One thing I try to do when I look at my reflection is to remember what a gift my body is and just how much it does for me every day. It is able, it is strong. I can walk, run, swim. It could procreate, it could fight disease. The constant, persistent beating of my heart reminds me that it is doing a million things to keep me alive every moment and, because of that, I can truly live.
Despite knowing all of this, I still cannot tell you that every time I look in the mirror I feel at peace with my body. One of the many difficult truths I have learnt is that this is something that doesn’t and never will come easily to me. I have come a long way, however, from the woman I was a couple of years ago and have been for most of my life. I now, for one, realise that finding this peace and love for our bodies should be the ultimate goal. It is our greatest gift but it does not define us. Though this sentiment may be a little wishy washy for some of you, I truly now believe it is achievable and necessary.
Over the past two years, I have lost weight, I have gained weight and I have had a very disordered way of viewing food, exercise and my body. I am not alone in this. In fact, quite the opposite. Diet culture is everywhere and it affects all of us. It has somehow made us believe that our bodies need fixing, that we cannot be trusted to eat without relying on apps and policing our appetites and that we are all being irresponsible unless we sign up for Slimming World ASAP. It is both brazenly obvious in the form of MyFitnessPal and Weight Watchers, as well as much more subtly hidden in BMI and cauliflower rice. We even hear it creeping into our conversations daily. Sandra at work has ‘been good’ this week and has eaten salads every night and Jane from the gym has sworn off eating carbs after 7pm. Bill was ‘bad’ and ate pizza for lunch so now he has to ‘make up for it’ by running 10k at the gym. Whereas Karen has to ‘stick to her syns’ so can’t eat any of your birthday cake. How did we become so dull?
The bottom line is that the corporations responsible for diet culture make millions from us hating our bodies and buying into the solutions to fix them. Solutions that are fads disguised as ‘wellness’. We have been taught to believe that when we are thin, we will be happy. Everything will magically fall into place. We will be virtuous and angelic. They know that body positive women, who realise their worth beyond their weight, don’t buy detox juice. If I am having a bad body image week, then this is what I remember. In this day and age when diet culture is making money from your misery, accepting yourself as you are, cellulite and all, is a rebellious act.
The reality of the matter is that our body’s size and shape at any one time in our lives is unique to us and is not something entirely within our control. Though diet culture would have us believe that we could all look like Kendall Jenner if we had the discipline and willpower, that simply isn’t true. Even if we all ate and moved in exactly the same way, we would all look completely different. What a healthy and thriving body looks like for one person could be totally opposite to that of a different person. This is a difficult truth for some of us and I, for one, had to learn it the hard way.
To demonstrate this, I was 9 stone 12 lbs in December 2018. My lowest weight. I was a healthy and ‘normal’ 24 on the trusty BMI scale. I had finally done it. I had managed to do what I had always wished for. I’d successfully lost weight. I could wear the size 10 jeans and the size 8 top on Christmas Day. Amazing!
On the outside, I looked the epitome of health. On the inside, however, I was starving. I would obsessively count calories, weigh myself and struggle through exercise daily. I’d stay home instead of going out with friends because I was scared of food. If, on occasion, I did eat what I wanted, I’d be sure to eat no more than 500 calories the following day to make up for it. Though, 9 stone 12 lbs is a healthy, thriving and natural weight for many people, for me it meant deprivation and obsession at the cost of my physical and mental health. What had started out as yet another goal to get fitter and lose weight (in order to be my best self and achieve a happiness like I’d never experienced before, obviously) had become a very slippery slope indeed.
My experience is precisely the reason why diet culture is so damaging. My rational brain was telling me that I was a ‘healthy weight’ according to a doctor’s chart which meant that, unfortunately, I simply had to live this miserable, deprived life forever in which I could never fully enjoy food again. That was my fate and nothing could be done about it. After all, I wanted to be healthy, right?! I had worked so hard and gaining weight would make me a failure, not to mention it would be really embarrassing especially after the 'before and after' photos I'd been posting! (Photos that make me cringe to this day.)
A whole other element of diet culture that was brought to light by this experience was other people’s reaction to my body changing. I was complimented and praised for my weight loss at every turn. The people surrounding me, who I know love me regardless of my weight, were actively reiterating my misinformed beliefs that being thinner meant I was more worthy, more healthy, more attractive. Sure, they ‘meant well’ and these compliments come from a good place but, in reality, we never know the full story. Actually, these ‘compliments’ could be seen as insults to the body I had before. A body that was curvier, softer and perfectly fine as it was. A body that was mine. After all, the bigger picture is that every time we praise weight loss, we are condemning weight gain. This attitude slowly builds into something that looks a lot like fatphobia and disrespect for those who have larger bodies. Let’s strive to be body neutral and to give compliments that remind others that they are valued and loved for the person that they are. Not for the size and shape of their body.
Perhaps the hardest part of all of this for me was the acceptance that I would inevitably gain weight again. Now, almost a year later, I realise this isn’t as bad as I feared. Life goes on. I am heavier but healthier than I was then and I enjoy food and exercise like never before. I now vow to listen to, respect and nourish my body and ain’t nobody going to tell me how to do that, except me!