Content Warning: This article discusses body-image problems, issues surrounding weight and relationships with food.
The idea of body consciousness has spread through society like the plague and has infected the minds of many. Our fixation on what we deem to be the perfect body is proving to be detrimental to our mental health and almost impossible to shake. The way in which we view our bodies has become very superficial over time; we have been conditioned to only respect them depending on their appearance.
“To value your body based on its appearance feels as precarious as a house of cards.”
I have only recently learned to value my body as a gift, a precious vessel that will carry me through life, allowing me to experience love, joy, pain and pleasure. To value your body based on its appearance feels as precarious as a house of cards. One of the most beautiful capacities of the human form is its ability to change and fluctuate to withstand time and other adversaries. It is more logical to find satisfaction in the characteristics of our body that are not temporary. The gift of the senses, being able to exchange energy and emotions with others through touch, creating art with our hands, healing from injuries, the ability to procreate if we wish, and simply being facilitated to go through life. These are some of the special capabilities bestowed upon us by our bodies. They stay with us until our dying days and are not contingent on our size or shape.
Having been raised by a generation so obsessed with diet culture and weight loss, it is no wonder that the youth of the world are wrapped up in its toxicity. Adults like to blame social media, but in reality, the damage was done long before we were introduced to Instagram and TikTok. From the time I learned how to read, I became aware that the ultimate achievement was to lose weight. Fragments of memories come to mind; reading an article on tips for a flat stomach in a trashy magazine in the dentist’s waiting room, comparing stomach rolls in the playground at school, standing in front of a mirror at age seven and sucking in my ribs until you could see my protruding bones, stepping on the scales in my Granny’s bathroom every week and feeling my heart sink when I saw the number go up. As a child I promised myself that I would never let myself weigh more than six stone. I made this pact with myself after hearing a story of an old relative, hailing her as a hero for remaining six stone in her old age. One of my favourite books I reached for was my mum’s copy of The Body-Shape Bible, which I pored over, fixated on figuring out what my prepubescent body looked like.
Thanks to media such as the TV programme The Biggest Loser, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and many more, this perspective has transcended into adulthood and survives another generation. The modern influencer culture perpetuates the idea that the prettier you are, the more love and attention you are worthy of. I thought that feeling desired and needed was the remedy to all ailments, so I chased a version of myself that I thought might be palatable to men. In my mind, femininity meant small and dainty. What it meant to be a woman was defined by fragility and a need to shrink myself until I took up the least amount of space possible. Once I lost weight and started receiving attention from boys, I thought I would feel like a woman. This momentary validation was fleeting, and left me feeling emptier than I ever had before.
“In chapters of my life when I have been tormented by insecurity and hatred for my body, I was consoled by the knowledge that my body is entirely extrinsic to who I am.”
Seeing our bodies change can be an affront to our sense of control and identity. When you hit your early 20s, women often experience a second puberty and may notice a shift in their weight. This phase is regarded as something to dread and conversations surrounding it are often accompanied by warnings or advice on how to prevent it. Empowerment comes from reframing how we view our bodies and adjusting the narrative surrounding it. One of the most important steps you can take in healing your relationship with your body is to explore your identity outside of how you look. In chapters of my life when I have been tormented by insecurity and hatred for my body, I was consoled by the knowledge that my body is entirely extrinsic to who I am. I took the time to develop interests and identified certain characteristics that I liked about myself.
Before I slowly became conscious of this, there was a period of my life where I felt that my body was all I had. I spent every waking moment thinking about it, and left no room for anything of value. Coping with weight-gain was unbearable in this instance; the only tangible element of my sense of self was no longer there. When I started to explore my soul, I had the profound awakening that my body was the least interesting thing about me.
The outlook society has on weight gain does not correlate with how natural and essential it is to our health. It seems, from the profile of women chosen to be the face of fashion brands and the media, that we are being encouraged to maintain our teenage bodies throughout adulthood. High-fashion models are glorified and presented as what we should aspire to be, despite their frame being the product of unhealthy habits or simply genetics. Why should we cling on to our adolescent bodies when this contradicts our biological needs? Comparing your current size to how you were as a teenager can be emotionally challenging; the change embodies a frightening sense of instability. You have to find consistency in the fact that your body will change — your weight will fluctuate and shift to different parts of your body, because that is what it is designed to do.
“The extra weight you might have is simply what you need to see out your human experience. With it comes the ability to enjoy your life and connect with others.”
Altering how you look at weight gain is critical in the process of accepting it. The extra weight you might have is simply what you need to see out your human experience. With it comes the ability to enjoy your life and connect with others. Food is a language of its own that transcends across the world. When you can’t find the right words, food can be an expression of love. A cake baked for a relative’s birthday, a meal prepared for a grieving friend, trying new restaurants and cooking with loved ones. These are all ways of communicating unspoken love. To have this language spoiled by guilt and shame would be such a waste.
It is tricky, because although finding empowerment in your own self-image is an introspective journey, there is part of us that will always seek external approval. The solution to this is to recognise that approval of something so superficial as looks is worthless. Equally, so is disapproval — it does not deserve to carry any weight in your mind. Judgement of others is a self-portrait, we see what we want to see. From this, we build our own version of people inside our heads. This version is more us than the person it represents. So choose carefully from whom you seek approval, because it may not be for the right reasons.