Getting dressed in the morning and making sure the lights are dim. Having my evening shower and closing my eyes as I run the sponge over a body – my body?? My arms are acceptable, but I can’t face my legs – my “problem area”. At one time their strength and curves felt like a mismatch with my skinny upper half, reinforced by an ex who told me which parts of my body were appealing and which weren’t. Nowadays, it’s because I can see where whole sheets of muscle have broken down as my body ate itself in a bid to survive anorexia. My feet are okay. I can cope with my back. Other areas are a challenge.
So I am a jigsaw – separate parts that feel more or less connected with where “I” inhabit, which has long been just a small area in the middle of my brain. This is the only part that is definitely “me”, trapped in a disconnected body, for which I’ve felt a mixture of dislike, disappointment, and fear.
I think many women relate to the dislike, disappointment, and even hatred of our bodies. And how many of us are frightened of our bodies, trying to stay “safe” by dealing with them in parts? Do we realise this means we’re frightened of ourselves?
Why The Disconnect? – Words And Pictures
I can see how a decade of anorexia has resulted in having a body I don’t trust. Not only does body dysmorphia mean I struggle to see myself as I actually am, but my body has also done scary things in showing me the physical distress I’ve been in. There are many illnesses, conditions, and accidents which cause people to struggle with their bodies. And there are some amazingly brave women speaking about these struggles and reaching out to others.
But why do so many of us who don’t have these added serious struggles, who are in reasonably good physical health, experience this disconnect?
Its roots go deep, but what I’m finding on my journey to meet my body again is that these deep roots are easier than I thought to overturn. Because so many of the roots are just words and pictures – nothing our bodies ever did or didn’t do – simply words we’ve heard and read and pictures we’ve seen over and over again until they’ve become fundamental truths that we don’t even see or hear. We just simply absorb them without noticing.
It starts young. The question we hear our mothers ask looking in the mirror to check her body passes the test – am I “acceptable” like this? Can I show myself to the world? The questions voiced as “Does my bum look big in this?” or “I need to hide my legs.” We can naturally slip into the same thought patterns at puberty – passed from mother to daughter. We come together as friends, sharing and reinforcing these messages.
Then there’s the media, now complemented by social media. The endless reports on how to get a “perfect” body and fix our “problem areas”. The daily “diet” of food fads, weight loss miracles, dress size “achievements” – stories of how a mind (and often a lot of money) defeats a disappointing or shameful body.
And even the newly “perfected” body is still reduced to stones, kilograms, and dress size labels, alongside the obligatory list of what has and hasn’t been consumed. The body is still not fully connected with the person. She has made her body acceptable by getting it as close as possible to an accepted norm of what beauty means, and that’s not necessarily what it means to her. She probably hasn’t even thought about that.
So many of us can’t connect with our bodies now. We’re waiting for the day when we’re like the women in the articles – however much truth there may or may not be in their words and pictures. Or we’ve given up waiting and don’t even own a body anymore.
The Hope – Positive Messages
It seems some of the words and pictures are changing. And it’s inspiring to see the changes getting faster and bolder as more of us gain confidence watching the positivity and bravery of our fellow women. Amongst the diets, numbers, and before/after photos in our media, we can now find an outspoken and creative body positive culture – hovering somewhere between a sub-culture and the mainstream. I’m encouraged by initiatives such as Jameela Jamil’s @i_weigh campaign and the @boycottthebefore movement on Instagram, the representation of plus-size models on social media and even in some magazines, and the bravery of those who refuse to hide their “imperfections”.
I’ve noticed that some body positive media content focuses on the body as a vehicle or a tool. For me, my body as a vehicle is only half the answer to closing the disconnect and re-claiming my physicality. It’s body positive in that it encourages appreciation of what my body can do. But rather than challenge a culture which still tells me how I should look, it feels like disengagement with it. We don’t need to see our bodies, to confront our fears. We don’t need to feel beautiful. We don’t need to be physical beings. We are merely inside vehicles we can ignore.
But why should we accept this? We will feel like whole people until we realise that our bodies are us. We own them because they are literally who we are. We can choose to hate and punish ourselves for not being “perfect”. We can starve ourselves, hide ourselves from the world, force ourselves through fitness regimes and diets that we know aren’t right for us. Or we can really claim ownership of our bodies – of ourselves – by challenging what we’ve read/seen/heard for the past three decades of our lives. We can appreciate ourselves as unique individuals with our own unique beauty. We can listen to what our body wants – what we want – and nourish ourselves. We can find a sport or activity that makes us enjoy moving like we did as small children before the messages took their toll – appreciating our bodies for what we can learn rather than suffer through a “regime” on our way to “perfection.”
But how can we do this? – Beyond The Limits And The Niches
I’m inspired and encouraged by so many individuals who choose to craft their own body positive messages and carve out niches to help others with the same struggles and experiences. It was empowering to do my bit for fellow eating disorder sufferers on my recent fundraising tour for Beat, contributing to the niche carved out for those of us who live this particular set of struggles.
I’m also inspired by the campaigns which challenge a particular news report, article, or advert, such as the recent activity challenging the ridiculous 100 calorie snack initiative for children.
All of this activity is helping to gradually turn around parts of a culture that often seems designed to create body negativity. But just as one part is turning around, new elements can appear that then need to be challenged.
When and how will we reach the day when our niches are no longer niches, when they enter the mainstream? Or even better when we no longer need niches because the mainstream is only body positive and includes all of us?
I think we need to collaborate even more. We mustn’t protect our niches or compete for ‘likes’ or followers. We need to share and promote any body positive content we find. I think we also need to challenge body negative media content every day – because there is definitely something damaging to be found out there on a daily basis!
So after tracking and collecting this damaging content for several months and wondering what to do with it, I’ve hit on my next campaign:
#Headlines/Bodylines – Here’s what I’m going to do:
- Starting today, I will be doing a daily #Headlines/Bodylines Instagram post using my words and pictures to challenge a particular article or report, or a general media theme.
- I’ll also contact the publication or company behind one particular report, article or advert every week because we need to DO something. We need to engage regularly rather than disengage.
I don’t want to create my own niche. I want to share my posts as much as possible. I hope others will post under the #Headlines/Bodylines hashtag and on their own pages, creating their own ‘Headlines’ posts to join the challenge.
I want us to reach the day when we all feel positive, beautiful and empowered, and we can use these feelings to hold our heads high and take on the world.
Are you in?