Skinny, fat, curvy. Lose some weight. Love yourself! Slim down for summer. Don’t say negative things about your body. Love the shoes you’re in. Your shape doesn’t define you. Ten steps to getting a bikini body! A bikini body is anybody in a bikini.
Existing as a person with a body (and particularly as a woman with a body) comes with an endless barrage of information about what we should and shouldn’t do. How we should look, how we should think, how we should feel. Body shapes and sizes go in and out of fashion, but the narrative has always remained the same: if you don’t look a certain way, then you don’t look right.
I don’t know about you, but coming out of the pandemic, it all feels worse than ever. Two years of being cooped up inside, our everyday movement limited and elastic waistbands embraced, seems to have had a resounding impact on our collective body image. However we look, our bodies feel so significantly present, being wrangled back into jeans, sweating away on the Tube, being seen and considered by people other than ourselves.
And while a meal now means being accosted by calorie counts on menus, a quick scroll through social media has highlighted another beast: the “body neutrality” movement. Social media is awash with stern reminders to leave our bodies be. To love them! Unequivocally! No bad days! Or even worse: to never think about our bodies. To simply switch off the years of diet culture and exist in the skin we’re in: no love, no hatred, no ifs or buts.
However, I’ve found that deep chats with friends and cursory conversations with acquaintances seem to see people mentioning their body anxiety more than ever.
I took a selfie after my workout last week to document the moment because it was genuinely the first time in I’m not even sure how long that I wasn’t actively hating my body. I work in food – a job that is not conducive to being skinny, but being skinny is something I’ve been chasing for most of my adult life. I struggled with disordered eating off and on throughout my whole time at university, and while effective therapy means I haven’t done so since, the thoughts that let that side of me fester and develop have never really gone away.
The body positivity and body neutrality movements might shout and scream that I shouldn’t hate my body, but many years of battling to be a size I never will be has taught me that my relationship with my body will come in ebbs and flows. Sometimes I’ll love myself; I’ll look in the mirror and be enamoured by what I see. Other times I loathe that reflection, grabbing at my rolls and bulges as if tugging them hard enough will make them disappear completely. The minority of days exist somewhere in the middle, that elusive “neutrality”.
I’ve made progress: I exercise for how it makes me feel – not to calculate how many calories it’s going to burn. I try to allow myself to unabashedly enjoy the perks of my job without skipping one meal to make up for another. But last week, my jeans were so uncomfortably tight I couldn’t wear them. I bought three new pairs and none of them fit either. It’s been like picking off a scab and opening up a fresh wound.
And the other day, I went to the gym and managed to use a higher weight than I normally do. I completed a full 30-second set of an exercise that usually has me doubled over after 10. It reminded me that body image is going to ebb and flow but what matters is feeling strong and feeling fit, and putting love into my body even if my brain is full of vitriol.
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Working in food automatically puts consumption front and centre in my life, and it feels ridiculous to pretend that, as a woman in my twenties, it isn’t a constant battle between the thing that drives me and excites me and the side of me that believes I should try and take up as little space as possible. Body neutrality asks us to accept our bodies 24/7, and as someone whose entire job is the direct antithesis to being skinny, I feel like it’s especially important not to pretend that we can achieve this all the time.
We have to exist in our bodies, we have to look at them in the mirror, find clothes that we like to adorn them with and move around in them, absorbing all their quirks. To pretend like that’s a joyous activity all the time – especially in the face of a world that tells us how to look – is an impossible endeavour.
As the temperatures spike, festival season rolls around and we shed clothes like autumn leaves, it can be so easy to slip into being our own biggest critics – and I think that’s OK. It’s normal – it’s natural! But it’s equally as important to tell that voice to get lost, and wear the short shorts, the crop tops and the tight tanks. It doesn’t have to be positivity, neutrality or endless love – it just needs to be.