CW: diet culture, disordered eating
It’s no secret that anybody with any kind of insecurity around their body tends to feel pressure during the winter. Food is equated with love, with family, with joy and celebration. But also with vice. Foods are good or bad or sometimes both at once. And that makes it hell for anyone with a complicated relationship with food or with their body.
Winter is structured around social events. There’s Christmas, New Year’s Eve and countless festive gatherings with friends before family obligations steal them away. And then it all ends. There’s the usual slump and a sense of anti-climax that settles in on January 1st. Nothing’s changed, but the way everyone behaves suggests it should have. And the starting point for change is always ourselves, usually our bodies. In January, it feels impossible to go anywhere (or spend any time online) without hearing about calorie-restrictive diets, gym-resolutions, and metaphorical, post-Christmas self-flagellation. I can’t even look at my phone without a company telling me that they’re ‘shedding the pounds’ in order to promote their latest offer. It’s all-pervasive. At best, it’s an annoyance. At worst, even the mildest, most well-meaning comment can send me spiralling into a pit of body-hatred that it takes weeks to haul myself out of again.
This year I’ve been trying very hard to not only exercise more, but to take away my focus from how my body looks. And it’s hard. It’s really hard trying to rewire my brain after years of social conditioning telling me that the way my body looks is the most important thing about being female. I started to realise how messed up my perspective was just over a year ago. And I realised for the first time in my life that my body wasn’t the problem. I wouldn’t be happier if I were thinner, or had a rounder butt, or if I got rid of the array of imperfections the media has repeatedly told me I have. And it’s funny, I realised all this after I started exercising more.
First of all, I play rugby. Yes, it’s full contact (I always get asked that). And I love it. There’s a huge variety of body types in the team and it’s reassuring to be focussing on function over appearance for once. Not that it’s some kind of body-positivity heaven. I still hear the usual diet-talk and I do my best to ignore it. But it’s a relief to find time each week to put aside all the expectations of me as a woman: to not take up space, to be pretty, to be quiet. When I play rugby I’m encouraged to get in the way, to be a problem for the opposition, to be fierce, to be loud. And I’m working on it.
At the end of 2017, since starting to play with my current team, I’d been hitting the gym more, pushing myself in training and as such, I lost weight. A number of people commented, not all of them flatteringly. And one of them off-handedly said to me one day, “You’ve lost your rugby weight.” A comment which sent my anxious mind into overdrive. What did that mean? Was it a compliment? Was he saying that I’d lost too much weight? Was he saying that I would be a better player if I were heavier? After all, playing rugby was the only time in my life where being heavy and powerful was a positive thing. Was I strong enough to be a good player? Was I strong enough to make good tackles, to do my part in scrums? But maybe I was too heavy and too slow to be a good player? If I lost more weight, would I be faster, would I be better? What if, no matter what, my body just wasn’t good enough?
And there I found myself stuck, analysing myself over and over and never coming to a conclusion about how my body should be. All at once I felt like I was too thin and not thin enough. That was what sent me over the edge and made me come to the conclusion that maybe the problem wasn’t how I looked, but how I felt. And how other people wanted me to feel in my body. And it scared me that all it took was for someone to even mention my weight for me to spiral into anxiety and insecurity.
There was a time when I measured my waist every day. As if it could have magically shrunk overnight, the same way I imagined it had bloated if I ate cake the day before. There was a time when I only felt real achievement when I had lost weight. There was a time when I would spend so much of my energy trying to decide what lunch was healthy enough for me to eat, only for a voice in my head to say you’ll be thin even faster if you don’t eat at all. I’ve never had a full-blown eating disorder. But I’ve come close. I think a lot of people have.
So this year, I shifted my focus. Instead of concentrating on my body shape, my weight and my appearance, I started to exercise as a way to control my anxiety. A way to burn off edge off my anxious thoughts, rather than my calories. I stopped calorie-counting, even with the ‘healthy weight loss’ apps. I did my best to stop worrying about my waist size. I stopped measuring myself.
I have to work at it every single day. And I think I’ll have to for quite a while. Hell, I even felt guilty when I couldn’t go to the gym because I had tonsillitis. I have a long way to go before body-love feels as natural to me as body-hatred does now. I still feel bad about my body sometimes. I still get sucked into stupid clickbait articles about the most calorific types of fruit. But I’m changing bit by bit. And I’m more aware than ever before of my destructive habits and thoughts. I call that a victory. But this is just my limited perspective. Ultimately, I’m lucky. I’m a straight-size, cisgender woman. And it’s still hard.
I decided I didn’t really want to make resolutions for the new year, because it’s just an arbitrary point in time. And painting a picture of the artificial perfect self I want to be this year (even a body-positive ideal of myself) is just as damaging to me as ‘thinspo’. I don’t need an arbitrary point in time to tell me that I need to be better, to make this year perfect. I don’t want it to be up to someone else to decide I’m good enough. And I need to let go of the fiction that perfection is achievable.
My only commitment this year is to love myself more, as I’ve been trying to, and not just for this year but for always. I exercise because it makes me happy. I play rugby because it makes me happy. I watch Netflix in bed with pizza because it makes me happy. I don’t put limits on what I eat any more and I’m slowly removing the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods because that kind of thinking poisons my mind. And I’m doing all of that to heal my relationship with my body and with food because... I love myself.
Unpicking body-toxicity isn’t simple or easy, but it’s a process with a goal worth pursuing. Body-love and self-worth that isn’t conditional on the way I look.