Standing in the unforgiving light on rickety hospital scales, I was weighed before surgery. The nurse filled in the numbers, measured my height, calculated my BMI and read them all out to me with routine efficiency. Inside, I shuddered at hearing the numbers with their straight lines and pointy edges; their silent accusations. Before I knew what was happening, I felt that old panic flare inside me. My stomach clenched and my lungs tightened just a bit. Words I’ve not given much thought to for many years shot straight to the front of my mind, with all their associated baggage:
‘I need to lose weight’.
I haven’t written about body image before today. But I knew then it was time to weigh in.
The reason I was in hospital to begin with was to fix a child-birth injury. I’m not about to start telling the tired joke about watermelons coming out of a lemon-sized hole. Vaginas and vulvas are forgiving areas: as Betty White has been quoted as saying, “Those things can take a pounding”. And they can, they really can.
My frontal abdominal muscles? Not so much, as it turned out.
So over a year later with no real training or fitness, here I was about to have surgery to repair my hernia, letting a bunch of numbers dictate how I felt about myself. A clear regression for me after such a long time of being positive about my body. I did some thinking and realised being forced into (relative) inactivity by my hernia has slowly but steadily opened the gates on negative thought patterns I thought were gone. It’s not even very often, but when I think about it, things like this keep slipping through:
People will wonder why your husband is with you.
And as my kids (lovingly) jiggle my belly while I read to them, I find myself thinking:
Oh just leave me and my fat alone!
The thing is, the kids aren’t making fun of me; they think my body is amazing. So why don’t I?
We’re Conditioned To Hate Our Bodies
I know thin people who are internally ripping themselves to shreds 24/7. Half a lifetime ago I was a fat person who did the the same thing. My point is, apart from obvious body extremes the Body-Love-Hate-Brigade like to use for their ‘But it’s for your health’ style of body shaming, the numbers on the scale and the shape of our bodies are not indicators of our health and happiness.
What makes me angrier is that I know it’s true. Of course it’s all bullshit. After many personal upgrades, I walk the talk much more often than I don’t: the feeling that my ‘factory settings’ is stuck on wishing I could take up less space scares me.
I don’t understand the whole Instagram thing of following people because you want to look like them. I don’t get the whole ‘Instagram eyebrow’ phenomena either – maybe I’m just too old for that. But I do get how easy it is for impressionable teens to be sucked into the destructive vortex the beauty/fitspo scene induces: as a parent, it’s frightening. Just remember those photo-shopped pictures use the lie of perfection to cover a multitude of sins.
As for myself, as I grew up I saw TV content and the ads all around me telling me I wasn’t pretty enough, thin enough, famous enough. Sat in the dentist’s waiting room just the other day I saw a Who magazine cover saying something pretty darn close to “Best Body Secrets” – yeah, that ol’ chesnut is still floating around.
Growing up I heard my own mother use words to beat up on her own body. So when she said to me “You’re not fat, you’re thickset”, and “You’re like me Jen, you’ll put on weight almost as soon as look at something fattening.” I put those things together and developed an unhealthy hatred of my body. Mum was living out her own body issues; I don’t blame her. However this is one of the ways negative patterns and stereotypes are played out through generations.
It’s easy to underestimate the sheer volume of the ‘thin is in’ kool-aid we’re force-fed from an early age. How much of the shite we ingest is insane.
That’s why it’s easy for me to forgive myself for the lapse, then get back in step with myself. After all, I’m so much happier and healthier than I was half a lifetime ago, through thick and thin.
Beauty Is A Full-Bodied Word
Because over the years I’ve enjoyed a lot of things. A lot of wine, golden pints, sneaky slices of cake, beautiful fresh bread, and even more beautiful good times. I love the talk, the banter, the singing late into the evening, the dancing, the clink of glasses to the end of a good and/or pretty average week.
Because we are bigger than our bodies. I am happy – happier – to be told by people they love my stories, or that the sound of my voice is a pleasure I shouldn’t keep to myself. (Yep, I can carry a lovely tune.) In the very act of crowning and birthing a child, arguably the least ‘attractive’ I’ve looked in my life, I can honestly say I felt the beauty within me – but it was a grittier, sweatier, earthier kind of beauty. It was something ancient and much stronger; in fleeting pain-free seconds I saw backwards and forwards in time, reminding me my husband and I were part of something magical we can’t understand. ‘Beauty’ is a full-bodied word, big enough to encompass much more than the way it’s commonly used.
The scales don’t differentiate between muscle, fat, and fluid, and they do not measure our mental health. Scales shouldn’t tell you whether you’ve been ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
I surprised myself by the way I’ve been making moral judgments about myself based on my body and the amount of exercise I have or haven’t been doing. In the absence of my exercise of choice: I wasn’t ‘good’. This opinion piece is in part a reminder to myself that all of those tired assumptions are bullshit.
Our lives are all so much bigger than a reductive patriarchal construct based on the assumption women must be weaker and smaller than men. So much better than the ideal of femininity commercial business has picked up, ran with, and rammed down our throats.
Health and Happiness: Now Available In All Sizes!
These days, thank goodness, thanks in large part to Taryn Brumfitt via the Body Image Movement, a voice of dissent is being heard. It’s a clarion call, and it’s been answered all over the world.
You can feel the fear emanating from big businesses, and a brain-washed society at large that a regular, ‘non-ideal’ person could possibly be happy with their body. Businesses are panicking. People who are used to seeing the way they look as their sole worth are judging. They’re freaking out. Dieticians are shaking their heads solemnly and saying embracing is bad for people’s health because obesity is an epidemic, darn it all, and fat people have fat organs.
All sorts of unconscious and conscious biases about ‘fat’ people are being shaken out into the open. There’s even “skinny fat”. Yup, the word ‘fat’, mostly derogatorive let’s face it, is being used to describe ‘skinny’ people. That kinda offends me, and at a certain level it makes me feel protective of the word ‘fat’. Such an insult people who are the opposite of its description are being saddled with it too, people who aren’t “shredded”. No matter your body shape, you can’t win: and you’re not meant to be able to. There’s an unrealistic body stereotype for all of us to break our spirits (and our bank accounts) trying to attain, and they’re driven commercially even more than culturally.
I’d like to see less clicks of the tongue in quiet admonishment of a woman’s body that moves when she walks – and not just the ‘rack’ – the thighs, stomach and maybe – gasp – her back-boobs too.*
*I live near the beach and see all body types: I love it. I see older men who appear to be of Mediterranean stock walking along the beach in their budgie smugglers, hairy bellies bouncing merrily: they don’t care. At all. It’s true, the kool-aid fountain they drink from is a different flavour to the one the women drink from. (Let’s call it Lady Juice – aaaahhh gross – let’s just call it kool-aid.) But being this comfortable in our skins is something we need to strive for as women.
So it’s really important to show negative thoughts who’s boss.
When A Negative Thought Slips In, Challenge It
This is something a psychologist told me years back. It takes practice, and sometimes you feel a little fake doing it. Fake it til you make it! Because you will make it.
So when I hear my inner thoughts say ‘You’re fat’, I’ll say:
‘I’m phat.’ (I’m a sucker for a play on words and the urban dictionary tells me it means ‘excellent’.)
When I hear my inner thoughts say ‘People will wonder why your husband is with you,’ I’ll say:
‘People will wonder how that man can possibly keep his hands off me.‘ Because I know our relationship is bigger than what size clothing I may (or may not) be wearing.
And when my kids jiggle my tummy, I’ll kindly remind myself:
‘They know their lives began in there, changing from a tiny few cells to cute babies like their little sister. To them, my body makes miracles.‘ And of course, that’s true.
Remember: body ideals are unrealistic, unhelpful and largely driven by commerical entities who profit everytime you decide you’re not good enough the way you are.
Be kind to other people. Be kinder to yourself. Here’s to the fun and laughter and beautiful messiness of our perfectly imperfect selves and to exposing the lie of perfection in all of its forms.