Tag Archives: body image

Weighing In

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.

A number.

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high school retrospective: body and self

Something I’ve been dancing a rather typical dance with over the past six years has been my weight.

Like every teenage girl who ever lived ever, I looked in the mirror one day and instead of seeing the nonplussed little girl I had always seen, instead just thought “Yuck! What on earth is that?”

I remember the exact moment it happened. I had gone to the info night of the high school I was to attend, and when I arrived was the only person there who hadn’t changed out of my primary school uniform.

It was literally because I had gotten home from school that day and couldn’t be bothered to throw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. But as I observed everyone else looking trendy and cool and not at all like a nerdy little geek, it occurred to me for the first time that maybe, appearances mattered.

Up until that moment, I hadn’t cared what I looked like. I ate whatever I wanted, didn’t exercise because I didn’t like it, dressed in my brother’s hand-me-downs because I hated clothes shopping, and generally just didn’t give a shit.
I had braces and glasses, and laughed at the thought of shaving my legs. “What a dumb thing to do!” I thought, “What on earth was the point?”

In other words, I was a kid. My major concern was whether it would rain enough to go outside and do puddle slides down the street. Who cared what I looked like?

I went home that night, looked in the mirror, and by morning had made a conclusive list of all of my flaws and imperfections. Everything from being too short, to having bad skin, to hating my glasses and above all else, being too heavy. I was lagging behind my peers and the moment high school started, appearances were going to matter.

I had never even thought about these things before, and suddenly it was everything. I looked at teenage girls all the time and just thought, why can’t I look like that? Why am I so much frumpier and uglier? Why is it so easy for them?

My weight was a particular load on my mind. I remember one day I overheard two girls the same age as me discussing their weight, and being so sure that there was something wrong with me, because I was ten kilos heavier then both of them.

So what was wrong with me? Well, now I can say that I was physically an early developer. I had breasts before my peers did, I had hips and a bum and had my growth spurt before the other girls my age. But emotionally I was a world behind, having never cared for appearances or even thought about the fact that the little tom boy I had been as a child would have to grow up into a woman. Whenever my mum tried to talk about it I wouldn’t listen. I ignored the teeny bop magazines that explained all that stuff girls were supposed to know about. Ignorance is truly bliss, but when the bubble pops the fall is hard.

So high school started, and so did six years of trying to diet and trying to exercise and hating my body every step of the way.
I never really got the hang of it. I pretty much failed as a teenager in terms of looks. As I was a bit of a hippy, I excused the fact that I didn’t wear makeup and didn’t shave my legs off the back that I thought it was ‘unnatural’. The truth was, I didn’t know how razors worked and I didn’t know how to put on makeup. And I was way too scared to ask.

My body shape caused me all manor of internal hell all through high school. When the mean boy called me fat in year eight, I agonized for weeks while my friends tried to tell me he was a jerk and it wasn’t true. All I could think was, something must have put the idea into his head.

In year ten and year twelve, I had to go formal dress shopping with my mum. God what a headache. It was like every pretty dress was put on this earth to be unflattering or just straight out not fit. Since the age of sixteen, my body shape had settled down a bit to fit the description of ‘curvy’. Little waist, wider hips and big breasts. But unfortunately, clothes for teenage girls very rarely fit comfortably with these dimensions. And from the perspective of someone who wanted to look the same as my friends, the fact that everything bulged because I was too top heavy, or needing to wear woman’s sizes as opposed to teenage sizes, or having to opt for the extra large because nothing else would fit over my chest, all simply translated into “fat”.

I think the worst part about it was the fact I felt so damn helpless to change anything. Yes I could have started exercising more and yes I could have eaten better, but the only thing more mortifying then the thought of having to live with the body I had, was the thought of being judged.

It was like, if I acknowledged that I didn’t like my body and wanted to change it then other people would be able to judge me too. It felt like defeat, that trying to change my habits and lead a healthier life would be giving up the defiance I had publicly touted for so long that I didn’t care about my weight, that I was happy in my skin, even though it was a lie. It felt pathetic. I was embarrassed and so I did nothing.

I think that’s how eating disorders and self destructive behavior starts. Because tearing yourself apart in private is so much easier to do then facing up to potential public humiliation when your efforts fall apart or you’re forced to admit your own insecurities.

I know now that’s a completely wrong way to think, and all the stupid stuff I tried while trying to lose weight was just dumb. Everything from keeping food journals, to only eating fruit, to sneaking out at the crack of dawn to go running before anyone else was awake. All of these ridiculous measures just made me more stressed out and anxious then the alternative would have.

At the end of the day, I can only blame myself. They were my insecurities I was dealing with after all, and only my own scrutiny. But having said that, being around friends and teenagers who all joke about how ugly fat people are and how bad it is to look bad, and yet mock those who diet and try to exercise, made it harder. And my parents, who tried so hard to do the right thing but just missed the mark completely. They wanted so much for me to feel good about myself that every time I tried to eat healthier my mum would assure me that I didn’t have to and would give worrying lectures about eating disorders. They kept saying that it was “okay to be a bigger girl!” not even realizing that this was completely not the right thing to say. All it did was confirm that I was a big girl, something I was absolutely not okay with at all.

I remember one really good health class teacher telling us back in year seven that as soon as puberty is over, we’re going to look back and wonder how on earth we survived all that. That it will be like the clouds parting and the sunlight streaming in.
I’ve never forgotten that, because I spent my teen years hoping like hell it would be true.

I have to say, to my utter relief, I think it is.

It’s like I’ve been holding my breath for six years and suddenly I can breathe, and all the bullshit and worry and anxiety has been thrown into perspective.

I used to say I just didn’t care, but things aren’t that simple. It’s important to care about some things; the key is to just filter out the bullshit.

So, I still care about my weight, but not so much because I long to be skinny and beautiful like every other teenage girl I saw. Now it’s because I want to be healthy and I want to be able to do the things I love without being held back by lack of physical fitness.

Now, I don’t care about the scrutiny of peers or parents, and no longer fear acknowledging that I would  like to make a change in my life.

This, as it would happen, is exactly what I have been doing.

And I feel fucking great.

I wish I could go back and talk to twelve year old me, standing in front of the mirror and hating every inch of her body. I wish I could make her understand what I understand now.
Or even better, just let her know that there is an end to the madness, that life will eventually make sense again, and things will be okay.

I hate that phrase “be yourself”, because the self that I was, was not a happy self. I wanted to feel good about the person I was, but the person I was wasn’t the person I wanted to be.
I think the better advice to give is be the best person you can be. Be the happiest person you can be. Be the person you want to be. Don’t resign to just being whatever it is you are, whether it makes you happy or not. If you’re miserable, and are able to make a change, it’s not giving up or acknowledging a weakness. It’s proving you are capable of more.

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