I have talked about this before but it’s a topic I want to bring up again.
The topic being body image.
It’s been on my mind lately for a few reasons. I’ve been examining my relationship with my own body and been reflecting on the past ten, fifteenish years when body image has been an issue for me and why.
I have a few instances in my life of being acutely aware of body image. The first was when I was five or six years old. I was in a ballet class and we were being put into roles for our annual show. My age group could be butterflies or birds. I wanted to be a butterfly, but my teacher told me that I was too big to be a butterfly, so I would have to be a bird. I remember this so clearly, and later remember being scared that I would be too big for my bird costume, and having these nightmares of exploding out of it. My friend, who was one of those girls who is just permanently petite, was a butterfly. It’s the first memory I have of being jealous of another girls body.
When I was maybe ten, my best friend and I were making movies with my brother in the backyard. I was playing a wolf, creeping up on little red riding hood. I was wearing my favourite grey track pants, which I liked because they were the comfiest things I owned. Later, when we watched the footage back, I vowed never to wear them again, because I was acutely aware that my bum looked massive in the camera frame, those comfortable track pants stretched tight over my huge ass.
I grew to hate photographs. Every time I looked at them I was aware of my arms, my neck, my stomach, my thighs. I hated the way I looked. I looked abnormal and freakish. I lost a lot of favourite items of clothing to this obsession- shirts I decided made my stomach puff out or clung to tightly to my arms, or gave me the very attractive sounding “slug boob”. Pants and skirts that made my hips and thighs and bum look fat. I wouldn’t wear halter necks because I was scared of people seeing my back fat. Everything had to be baggy and lose. Everything had to be black. I spent my teenage years as a sad black ghost in my baggy pants and giant hoodies and t-shirts, terrified of being seen.
The conclusion I have drawn is that I’ve always felt not necessarily fat, but big. Big and clumsy and awkward and unfit. Even more then hating the way I looked, I hated the way I felt. I dreaded the humiliation of being in a position when I would seem heavy or when everyone else could perform a simple manoeuvrer that I couldn’t. I was afraid that if everyone had to jump over a fence, I’d be the only person who would get stuck, or have to be helped. I feared humiliation and failure, even more then I hated my looks.
Like this one time, when I was twelve. I was on an overnight school trip in Sydney and we were all rushing to make it to this show. I had one backpack to carry. I remember having a screaming fight with my mum who wanted me to take a bag on wheels, and I refused because I wanted to carry my stuff. Anyway, I had to hurry with my one backpack, but It was so hot outside, and I was so unfit that the small amount of weight was slowing me down. I was out of breath, I couldn’t keep up. A teacher had to stop and she carried my bag for me. I can clearly remember the burning humiliation and shame of being the only one who couldn’t carry their own bag and couldn’t keep up with the group. This came a night after the girls in my dorm had sat up and talked the previous night all about their weight, and I had discovered that I was at least ten kilos heavier then the others.
The fear of humiliation isn’t entirely gone. I was recently cast in a play and in one scene, my character is carried onstage by another. I was instantly filled with blind panic and mortification at the thought of someone having to pick me up and me being too heavy for them to carry. It’s irrational, but my first instinct was to propose counter ideas. Maybe he could support me through the door instead? Or I could start the scene already inside? Surely he didn’t have to carry me. Surely there had to be a way to avoid it. In my teens, I blamed myself for being lazy, but the more I think about it, the more it becomes apparent that these negative feelings are part of a vicious cycle.
I wanted to be in shape so that I could stop fearing humiliation and failure. But in order to get into shape, I had to risk humiliation and failure. I had to risk someone seeing me wobble and puffing and red in the face while I tried to jog, or worse, half naked pale and chubby struggling up and down a swimming pool.
So I never did. I put it off. I tried diets but they never ever worked and I always came out feeling worse.
Then, high school ended, and I fell out of touch with almost all of my classmates. My parents bought a mounted bike and I could hide in my room to exercise. Gradually, I started getting into shape. I lost seven kilos. I realised there were things I could now do that I would have dreaded trying before. My confidence went up, and so did my body image. That fear of humiliation and failure still existed, but in a less extreme fashion. It reached a point where I was no longer afraid of people seeing me while I exercised. I could go for runs in public, go to the gym, swim laps at the pool.
I’ve realised that my relationship to my body has always been to do with exercise, not food. Food follows naturally. When my body feels good, I’m more driven to eat well and make the hard work count. I can set achievable goals and accomplishing them feels much more permanent and significant then food goals.
On days when I don’t exercise I feel like crap, I eat crap, and all my confidence and self-esteem goes out the window. I can’t sleep, so I lie awake and feel all the dread of the night and the inevitable self doubt that comes with it.
Exercise is the key for me, to happiness and self-empowerment. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to figure it out. Diet is important, but secondary.
But what I’ve also realised is that body image is like an obsession to everyone. Like, everyone. Is there a single person alive that doesn’t have issues with their bodies? How their body looks and feels?
I have a diverse group of friends and they’re all completely gorgeous. Tall and short, curvy and skinny. All of them are obsessed with losing weight and dieting. My friend Sarah for example, is tiny. She’s tall and thin, but has a note posted to her fridge that says “stop being a fatty”. It’s so she’ll think twice when she goes to eat food.
My other friend Katherine is tall and athletic. She’s slender and strong. She goes to the gym every day and eats only vegetables for dinner, and is obsessed with losing weight. Her friend Jen is as thin as Sarah, but works out twice a day and eats a small salad in between in order to be thinner still. Carrie is a tiny pocket rocket and goes to the gym for several hours every morning. Emma runs marathons and recently turned vegetarian.
And then there’s me. I try to run every morning and have a rule against buying junk food (I figure if I don’t buy it, I can’t eat it). I’d love nothing more then to lose ten-eleven kilos. I know I’m not overweight, I’m a healthy weight for my height and age. I want to lose it to be thinner, to fulfil this deluded teenage fantasy that somehow, if I was thinner and smaller and if there were less of me, I’d somehow be happier. More beautiful. More successful. Just better.
But the more I think about it, the more I wonder: if I weighed ten kilos less, would I be more comfortable with my fellow actor carrying me on stage in our play? Would I still be afraid of jumping the fence? Would I live in perpetual fear of one day putting all the weight back on again if I slip up or don’t keep losing more?
In other words, would I actually be happy?
I don’t know. I’m not sure. I once would have said “yes!”, but seeing my friends- all of them different and fit and healthy and smart and gorgeous women- all hating their bodies and obsessed with losing weight, it makes me wonder how certain I am that it’s true.
If I lost ten kilos I’d weigh the same as I did when I was twelve. I sure as fuck wasn’t happy when I was twelve. And there’s something weird about weighing equally to my twelve year old self at the age of twenty. Would it make me happy? I really don’t know.
At the moment, I know that exercising makes me happy and sane. I like setting myself goals and achieving them. Maybe that’s what I should focus on, and let the weight just be what it is.