Heads up, this a long post and has been germinating in my mind for a while. I have a lot of thoughts about body image and society’s view on it, and this is sort of the result. Please feel free to ask me any questions you want.
I am ten years old. In the last year or so I have had a growth spurt. I have become tall and chubby whilst all my friends have stayed slight and childlike. I envy their concave stomachs more than anything. I covet their fragile looking wrists and thighs. I am ten years old and I love ballet; it is one of my favourite things. But my best friend and I, as the tall girls in our dance class, quickly come to realise we are no longer the right shape for ballet. There is more tummy to suck in, there is more thigh to be turned out. Without even realising it, we adjust our expectations. Tall means back row. Heavy means doing the lifting, rather than being lifted.
Our body awareness adjusted too so that by the time were sixteen and were forced to wear tutus for the first time (our dance school had always been more Rambert than Royal Ballet) we nearly rebelled. We hated how they showed our bums and sat on our waists and made us look top heavy at best, and like the hippos from fantasia at worst. We called ourselves the blueberry and the ugly ducking (they were white and purple) and hated every minute we had to wear them. But why? Did we really look that bad? No, but that didn’t matter. We had been told we were the wrong shape for this. No one had ever said it out loud, but we had always known. Only the slim girls look good in tutus.
After all, isn’t that the joke? Isn’t that why the hippos wear tutus in fantasia? Because when you wear something outside of what you’ve been told by society you are “allowed” to wear, then that’s what you become. A hippo in a tutu. A joke.
Are you beach body ready?
God, has there ever been a worse phrase?
Because every advertising executive in the country, in the world, knows that the modern woman has been conditioned only to have one response to this question: No.
It’s the only accurate response when someone holds up, not only a standard of beauty but a standard of happiness, and tells you that you have failed unless you achieve it. This is what pisses me off so very much about this time of year; when magazines tell you a million products you need to be prepared for summer and when every gym has an advertising slogan designed to put the fear of god in you. What pisses me off if the implied standard of happiness. Thinner is better. More toned is more pretty. Better body equals better lifestyle. Do all of these things, and you will be happy with your body.
I can tell you from experience that happiness with a body does not come from changing it. Not ultimately. Happiness with a body comes from accepting it.
When I was about twelve I had a beach body, I was what modern media would classify as beach body ready. I had just enough adolescent curves, I had a flat stomach, I had slim thighs. (At this moment I will pause so that we can please take note of the fact that the time in my life when my body was most akin to the body-type deemed as appropriate for a grown woman at the beach was when I was an adolescent minor!) I had a beach body, but I wasn’t happy with it. I wasn’t even okay with it. I hated it. I was at peak anorexic and I couldn’t see myself in anything other than a negative light. I shunned photographs, I wore cover ups, I never stood up on the beach in my bikini. The one time I did, my mum snapped a photo of me from behind, walking into the sea. She wanted to show me how lovely I looked.
I wanted to burn the picture because all I saw was “ugly.”
Having an archetypal perfect body is not enough to satisfy a person. Because how can you be sure that you are perfect? I looked at myself and thought I was too square and that was ugly, and my neck was too long and that was ugly. I didn’t care that I was skinny and my stomach was flat. When I look back on the picture now, I see that I was thin. And even today, I am capable of pulling the wool over my own eyes and whispering “If only I was that thin now!” In my worst, darkest moments, I can still use that picture as a tool to hate my current body, even though I am under no illusions about the severity of anorexia and the sad, awful deaths it can create. My anorexia made me sick and thin and is a lasting mental illness, but I saw people go through worse. Lusting after a bikini body means one thing to me: wishing for something that can kill you.
I feel the same when people talk about getting really fit and then can’t leave the gym. When people talk about eating super healthy and then panic about what they will eat when they go on holiday. When my friends talk about their fears of eating the wrong thing, of not exercising enough, or the deep disgust they have for their body. It’s not anorexia and we hide behind the fact that it’s not called anorexia. We clothe it in healthy living mantras and juice diets and tell ourselves it’s not the same. But when I hear them talk I think to myself “I’ve heard that before,” and I recognize the dark little voice of an eating disorder. You can tell me it’s different but I recognize the hatred, the dissatisfaction. It’s the same voice of the pro-anorexia sufferers, just refracted through Fitbit’s and 5:2 diets. Hating your body is the first step. The rest of the road is dark.
This isn’t about thin-shaming, or fat-shaming, or hating on people who want to lose weight or love exercise. It’s not about any of that. It’s about shame. It’s about the fact that millions of us, all over the world, live ashamed of what’s in and under our clothes no matter what size or shape or colour we are. When we are constantly told our bodies are only good for what they look like, not what they can do, then all that is left is
We are not ready for the beach so we lose weight and buy things.
We are not ready for the Christmas party so we lose weight and buy things.
We are not ready for a wedding, or a graduation, or a prom, or a promotion so we lose weight and buy things.
We are not ready for a relationship. For love. For following our dreams. We should lose weight, and probably by things.
When we are told we are not ready, what we really understand is that we are not good enough, and then we are ashamed of not just our bodies, but ourselves. We should be ashamed. We’ve been told that what we look like is all that really matters about us and that when we look “right” then we will be happy. We are the ones standing in the way of our own happiness. We should be ashamed. Shouldn’t we?
I live in the knowledge that almost undoubtedly I will develop arthritis. Both my parents have it, and my grandmother has it. Both my mother and my grandmother have nasty cases that started when they were relatively young, particularly my mother. She has the type of arthritis that makes her hands and feet swell and her bones disjoint and deform. It’s painful to watch, and even more painful to endure. Last year, after spending a while at home taking care of my Mum after a particularly brutal operation to correct the bone damage in her foot, I began to think of my body less and less for what it looked like and more and more for what it was capable of. My Mum loves to walk and loves to swim and does these things even though, sometimes, they have caused her tremendous pain. I began to consider how miraculous it was to be able to walk for miles without pain! How incredibly amazing to be able to touch your own toes! I began to think about the future of my body, not for what it looked like but what I would like to be able to do with it. I would like to still be able to dance and do yoga. I would like to be able to swim comfortably. I began to think that those things might be more important than whether or not I had put on weight over the years. I began to ask myself: Why have I bought into this lie that what matters more is what something looks like than what I can do with it?
Why have we, as a society, bought into this lie?
We, who are people who can swim across oceans, climb mountains, and free dive to the depths of the ocean. We, who can dance, and run, and play and walk on our hind legs. We, who are capable of producing other humans in our bodies and then growing and nurturing them.We, who are capable of incredible human sacrifice, astonishing love, powerful forgiveness. We, who can imagine new worlds, who can explore galaxies, theorise, philosophise, and make art! We are capable of much more than manipulating our bodies into appealing to one certain standard of beauty or success simply because we were told that’s how we should be valued.
I am a human being who loves to visit the ocean, write about the sea, and swim with the fishes. I am a human being who fought a battle with an eating disorder, wrote a play, earned 3 degrees, and most importantly, is alive and free to make my own decisions. Also, my legs wobble and my stomach is soft instead of hard. Why does my body have to be a certain shape to qualify me for an experience of the beach?
After all, nothing in my life qualifies me for the experiences ahead of me, least of all my body. The beauty of life and grace is that I get to experience them anyway. Every day that I do not have crippling arthritis is amazing. Every day that I am not so depressed I cannot get out of bed is amazing. Every day that I do not have a debilitating disease and I am living in this particular body is a lucky draw from the great cosmic masterpiece because, by some miracle, we are all here. We are alive and breathing and able to stand on the beach with sand between our toes and the ocean air against our faces.
We are the only ones who get to dictate if we are ready for that.
I think back to those hippos in fantasia dancing in tutus. I think about how they are the butt of a joke, a consistently cruel joke about size that plagues our society, and I think that perhaps the joke is on us. Because the hippo looks great in the tutu, and even if I thought it didn’t, what would it matter? It would keep dancing. Because by some miracle, it’s a hippo in a tutu and it can dance.