There are conversations that I have never felt I have a voice in, among women. Conversations about body image and size and weight loss. I don’t feel like I have a voice in the casual conversations among friends and colleagues (and acquaintances even) about points and slimming world and ‘being good’. And I don’t feel like I have a voice in the public ones… in the campaigns and activism and articles and feminism, much of which I love to see.
I was a skinny girl and now I am a
skinny thin slim fineboned petite 30-something woman.
See I picked up a lot of baggage, being a skinny girl, and all these years later there aren’t many words left that don’t sound like criticism in my ears.
When you are skinny, in a world where lots of people want to be, people don’t filter what they say to you. People are intrusive in ways they would never ever normally be.
The most harmful things that have been said to me about my body have been said by people who loved me, or at least liked me.
I didn’t pick up my negative body-image from magazines or soaps or pop music or bullies or bitchy girls. I picked it up around dinner tables and in church, I picked it up wearing uniforms and special outfits. I heard it addressed to me and I heard it addressed above my head, to my mum. I picked it up from people who were kind-enough, aware-enough, pc-enough and sensitive-enough to never dream of commenting on the weight of an overweight child… who would NEVER draw attention to that child or try to openly discuss their body with their mother.
When I was growing up the things I was told about my body made me feel labelled, criticised, humiliated and patronised. And simultaneously I was told I couldn’t have any issues about my body. I was lucky.
It was confusing as a child and confusing as a teenager to have body issues and then to be pushed out of every conversation about body issues.
There is no one comment or one person that damaged me, but the build-up did. I ‘get it’ now, of course. As an adult I have a different perspective and more resilience. I know that there is much damage in our society from the pursuit of ‘Thin’ and there is a huge balance to redress.
I have been enjoying the Maisie Dobbs books recently and I read with a wry smile as in between solving mysteries she dodges intrusive comments about her eating habits. She can’t visit Lady Rowan or Dame Constance without being told to “put meat on her bones” and she is forever assuring people “I eat plenty”. I have a fondness, now, for those pass-remarkable characters in life… for our Mrs Doyles, our honorary ‘Aunties’ and matron figures. I don’t want to rid our world or dining rooms of them entirely. I have learnt to be less sensitive to their analysis and advice, and these days I can brush it off more often than not. But still, I feel for that skinny girl, who couldn’t. I wish she didn’t have to run a gauntlet of comments growing up – comments on her arms and legs, comments about how bony she felt when hugged. I wish she didn’t have to endure assessments and prodding and eyes on her dinner plate. I wish she hadn’t spent YEARS covering up her limbs, sweaty summers in long-sleeves and jeans, ashamed.
The world is divided when it comes to Body Issues, and maybe we will never totally understand each other. We are divided into those who want to be curly and those who want to be straight, those who eat when they’re stressed and those who lose their appetite, those who treat their aesthetics with too much importance, and those who neglect it. We are even divided into those who feel too fat, and a few of us who feel too thin.
Maybe we will never totally understand each other but I’ve noticed something as I have tried to write this piece, that I suspect many of us have in common. It’s hard to admit that certain things bother us. It’s hard to say I struggle with this, I’m sensitive about this. It’s hard because it is not the whole story of who we are. It’s hard because it seems so superficial. It’s hard because shouldn’t we just ‘get over it’? It’s hard, for me, because all my life I have heard “well I’d love to have your problem“.
I have 2 daughters now who may have inherited my metabolism. How do I raise them to stand proud and not be diminished? It was an uphill battle for my own mum whose voice was wise, sane, loving…yet other voices got in and damaged me.
My mum has countered those voices in changing rooms across the country with patience and persistence.
I don’t know how to raise my daughters, but I am learning how to stand proud myself and not be diminished by comments on my figure. I listen to my mum and my husband. I listen to who God says I am. I read Anne Lamott and Brené Brown. I treat my body with compassion and fondness and gratitude. I wear clothes I like that are sleeveless and short and I can see this unique and particular body looks good, doing its own thing. Then I am proud of myself for wearing them, and for thinking so.
Brené Brown says: “What we think, hate, loathe and wonder about the acceptability of our bodies reaches much further and impacts far more than our appearance. The long reach of body shame can impact who and how we love, work, parent, communicate and build relationships.”
I’m just not prepared to pay that price. Let the impact of body shame be the thing I’m most afraid of.
Brené says that we must reach out to others and speak our shame: “If we feed shame the secrecy and silence it craves— if we keep the struggles with our bodies buried inside – the shame will fester and grow.” I spent all those years feeling ashamed of being skinny, and because that seemed like such a weird thing, I was doubly ashamed. It never occurred to me not to internalise every comment and feeling.
Let’s stop worrying if our bum is too big or too small and let’s worry more about what we miss, lose, diminish and inhibit in our lives when we let body shame take root in our pysche.
(More guest posts from some important voices coming over the next few weeks! Read the series so far here .)