How do you talk about your body?

girl sat on edge of hot tub, body image

A good chunk of last weekend was spent in a hot tub in bikinis, talking, laughing, reminiscing, joking, discussing and, ahem, sipping fizz. What do girls do when they get together? They build each other up, compliment each other and attack head-on whatever negative feelings their friends might have about themselves. That’s what good friends do at least. But what do girls say about themselves? I don’t really need to tell you. We all know that it’s often the opposite approach; one filled with loathing and judgement that doesn’t leave room for kindness or encouragement. See Mean Girls (important reference source for most life scenarios) – “Apparently there’s lots of things that can be wrong on your body”, Cady Heron realised as “The Plastics” dissected themselves in the mirror, racking her brain for her own negative body talk so she could fit in, and resorting to sharing that she had bad breath in the mornings.

I used to do it too. And maybe we all originally started doing it because people around us were, but to be honest it becomes like a reflex reaction. Negative body thought pops into head and demands to be voiced, negative body thought is duly aired. But I don’t air them anymore. And you know what? The less I dwell on those thoughts that pop in and the less voice I give them, the less they come. Last weekend felt like a wonderful little landmark in how much things have improved when one of my best girls commented on my confidence and how much I had grown. I can’t remember her exact words, mainly because I was busy tearing up and y’know, prosecco, but for someone to tell me how much they admired my confidence was one of the single best and most special things she could have done. It wasn’t always like this…

Looking back

It’s hard to explain how much I hated my body as a teenager; I despised it. I went from a happy, fairly confident 11 year old one summer to an extremely shy and anxious one almost overnight when I started secondary school, like a fish happily swimming around their local pond with their other fish friends, to one dropped into a great lake in another city full of bigger fish and unknown threats. Let’s be honest, kids that age are mean. And although I was never badly bullied – and thankfully made some wonderful friends with whom I’m still close to this day – I still got my fair share of crap. I’ll never forget one boy’s reaction to me supposedly fancying his brother as he looked down his nose at me with complete disgust, “eurgh” he said. And from that day on I would never admit to liking anyone, for fear of them finding out and being similarly repulsed. Our school year was very cliquey, to the point where different social groups would even use different changing rooms, and despite lots of happy memories too, the things some of those popular kids said will probably always stay with me. Some of the boys used to shake the tables as a joke when one of my friends sat down; is it any wonder that she describes her belly as flabby even now? Body hair made you a ‘gorilla’ and thicker legs were ‘thunder thighs’. These were all reactions from boys but the girls could be just as bad; I genuinely once heard two on my bus discussing whether they would rather have ‘ugly’ friends or no friends at all. And you know what? Although I don’t think I ever said anything that awful, I’m sure I made my fair share of bitchy comments too – being a teenager is a breeding ground for body hate – it’s when we learn to judge I think, more than any other time. I wish I could go back and tell teenage me that she was beautiful and worthy, and all those other girls too, that we didn’t need to slag off other people’s appearances to make us feel better about our own.

Starting uni, in contrast, was a complete revelation. As I sat with the girls from my hall in the corridor (where else?!) one night in fresher’s week, we shared a bag of Malteasers and chatted. I said something about the calories, and I’ll never forget my friend’s response, “calories, schmalories”. That year there wasn’t talk of diets or shame around our bodies; instead we spent evenings complimenting each other as we spray tanned our friends’ backs and got ready for yet another night out. The boys around us were lovely and became my friends, and I started to ease into myself, feeling so much more comfortable around people that built me up and a culture that felt free of nasty cliques and the confines of a home town, with all the fresh, unbridled opportunity and excitement that comes with a new city.

A shift in thinking

Gradually, my attitude started to shift. But the single biggest attitude shake-up took place in second year when my sister became seriously ill with an eating disorder. You can’t ever forget the sight of your own little sister laid in a hospital bed, so small and weak that you felt like just hugging her might break her. I feel emotional writing about this even now, as I think that this same fragile and desperately poorly girl, is now a woman who cycled 100 miles for charity last month, and spends her life basically smashing through her goals.

I hated the eating disorder and everything it had done to her, and I was desperate to show her that food and eating were all about joy and abundance. Just a teenager myself, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I suppose I got pretty confused about the whole thing. My desperation to shed all the restrictions around food that I saw ensnaring her led to me sometimes taking it too far and binge eating, which of course in its turn isn’t healthy either, and in my opinion isn’t discussed nearly enough in the mainstream. People can end up in rehab for that too and it’s why I never joke about food comas, because as normalised as binging can be – particularly amongst girls I think, who try to restrict themselves most of the time and then go mad on ‘cheat’ day – it can be so detrimental to our mental health and happiness. Unfortunately, it can become a coping mechanism when other things go wrong, such as in my case the loneliness I felt on my year abroad or the stress of final year and exams.

Happily, in the last few years I’ve got to a place where I eat what I want every day. I try never to restrict myself (because in my opinion that only leaves you wanting stuff more!), no food is ‘bad’ or ‘cheating’ and as the result of all these experiences I’m fiercely against dieting and any mindset that creates rules around our eating and our bodies.

Cultivating healthy habits

What’s got me here? Listen, I’m not an expert and like everyone, I have bad days too where I feel like poop about the way I look. I can only really comment on what I think has helped me personally. And one of the biggest things I think is the self-talk. We can’t ever stop negative thoughts popping into our heads (although I think we can reduce them – see my next point!), but we can choose what we do with them. Voicing them only gives them more power, and whilst we can often feel that self-confidence might be arrogance, it’s not, it’s infectious. Build your friends up but build yourself up too. And when they feel sad about their bodies, let’s not only counter it with praise but live out that positivity in our own skin. I know, I know, easier said than done, and I’m not saying we should feel like we can’t ever voice negative body-image feelings. I’m just saying, if you can, be a little kinder to yourself.

My other thought on this is not what comes out of our minds but what goes in, and by that I mean inputs. I wrote about this in another post and this one’s been a long’un so I’ll keep it brief, but basically that we can help ourselves so much by keeping a check on the content we consume and how it affects us. Following people on social media who build you up, and who talk about themselves positively, can be a radical thing. I’ll finish up here with a few said goddesses and things they’ve said, and there’s a few resources listed below for actual expert advice and not just the ramblings of moi.

This post has made me feel quite vulnerable but it’s something I care about so much and I hope that it might’ve encouraged you. If you take anything from it, please just show yourself a little love today.

Some uplifting content faves:

Megan Jayne Crabbe (aka bodyposipanda), Laura Jane Williams, The Slumflower, Cait Meredith, Alice Dalrymple, Since Sliced Bread Mag, Laura Thomas PHD, Jameela Jamil, Kat Nicholls

Some words of goodness:

Celeste Barber – I have been asked in a number of interviews how I’m going to get my body into shape for summer. To which I respond, “what shape are you referring to? I’m working on the wobbly pear shape at the moment and am quite happy with my progress.”

Megan Jayne Crabbe – (when asked “Hi! What do u recommend for stretch mark removal?”) I would recommend removing the idea that you need to get rid of your stretch marks when they’re a completely natural part of you. We only see them as ‘flaws’ because companies realised they could make millions from selling us the products to get rid of them. Your body loves you enough to make extra room for you to grow and flourish and LIVE in, how could that ever be a flaw?

Brené Brown – There are no prerequisites for worthiness

Laura Thomas PHD – There is no such thing as a ‘good’ food or a ‘bad’ food. No food is inherently healthy or unhealthy – all foods contain a mixture of different nutrients.

Lori Deschene – We can’t hate ourselves into a version of ourselves we can love

A few resources:

  • Beat – the UK’s eating disorder charity
  • Mind  – charity providing advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem
  • NHS eating disorders page
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