This week has seen a flurry of activity on the painfully longstanding topic of female body image. A few of the stories I’ve noticed include “Controversial Beach Body Adverts Vandalised on London Underground”, “Fitness Blogger Photoshops Her Body in Real-Time In Response To Hateful Comments”, and “Jamelia sparks fury after arguing plus size clothes shouldn’t be available on the high street”, with recent months also seeing the backlash against the perfect body campaign as well as Sport Englands’ very well received #thisgirlcan campaign. Then we have the more extreme stories, still on the same theme, about girls trying to achieve the Kylie Jenner lip look and a girl who died from a lethal does of diet pills. Body size and image continues to be a battleground in society and an internal struggle for women of all ages.
Contrary to what the title of this post would suggest, I’ve never been a militant feminist, I never protest publicly about anything and I wouldn’t dream of defacing a poster on the London Underground. I’m completely and utterly under the spell of society’s expectations of model looks, still trying desperately to get to a point where I’m happy in my own skin. Do you know what my first thought is when someones suggests a spontaneous swim? “I haven’t shaved my legs,” followed closely by “I should have done more sit-ups.” At school, I didn’t want to change in front of other girls, let alone boys. Oh, to be that girl with the flat stomach who can jump into the pool with no thought of what she looks like (while secretly hoping that she’s either really stupid or really miserable on the inside), or better yet the hairy man with a beer gut whom nobody judges. And my desire to meet a tall, strong man is not a snub to the perfectly nice short and skinny men I meet but simply a necessity for me to feel dainty, to be able to sit in his lap or get carried over the threshold without feeling self-conscious.
I remember clearly when I was first introduced to the concept of being Beach Ready: I was 13 and reading Sugar magazine, which had a whole supplement on how to achieve this lofty goal with a range of diet tips, exercises, and beauty products that I promptly went out and bought. (For men who may not be familiar with the kit required, these summer beauty essentials would have included: face scrub, face mask, cleanser, toner, moisturiser, exfoliator, body brush, body lotion, foot file, nail kit, nail polish, sun protection for face and body as well as fake tan, leave-in conditioner spray, eyelash curlers, waterproof mascara, bronzer, and a whole host of other make-up to get that sun-kissed “no make-up” look.)
With my focus this year on being physically active, I’ve now been exposed to a whole new type of pressure under the guise of “fitspo”. On Pinterest, for example, you’ll find all sorts of workout tips and before-and-after shots, along with inspirational quotes like “one run closer to being sexy as fuck” and “eat for the body you want, not the body you have”, all positioned over tiny muscular women in even tinier crop tops and hot pants. Being fit may be better than just being skinny, but it all boils down to the same extreme body ideals, the same pressure on women to conform to some image that is different to whatever we look like today.
On top, the “bigger is better” message is no decent alternative. Calling naturally thin girls “skinny bitches”, going on about how it’s “all about that bass” when we aren’t all blessed with a Kim Kardashian butt, or celebrating larger women who in fact may have health problems due to being overweight or even obese, is no more a positive message than that communicated by the size zero mould. By the very nature of a specific ideal, whatever that ideal, it will be impossible for the other 95% of the female population to achieve it without extreme dieting, exercise, plastic surgery, and generally feeling crap about ourselves throughout the process.
Now, I happen to enjoy buying and playing around with make-up, and I’m going to continue to run and do my best to eat healthily because I enjoy it, I feel better and, yes, I think I look better too. But I’m never going to be a (healthy) size zero, just like I’ll never have that “real woman” hourglass shape – my bones simply aren’t built that way. And I’m probably always going to have a bit of a muffin top. But, hey, maybe, just maybe, I can still have a fun and fulfilling life, flabby bits and all?
Enough is enough.
Now, then, who’s up for a swim?