You can tell it’s the start of a new year when the supermarket shelves are groaning with books on how to lose weight, and every other television advert seems to be for yet another weight-loss company. Social media becomes overrun with people discussing how much they hate their bodies and their preferred methods for that miracle fix. Magazines, especially those aimed at women, feature photographs of celebrities who dare to be less than airbrushed perfection at all times (for a great article about this phenomenon have a look at this post by my fabulous friend Pols).
I’m not immune to all this hysteria – in fact, as an obese woman with an eating disorder I’m very sensitive to it. I too hate my body and wish that I could magically transform it into a shape that I, and society, deem to be acceptable. Over the years I’ve probably tried most of the well-known diets, and although my spinal problems limit the amount of exercise I’m capable of that doesn’t stop me poring over fitness magazines, desperate to find a way to change my appearance.
But do you know what? These companies who promote their diets and weight-loss plans make millions, if not billions of pounds in profit from people like me. Because inevitably dieters fail (there’s a great discussion of the reasons for this here). But our society is so obsessed with bodily perfection that even knowing this, many of us continue to try new diets. Because we know that if we just try that little bit harder, obsess a little bit more and deprive ourselves of an assortment of foods, we can get the perfect body that society requires us to have. And then we’ll be happy…
Absurd isn’t it? And this kind of attitude is considered normal! But over the years I’ve come to realise that although it may be normal it certainly isn’t healthy. I have children now and I’m very careful not to talk negatively about my body when they’re around. They don’t even know that I have a set of bathroom scales, let alone see me use them. We don’t talk about good foods and bad foods but about foods giving you energy; some give you energy that lasts a long time and some give you energy that your body uses up quickly. My children (currently aged 4 and 2) don’t care what their bodies look like, only that they work. Sometimes that involves running, sometimes jumping around, sometimes climbing and sometimes contorting themselves into positions rarely seen outside a circus!
It’s dawned on me of late, as I’ve become increasingly irritated and impatient with the avalanche of body-hatred on social media, that we should all try to be more like this. After all it’s not what your body looks like that’s really important but what it can do. And I’m not just talking about physical activities either but the things our bodies do that we take for granted. Our bodies breathe, they give us information about the world around us, they absorb nutrients from our food and expel toxins. The majority of us are fortunate enough to have bodies that are pretty functional, enabling us to walk and talk, to think and feel physical sensations.
So to hell with the obsession about physical appearance. Yes, we should all eat as well as we can and exercise as much as we’re capable of in order to keep fit, but the perfect body is the one that enables you to do as much as you want to. While the popular “real women have curves” trope helps women larger than the ideal to feel more positive about themselves, it does a disservice to the hordes of women who don’t have curves. They’re just as real and just as prone to hating their bodies as their larger sisters.
The perfect body can be fat or thin, tall or short, apple-shaped, pear-shaped, in fact pretty much any shape! What I (and you, if you’ve been nodding along in agreement) need to do is start to respect our bodies. Ok, so my body is flabby and wobbly and parts of it don’t work as they should but it’s the only body I’m ever going to have. It’s sustained me for almost 33 years and hopefully will continue to do so for many decades yet to come. I have no wish to lie on my deathbed, looking back on my life and desperately wishing that I’d spent less time hating my body and more time using it to enjoy myself.