Over the last few days, some of you will know I found something of a ‘troll-mine’ – a forum filled with some rather horrid negative things about me, written by people who have never met me, and who have judged me often on a few choice words in a sentence. To be perfectly honest, as a result I struggled an awful lot with this post. Body confidence, and relationships with food and exercise are not only very personal things, but topics which can be very hard to voice.
I ummed and ahed about posting it, but for every troll sitting there, wanting to turn something I’m trying to say as a positive into a negative, I have a feeling there will be someone else who needs to hear my words and focus on his or her own body image issues.
Miss Twenty-Nine xxx
January is traditionally body-image month.
The wrong side of Christmas, after all the over-indulgence, suddenly the regret hits and people start looking more critically at themselves in the mirror.
Resolutions are made; new gym memberships taken.
Some will last; some will never be used.
January is also the biggest month for online dating. Once the festivities and excitement end, people start to feel lonely again, and go in search of a partner.
But January isn’t the only link between body-image and dating. And in my opinion, the latter only works, when you have a healthy, happy stance on the former.
Like most girls, I’ve definitely struggled with body image over the years. It took me a number of years to come to terms with my body, and understand when and how it looks (and works) at its best.
I’ve been 5’8’’ since I was eleven, and towered over my friends like a lumbering giant in Years 7 and 8. I’ve always been rather ‘big boned’ – not a polite way to say fat, I just generally have quite broad shoulders and a larger frame. (Which those of you who watched the Blind Date video will have noticed when I stepped in front of Cilla and obscured her from view!)
I was always active as a child and was never necessarily ‘fat’, but I can remember first feeling large in my early teens, simply because I was wearing dress sizes with two digits rather than one. Looking back as an adult I know that comparison is a ridiculous one, but it’s one a worrying number of fourteen and fifteen year old girls still make.
I went to an all girls’ school, and whilst my parents had always instilled a healthy attitude to food in me and my sister, and I never grew up in a household where my mum dieted, it was impossible not to be affected by other girls’ views on size and relationships with food. I can remember one girl openly talking about throwing up her dinner every Friday to make sure she had a flat stomach in her dress that night. And another girl whose lunch box only ever contained 2 Ryvita and an apple.
As someone who hopes to one day be a mother, I am genuinely scared of the idea of having to bring up a daughter, and ensure she has a healthy attitude towards food. No matter how you bring up your daughter at home, she will always be exposed to other attitudes at school, and in the media.
I’ve always loved food, and diets have never really worked for me. So exercise has always been the way I kept my weight in check, and not always in the best manner.
Whilst I’ve never had what most people would describe as an eating disorder, I can look back at different times in my life and see my weight fluctuate. During my gap year I became extremely thin for my frame. Still a size ten, I looked a ghost of myself. I was running all the time, and whilst I was eating, I was exercising almost obsessively. Then when Dad died, I ballooned, giving up the exercise and comfort eating away my grief. I lost the weight again, only for Mum to then die, and the cycle to repeat.
Then came University.
Cambridge is a university filled with over-achievers, and sadly something common in driven, over-achieving women is a history of eating disorders. Surrounded by teeny tiny girls, with painfully unhealthy relationships with food, I often struggled with the lumbering giant feeling. And whilst the largest I’ve ever been is a size 14, when the average dress size around you is a 6, that can still make you feel pretty big.
In the most competitive goldfish bowl I’ve ever lived in, everyone compared themselves to others. I was actually taking to Experiment Dater Faithful about it the other day – we attended the same Cambridge college – and we laughed at the painful tradition the college barmen had of putting photos of the girls they considered ‘most beautiful’ up behind the bar.
Looking back, it’s no real surprise to me that I never had a boyfriend at university. Because with dating comes sex. And to properly enjoy sex, you need to be comfortable and happy. If you’re not even comfortable with yourself, how can you expect to be comfortable in ultimately the most vulnerable physical situation you can put yourself in? Confidence breeds comfort. But body confidence can be a long time coming.
Confidence is an interesting thing.
If you asked most people I know to describe me, I would put money on the fact that ‘confident’ would be one of the adjectives most of them used. I’ve always been bubbly. Right back to when I was a tiny toddler. My Mum used to tell a tale of me chattering away to strangers from my pushchair, and a lady approaching her to tell her I shouldn’t be so friendly … it would get me in trouble! The warning didn’t work, and I still chat to anyone and everyone.
But there are different types of confidence.
As a university student I would happily stand up and speak to a room full of hundreds of strangers. But make me strip down naked in front of a guy, and it was a completely different thing.
It took me years to become body confident. And ironically, the ‘skin’ I’m happiest in, is by no means the smallest it’s ever been.
Interestingly, in the end it was a change of exercise and attitude which made my body shape change.
For years I had slugged away at the gym, averaging two hours a day, but never ever really seeing the results. I would watch on enviously as my slimmer friends pigged out on ‘naughty’ foods, and wonder what I was doing wrong. I would fret about what I was eating, look into fad diets, and last two days before binge-eating on all the stuff I’d banned myself from having.
And then few years ago I discovered yoga.
I’d always found the more orthodox styles of yoga a waste of time. In order to feel like I’d exercised properly, I needed to break a sweat, and feel my heart pumping. Yoga never helped me achieve those things. And then while I was living in Vancouver, a pair of friends introduced me to Bikram.
The premise of the class is that it takes place in a room set to 42 degrees celsius. The poses aren’t overly complicated, however in the 90 minute class you exercise fully and intensely. The class is always the same, so you get used to the postures and their order.
It was a class which made me sweat and feel a sense of achievement, but which I could also drag myself to no matter how lazy I was feeling. Most importantly, I would always leave with a smile on my face.
Rather than stressing about how many calories I’m burning, Bikram became my little haven away from the stress of every day life. I didn’t have to watch the clock. I just zoned out, and went with the flow, following the teacher’s voice. An hour and a half of quiet in amongst the craziness.
I also noticed another restorative aspect of the yoga.
For the most part, the women who attended class were comfortable with their bodies, and rather than hiding behind their towels in the changing room, they would comfortably wander round naked. It’s impossible to change in a changing room full of naked people, and not notice other peoples’ bodies. And that in itself became a source of confidence because I soon realised what other women really look like under their clothes!
In today’s society it’s too easy to compare yourself to other people. Particularly other people in magazines. But we forget how airbrushed and inaccurate the pictures of women we’re bombarded with every day really are. The short video below went viral on Facebook recently, and is a brilliant, powerful image of just how warped the images we see really are.
In a changing room, surrounded by other normal, non-airbrushed women, you soon realise that everyone has parts of their body which wobble. Parts which don’t look great in certain light. Parts which look phenomenal!
Everyone is different. It’s something we happily celebrate in so many aspects of life. So why do almost all young girls aim for the same skin and bone look?
I’ve been practicing hot yoga for over two years now, and I can trace the effect it’s had on my body confidence. I no longer cower behind a towel in gym changing rooms, and the idea of baring all to a guy who I like is no longer a fear, but simply an exciting development in a relationship, as it should be. The effect it’s had on my confidence with men, and my love life as a whole has been dramatic.
I’ve spoken before on the blog about the importance of ‘finding the ideal you’ before finding the perfect partner, and for me that definitely included coming to terms with my body, and learning to love the skin I’d been given.
Even if I only ate soup for a year, I would never be a 5’2”, size 6 girl.
So why spend my life comparing myself to women who look like that? Or trying to squeeze into outfits which suit a completely different body type to mine?
I have a healthy, fully-functioning body, which has helped me climb mountains and run marathons.
This body is going to be mine for the rest of my life, so I need to embrace it and love it. If someone looks at me and thinks my size 12 frame makes me ‘fat’, or ‘big’, well that’s his problem and not mine. A key reason why I always make sure I use honest, full-length photos of myself on any dating sites.
Rather than live my life comparing myself to others, I’ve found outfits and styles which I think suit me. I’ve learned which parts of my body are assets, and which parts I don’t like so much. As often the parts of your body which you like the least go unnoticed by anyone else. I choose clothes which don’t draw attention to those areas, or make me feel self-conscious.
It’s funny because I can remember an aunt telling me years ago how great your thirties are, because you genuinely become more comfortable with yourself and learn what works and what doesn’t in terms of your appearance. And she was right.
It’s taken me years of trial and error, but I know which ways to do my hair and make-up which I think look most flattering, and what colours and shapes of clothes make me feel most happy and confident.
Life’s never perfect, and there will always be days when I look in the mirror and wish something didn’t wobble quite so much, but rather than let that affect me, and my attitude to dating, and being single, I try to turn it into something positive. I know that a 90 minute yoga class can give me a sense of achievement which eclipses that niggling self-consciousness.
And I know deep down, that (with perhaps the exception of the internet trolls!), I’m my biggest critic. And it’s not the role I should be playing in my life. I should be my own best friend – because I’m stuck with me for life!
Miss Twenty-Nine xxx