for people of colour and those with disabilities.
However, although I don’t want to diminish the messages of those who have come out victorious at the other side of their self-love journeys, I want to shed some light on those who are stuck in a rut. Those who reserve the strongest hatred for themselves, despite whole-heartedly believing in the beauty of the diversity of womanhood around them. Those who have repeatedly gone through the same cycle of disordered eating and are, frankly, quite fed up with it. I know it’s very black-and-white to think of those who are suffering and those who are “cured”, since it’s never that simple. But it’s also true that there are those who have moved past their destructive habits and simply focus on being healthier. I can’t say I have the secrets to self-love (treating your body more kindly would probably help), but I want to raise some solidarity for those who haven’t quite made it there yet.
As I write this, a picture sits across the room from me. A picture of a 14-year-old me at my Confirmation, with my mum on the right and my auntie on the left. At first sight, a standard family photo. The reason I feel a sense of ickiness when I look at it, though, is the context. Often, a teenage girl would find some joy in finding a pretty white dress for the occasion, but I was dreading the prospect of showing my body. So, on the day, I was already feeling quite vulnerable. At the dinner afterwards, my auntie made a comment – as she always did, and often still does – that I really need to lose weight. I wasn’t surprised, it was commonplace with the female relatives from my mum’s side (shout out to Poland – my mum, auntie and grandma, the Holy Trinity of: “You’d be so pretty if you lost weight.”) I mean this was the woman who has left me with lovely memories like from comments she’s made like these: “You get your body from your dad’s sister. Short and fat. If you took after me instead of her you’d be lucky”; “Why does your stomach look like that… It’s worse than mine and I’ve had a baby…”; “You know if you’re going to gain weight at least do it slowly so you don’t get stretchmarks, you won’t want those when you wear shorts”.
My intention here is not to put my family on blast, but to acknowledge that my critical thoughts towards myself echo the words I grew up with. Of course, none of these women are evil and they all want the best for me, but when I repeatedly heard such words at a formative age from people whose opinions I cared about, I took those words to be the most important truth, and it set the standard I held for myself. There would have been much more constructive, effective ways to usher me towards a healthy lifestyle, rather than kickstarting a cycle of starving and bingeing and embedding in me a deep sense of shame about my body.
Aside from the “helpful” words of my family, as a young teen in social situations, I would hate myself when I saw my pretty friends getting off with boys whilst I was side-lined. I don’t know why the fact that I wasn’t attractive to teenage rugby lads did a massive number on my self-esteem back then. I’ve since grown up and am glad I’ve discovered that that was really not my demographic. I shudder to think how little value I placed in my intelligence, talents and passions at that age. If I wasn’t skinny, blonde and conventionally attractive, I was worthless.
Sometime in the past couple of years, my relationship with my body has changed a little. I still hate it probably as much as I did as an angsty teen, but now there are other things I want to pursue rather than worriedly calculating calories or planning what else I’m allowed to eat that day if I don’t want to “ruin it”. If Ralph Waldo Emerson is right and it’s true that “A man is what he thinks about all day long”, then it makes me a little embarrassed about all the hours I’ve wasted with thoughts plagued by self-hatred and self-pity. Of course, for a lot of us it’s impossible to avoid those thoughts completely, but refusing to dedicate so much time and effort to them is a good start in taking away their power.
Many women have grown up with the knowledge (told by others or learnt from experience) that their body plays a big role in how they are perceived. And that, if they happen to stray outside the constrictions of conventional beauty, they will have a much harder time navigating through society. That’s how I felt for a long time. But I resonate with the idea of ‘body neutrality’, because it helps me accept that my body is simply a home; a vehicle to carry me through life, and the value of said life comes more from what I choose to accomplish and experience with my body, rather than how it looks.
“My body is simply a home; a vehicle to carry me through life”
Body neutrality means that the relationship I have with my body – although admittedly still flawed – takes a backseat to my ambitions and, indeed, my desire to just have a good time. I need to ask myself: am I going to devote so much of my mental capacity to bullying myself into losing the same 15 pounds over and over, or do I owe it to myself to use my brain more productively? I’m not insinuating that there’s no point in working on your physical health – by exercising, eating healthily, or getting enough sleep – since it’s true that this all has a domino effect on your mental wellbeing. But, if you still struggle to treat yourself as kindly as you deserve, body neutrality is a haven you can retreat to in order to take some of the pressure off.
Granted, it’s easier to preach than it is to put the philosophy into action; I certainly stumble, relapse and sometimes even fall flat on my face on this journey to acceptance. I do often wallow in the pit of self-loathing – having lived in it all my teenage and young adult life, it’s impossible to rewire one’s thought patterns overnight. Self-hatred becomes almost comfortable, because the belief that you’re a shitty person absolves you from responsibility for your actions.
Remember: you’re in control, regardless of how much or how little you’ve eaten today. I’m trying to take my own advice, and the concept of body neutrality is a much more attainable goal for me than unconditional self-love. I don’t know whether I’ll make the leap from indifference to infatuation any time soon, but for now, this isn’t such a bad place to be.