Looking back now, I can’t remember a time when I haven’t had society’s “ideal” shape, weight, size, and body image thrust at me.
I know very well the conditioning women are subjected to. First-hand experience.
It’s hard to ignore. Svelte, petite mannequins, round in the chest area and nowhere else, standing frozen in shop windows. Advertisements on buses of models sitting on beaches without cellulite or body hair. Airbrushed complexions—high-profile celebrities posting selfies on Instagram with the caption make-up free when they really aren’t make-up free.
There should be no barriers when it comes to inhaling a cream cheese bagel ravenously on a half-hour lunch break during an eight-hour shift. But walking past a skinny mannequin in a shop front window wearing a crop top and cut-off shorts was enough to make me lose my appetite.
There shouldn’t be a constant sensory overload of size and body opinions everywhere you go, whether in real life or online. But I once stood in a vintage clothing store, sliding on a pair of Vintage 501s to be told by the salesperson that my hips would look better in another style. I mean, the jeans fit me, and I was getting early 90s Winona Ryder vibes.
The salesperson shook their head, suggested I try something else, handed me a pair of deadstock 1970s bell-bottoms, and said they would look better. It shouldn’t have been a struggle to walk out with those 501s, and I did. But as I tapped my card to pay, I couldn’t help but notice how flushed I felt and the doubt that crept in as I stepped out of the shop with my new purchase.
It shouldn’t have been a struggle to get the jeans I wanted.
The truth is you can wear what you want. No salesperson has the right to tell you the style of clothes you love on your body is wrong.
These body opinions don’t matter, but they affect us in one way or another. What does matter is that you stay healthy, and you are feeding your body the nutrients it requires.
It doesn’t matter if you have gone up a size. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t as fit as last year. It doesn’t matter if you have hairy legs and cellulite. It just doesn’t matter.
I have struggled with my body image for years. High school didn’t help.
Early on, I had a group of loving friends from diverse backgrounds, and our friendships were based on learning from one another and having fun. Being young. We didn’t draw attention to one another’s bodies, we didn’t talk about them, they weren’t on our radar for a very long time.
I was deeply saddened when a friend of mine called themselves fat at 14. They told me they needed to lose weight, and at that age, I didn’t know what to say, other than tell them I didn’t think they were fat.
It didn’t matter what I said or what their parents said. Magazines, TV shows, music videos, the MTV music awards, and low-rise jeans all told us we should be thinner. The early noughties were a hotbed of tight midriffs, and women sexualized everywhere you looked. Gone were the days of the shoulder-padded power suit. Elaine Benes’s dressing was out. Power suits, faded Levi’s, and natural eyebrows were out. Bare shoulders, belly button rings, and parted lips coated in shiny lip gloss dominated and destroyed.
When my friend told me that they wanted to lose weight, I was taken aback, but eventually, it seeped into my spongey little teen brain too.
I decided that maybe I needed to lose weight. I was 14, and my hips were growing. At the time, Jennifer Lopez was constantly being called out by the media for having what they deemed a big butt.
The beginning of my fixation with my own body image coincided with puberty. With hormones raging, a collection of roll-on lip glosses, and endless afternoons of teenage boredom, I also started to want a boyfriend.
I found one. He was a little older than me. I was young and smitten. I didn’t see any flaws in him; I thought he was the cat’s pajamas. But he thought constructive criticism was to tell me my thighs would look better in jeans if I lost a little weight. Viscerally, I remember him squishing the backs of my thighs to create a thigh gap as I stood in the mirror. I felt shattered.
Not long after that incident, I stood in the canteen line at recess, wondering what to have in my sandwich when one of the popular jocks in school stood behind me. He told his friend that I had thunder thighs. Thunder thighs? I was perplexed. Was that a compliment? My friend told me it wasn’t.
It doesn’t matter if you are short, tall, round, thin. Someone will always have something to say about your size. So if you’re worried about not looking exactly like a Kardashian or Victoria’s Secret model, please stop it.
See your body for the beautiful, wonderful creation that it is. A body is a miracle. Being born is a miracle.
During my mid-20s, I started to lose a lot of weight. I went down three sizes, which had been my goal size since high school. I started off losing weight in a healthy way. I was active, ate three nutritious meals daily, and stayed hydrated.
A little later, I became marginally obsessive about keeping the weight off. I felt like I needed to maintain that goal weight. Yes, I resented the situation, but I wouldn’t eat a chocolate brownie because I had already met my calorie limit for that day. I would carry on conversations with friends in café’s, fixing my eyes on the gooey brownie in the cabinet behind them. I stopped taking sugar in my coffee.
The funny thing is, when I was at my natural size, people told me I could lose a little weight. When I lost weight, I was told I had lost too much weight.
I had to laugh.
My personal journey gave me a crystal-clear glimpse of society’s impossible expectations and the ridiculous world of body image. It’s a place of madness and contradictions. My journey had become somewhat of a social experiment, which had not been my intention at all.
I found that people who I least expected to comment on my weight felt they had the right to no matter what size I was. After a while, I closed myself to any commentary. To this day, I will not discuss my body with anyone but medical professionals and tattoo artists.
The greatest shift in how I viewed my body happened fairly recently.
A couple of years ago, I went to the doctor with a medical issue. After a round of tests, I was given all clear and sent on my way. I stepped out of the doctor’s surgery, embracing the sound of traffic, the sun on my face, the cool breeze, and the sheer relief of knowing that everything was fine. A weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
Two years later, that medical issue turned out to be something threatening. I booked in to see a different doctor, who sent me off for some tests. The doctor called later that week and told me my results were abnormal. I was to book in for an MRI. Following that came startling information that they would get me into the hospital as soon as possible to discuss my medical issue with a surgeon.
I hung up the phone and, in a moment, my existence started crumbling.
I was not able to hold myself up. I fell onto the couch, a mess of tears. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong with me yet, but I knew it wasn’t good.
During those first few very difficult weeks, I felt immense helplessness, which I wasn’t equipped to deal with at all. I stopped writing. I stopped listening to music and going to thrift stores. I stopped living my best life. I found it hard to function.
If I wasn’t at work, I was on the couch Googling everything about my condition. It became a cycle. My partner was worried about my mental health and asked me not to research this condition anymore until I spoke to the specialists.
I didn’t listen. I Googled in secret.
After my appointment with the specialist surgeon, I learned that the operation I required would be complex. They advised me there could be some temporary or permanent facial paralysis and numbness after the procedure.
I Googled some more and then joined an online group of people who had been through what I was going through. Quite a few of them had some serious complications after surgery. Many had lost their ability to smile or blink.
One day during this difficult period, I found myself staring at my reflection in the mirror, and I thought about how much of my physical self I had taken for granted. How all the amazing capabilities of my body had gone unnoticed. I had been bad to myself. I had taken for granted so much. Then I was angry that I had allowed society and the men I had dated to make me feel ashamed of a perfectly beautiful, functioning body for so long. I had been perfect all along.
That moment flipped a switch. I stopped thinking of my body negatively. No longer did I look in the mirror and think my tummy could be a little tighter and how I didn’t love the cellulite on the back of my thighs.
My wonderful body had carried me, it had regenerated and functioned and blossomed, and it did all the things it was supposed to for so long. It allowed me to walk, run, laugh, cry, experience life.
I felt so ashamed of myself for allowing myself to want it to be better when it was already perfect.
I had accepted that I would be different after surgery. But my surgeon advised me that my recovery had been unremarkable, which in medical terms is a positive thing. It means there had been no major issues.
I deemed my surgery highly successful. I didn’t need to look for the silver lining because it flashed before me in neon lights. I now loved and appreciated my body.
The surgical procedure caused me to lose feeling in my face, in one cheek, but I gained a battle scar. It sits behind my ear and reminds me of healing. Around my ear, nerves have started to regenerate, and when I trace that area with my fingertips, my sensations are not the same as they used to be. The new sensations remind me of change.
Bodies aren’t supposed to be taken for granted and shamed. They are to be celebrated in their natural forms and treated with ease and care. Nourished and respected. Loved.
It saddens me that there are millions of young women around the world, right now, looking at their reflections in mirrors, pinching and pulling at healthy bodies because they want to look like someone they saw on Instagram.
It saddens me even more that there is probably a young woman out there whose boyfriend is pinching back her thighs and telling her she would look better if she just lost a little bit of weight. Her heart shattering, just like mine did.
But I feel joy knowing that I look forward to loving my body and celebrating it daily. I feel joy knowing millions of women out there will heal from body image trauma and change their minds about their bodies, realizing they are beautiful as they are.