Growing up I feel like almost everyone I know, at one point or another, has had issues with their body image. Even if, thankfully, it has not developed into anything that’s upsetting them or affecting their mental and physical health. It’s the societal norm to hear ‘my stomach is so big’, ‘I need to lose weight’, ‘I’m on a diet’ or ‘I feel ugly’. I can vouch that I have said all four of those sentences at some point in my life.
This year for Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation (UK) shared some statistics relevant to ‘body image’. This included the fact that ‘one in eight adults in the UK have experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image’. It’s quite upsetting to read, especially when you realise how young these obsessions, self-beliefs and worries can start. Among teenagers 31% felt ashamed in relation to their body image. (All stats can be found here.)
Mental Health Awareness Week has passed now, however as you will hear most advocates say – mental illness and mental health struggles happen all year round and can affect absolutely anyone regardless of lifestyle, age, race, gender, size and so on. Today, I thought I’d share with you some of the things that have helped me deal with body image issues and doubts as well as share a little bit of my story.
Growing up I’ve always been quite unhappy with the way I look. I distinctly remember drawing out a ‘self-portrait’ as a kid and exaggerating all the parts of me I really hated or thought made me ugly. Digging my felt tips into the paper with frustration and sadness because I felt like my appearance meant a lot more than it really did.
High school is when social media started to become a thing and I’d spend ages using the laptop webcam trying to get a perfect selfie, to then edit it madly – adding high saturation to my eyes to make them look unnaturally blue, blurring my skin. If the ‘popular girls’ complimented it, it only gave me more reason to keep obsessing over how I looked. I know it wasn’t just me alone in this though, thinking back every girl I knew had something they were insecure about. At one point one of the girls I thought was popular, confident and absolutely invisible asked me what editing app I used on my photos to then go and use it herself. It was almost like we were the generation to see the beginning of the addiction of basing our self-worth on Facebook likes and high school rating systems (Remember the ‘like my status for a rate? xo’, why on earth did any of us do that.)
In my later teenage years I found myself quite obsessed with checking calories, only eating so much a day, trying to cut out sugar, salt, bread, carbs – you name it. I’d follow ridiculous accounts on Tumblr that only pushed unhealthy images of girls who were underweight but labelled as ‘goals’. I’d tell myself off and mentally abuse myself whenever I ate something ‘unhealthy’ even if I desperately needed to eat.
Luckily, I realised I was very much treading in the deep end. One more step and I’d be underwater.
One of the worst things about dealing with body image, is that the problem is so accepted. It’s almost like if you don’t hate your body, you’re not human. If you go to a doctor and tell them you loathe your body to the point of pushing it through unhealthy diets and regimes, unless you’re drastically underweight, they won’t do much (in my experience anyways). I was lucky enough to tackle the very dark parts of hating my body mostly through sheer willpower, but a lot of people don’t always have that and will instead struggle alone and may even develop an eating disorder. It shouldn’t be like that.
Stop making food a villain
We need food to live. We literally need to consume food to keep us going and for the nutrients, protein and other good stuff that it provides. One of the biggest steps I needed to take throughout my life is learning to listen to my body. Even if I’ve already eaten today, if I start to feel hungry and fatigued, I need to eat. Never get into a routine of telling yourself you can only eat ‘X’ because you ate ‘X’ yesterday. Or that because you ate junk food today, you need to do 3 hours of exercise tomorrow. Stop making food a villain and embrace it.
I haven’t looked into it enough myself to completely vouch for it but intuitive eating is the best thing you can do for your body. Ditch all the diet books and listen to your body. Stop categorising food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and make peace with food.
Unfollow any influencer or person that makes you feel bad about your body
Social Media controls more of your confidence, self-esteem and body image beliefs than you realise. This advice means a lot to me because taking it on has probably helped me the most over the past few years. As a form of self-care, I ensure that my entire Twitter and Instagram feed is solely full of content that inspires me, makes me happy and motivates me. I don’t even follow most of the celebrities from TV or films that I like just to prevent me from getting into the mindset of ‘why can’t I look like that?’.
Everybody and their mum knows that a good chunk of Instagram is full of lies, facetune and fakery. Don’t even get me started on influencers who push ‘weight loss shakes’. You don’t need that on your feed! Follow mental health advocates, positive body image advocates and inclusive artists and creatives. Most people spend a large percentage of their day scrolling through social media, the best thing you can do is make sure what you see isn’t reinforcing those negative self-beliefs.
Make sure you enjoy your exercising
I hate the gym. I hate running. These are the two exercises that physically drain me. The only endorphin I get from the gym is when I leave and get to be by myself.
An exaggeration of my dislike, I know. But, taking up exercise that I actually love, enjoy and look forward to has done so much more for me than the years where I’ve forced myself to go to a gym only to feel miserable, anxious and bored. If exercise feels like a chore, what’s the point? Growing up, I always heard 30 minutes of exercise a day is the minimum that is recommended. Now if you want to do exercise you just need to find something that you’ll find fun for that 30 minutes, and eventually it won’t even feel like exercise and you might want to do it for an hour or even more!
It’s also important to remember that it’s ok if it takes you a while to find this or a couple of tries. My personal favourite is dance. I only started dance fitness last year and I feel genuinely sad whenever I can’t make a class. I also find swimming, yoga and long walks enjoyable. I don’t worry too much about exercise now because I acknowledge that going for an hour’s walk is doing something. Enjoyable exercise is different for everyone, there is no one ‘correct’ exercise routine.
Shop for comfort, not to fit in
I think I can speak for myself and numerous other girls when I say the crop top trend can be a pain in the arse sometimes. You go shopping, you just want a cute new top but for some reason my entire stomach has to be on show? Trying to stay on trend can be actually nerve-wracking because you feel so uncomfortable in what you’ve put on. But in your head you just want to look like one of the models on Instagram. In my mid-teenage years (17-19 years old) I spent ridiculous amounts of money on crop tops, mini skirts, short-shorts and such that I could just never wear because I felt absolutely stupid in or if I did wear them, I’d spend the entire time scared that I was flashing someone, or that people would laugh at me. Eventually I began to tell myself before going out or whilst getting changed in the morning: if I don’t feel comfortable in this, I don’t have to wear it. Nobody is forcing me.
I started telling myself female clothing sizes mean absolutely nothing and that I should invest in jeans that feel nice to wear whether they were a size 10 or a 14, and not bully myself if I can’t fit into a size 8. I made sure when I was buying clothes that I was happy, felt cute and comfortable. The number on the sizing and trend means nothing.
What steps have you taken to make your body image journey happier and easier? Feel free to share in the comments. 💌
Thanks for reading,
Header Image taken by self