Updated: Feb 1
It’s January and as ever, we are being told that we need to lose weight, get fit and have a hundred and one resolutions for ‘a better you’. Now, I happen to believe very much in the power of positive habit - small, daily behaviour shifts can dramatically change our health and wellbeing for the better. What I struggle with is the idea that we all need to conform to a very specific idea of beautiful and so-called ‘healthy’.
I would argue that one of the most restrictive ideas we face is that of the ‘ideal’ body weight, something which is reinforced continually by what we see around us, everywhere we go. Many would say I am lucky in that I have not struggled with weight gain since I was a teenager. I was however, what my family called ‘chubby’ as a toddler. From an early age, food was what gave me most pleasure in life and as such, I was told that I had an “enormous appetite” by just about everyone. I know my family were not trying to make me feel bad, I think they just saw it as a little light ribbing, in the same way we would make fun of my mum and brother for being tone deaf musically. They were very likely indoctrinated by the idea that little girls should be delicate things with small appetites. I bucked that trend and so it warranted discussion, as per the cultural norm of the time.
The problem was that that ribbing, coupled with a million body image messages that I consumed from a young age, meant that I developed a belief about how I needed to look in order to have self worth. Like most teenagers, I was riddled with insecurity about the weight I had. The ‘rolls of fat’ (as I saw them) across my stomach simply didn’t match the taut, lean stomachs of the women I saw in films and magazines. Add to the that, the fact that I am less than blessed in the breast department and all I saw was a body that seemed completely out of proportion to what it should be.
Interestingly, in more recent years, my insecurities have shifted to having too little body fat. After growing out of my lager and chips diet post university, I shed quite a bit of weight. I became what I now know to be my natural weight when I’m eating intuitively, following the pattern seen in my family. Now, due to the aforementioned small breasts and taller than average height, I can appear a bit gangly. Throughout my 20s and 30s I’ve had so many comments about being ‘too skinny’, ‘underweight’ or ‘looking like I don’t eat’. From good friends through to bosses and colleagues at work, who seemed to be keen to make their point publicly, crushing me in the process. I don’t think they intended to be cruel, in fact, I think most had good intentions, but in reality they made false assumptions about me because I didn’t fit with their expectation of what healthy looks like.
Whatever our weight, whatever our body shape, whatever our appearance, when we’re being told that we look ‘wrong’, we can internalise that belief. Often it becomes a more deep rooted belief that we as people are ‘wrong’. That we don’t fit in or that we are not good enough. These beliefs can have worryingly detrimental effects on our health. Body dissatisfaction is linked to low self esteem, depression, anxiety and disordered eating. Sadly, this is a widespread problem, with 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 3 teenagers saying that they felt shame related to their body image last year (1).
But how have we got to this incredibly restrictive way of thinking? Do you ever wonder where our idea of what is beautiful and healthy has come from?
“Historically, a woman’s body was her best survival tool in a world primarily dominated by men. It was the main source of her power” Nealie Tan Ngo.
Throughout time, expectations about a woman’s body, appearance and health have been dictated by male desire. A woman knew that looking a certain way improved her “marriageability” and therefore social security in life, so she strived to mould her body into the idealised shape of the time. In Victorian England women wore corsets to slim their waists and hooped skirts to give the appearance of a larger bottom. In Ancient China, women starved themselves in order to achieve the “willow waist” favoured by emperors. Idealised body shapes became socially and culturally powerful, with fashion designers, artists and celebrities endorsing and propelling their status (2).
With the birth of marketing as we know it today and later, the global media, these ideals became even more pervasive to people’s lives and it is what dictates much of our behaviour today. Marketers are paid to convince us that we need the things that brands want to sell. They show us a world that we want in on, that we aspire to have. They show us how we are supposed to look in order to be happy and successful. Then they surround us with stories and images of our aspirations until we are convinced that we would have the life we wanted if we had that thing. From the clothes, to the gyms, diets, make-up, moisturisers, vitamins…. There is always something we need to be beautiful.
Fortunately, in many parts of the world today, women no longer have to be married to a man to have security in life. However, the idea that beauty, and by association health, brings power is very much alive for women and men alike. This belief which sits deep within our subconscious, driving our actions and our purchases, is something that much of the marketing industry still preys on and the widespread media proliferates.
Now, I should at this point own up to the fact that I am, by trade, a marketer. As such, I know about the good and bad of the industry. There has been something of a shift since the start of the body positive movement. Some brands are choosing to celebrate this idea, but we need many more of them and we need them to be consistent. Since the onset of social media the power of this industry is stratospheric - if it chose to, it could completely shift the way we all see body image. I truly hope to see more brands, influencers and mainstream media harnessing that power over the coming years.
But what about all of us in the mean time? Perhaps we should all take a step back and ask ourselves: what is beautiful to me?
There is no such thing as perfect. It is clear that the ‘ideal’ female shape has changed dramatically through time, from the rounded and pear shape pre-1900s, to the hourglass of the Victorian era, to the waif of the 90s and more recently, the athletic physique of the 2010s. It will change again throughout this century and most of us will never be the ideal body shape of the time. We are simply not made that way. We were not all built to to look the same.
I suspect it will take some time for us to be able to truly accept the way we are - women in particular, are dealing with centuries of expectation and it takes time to shift deep rooted beliefs. In the mean time though, there are things we can all do to remind ourselves that it is OK to be who we are.
Here are strategies that I use, I hope you find them helpful:
1. When I see unrealistic body images, I remind myself that there is no such thing as a perfect body or appearance, as proven by how much the ‘ideal’ body shape has changed throughout history.
2. I fill my social media newsfeed with as much diversity as I can. I want to see people of different body shape, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, style and attitude. By seeing the incredible diversity of our world we start to see that individuality is so much more beautiful than conformity.
3. I base my food choices on making myself as well as possible, mentally and physically. So I always choose full fat foods over low fat foods which are laden with other additives, I keep sugar and caffeine to a minimum as it makes my anxiety bad and I avoid anything with processed chemicals in it. For whole-food recipe ideas check out my blog.
4. I listen to what my what my body needs in terms of exercise. Too much cardio can make me me feel faint, but resistance training makes me feel strong and grounded. Sometimes, I just can’t muster the energy for anything more than slow yoga and I know that’s OK too - there are still huge benefits for my body and mind.
5. I vote with my wallet and buy and support brands that celebrate individuality and create products which support true wellbeing, mentally and physically.
6. I remind myself to question the ‘too good to be true’ claims made by some brands. The perfect diet, cleanse and skin care regime simply does not exist. We are all biologically individual which means what works for me, might not work for you. We have to learn what our bodies need by trying things and then listening to what they tell us. It’s not the quick fix we’re all desperate for, but once you’ve got there, it will last.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this piece so please share your comments below!