You know here at ECBC Manchester we love a campaign, especially a campaign that helps promote being kinder to ourselves. This month we are focusing on how we can look after ourselves more and love ourselves for who we are. Self-kindness plays a massive part in promoting a positive mental health and this month we are providing you with advice on how you can be kinder to the most important person – you.
This week our Jodie covers how accepting our physical appearance for what it is can make a positive impact on our mental health.
From the moment we are even aware of having a body, we are taught it is wrong. That it is too fat, too thin, too muscular, too scrawny, too dark, too pale, too long, too short, too [insert another adjective here].
Worrying about this and the damage it’s doing to people, especially young people, keeps me awake at night. I have a much younger sister who is such a talented, funny and thoroughly glorious person and it breaks my heart when she puts herself down. But it’s not just young people. So many different people in my life have complained to me about their bodies changing in various ways during lockdown, which is not only entirely normal when we have been confined to our homes for 90% of the day, but also heart-breaking. Instead of celebrating our healthy bodies in a pandemic, we are anxious about how they will be judged when we come out the other side. And I am not saying that to shame anyone about feeling this way, I have these thoughts too. But we need put these thoughts in the context of what’s keeping them there.
For a long time, I haven’t felt “qualified” to talk about this. And maybe I am not. I am privileged by being naturally petite; what is considered to be a “desirable” size. I haven’t struggled with an eating disorder or with my weight. Not to mention I am a white, cis-gendered person, so that’s a big tick in society’s bullshit beauty box, and I cannot and am not in any way conflating my experiences with what trans people and people of colour have to face when it comes to the vicious judgement and politicisation of their bodies.
But I do know what it is like to look in the mirror and wish I looked completely different. I have engaged in warped behaviours around food. I have picked at my spots until they bled and scarred. I have analysed every pore on my face and curve on my body. I have also in the past been judgemental of how people look. I am not proud of it, but I can see now, with a bit more maturity and self-knowledge, that this was because I was so insecure about how my own body was relating to the world. I couldn’t understand how anyone could feel okay about themselves when they didn’t look like they had stepped out of a film.
I recently read an article by Megan Crabbe, a body positivity campaigner (you may know her as @bodyposipanda on Instagram) and she said something which stuck with me:
“The way that we see our bodies- and the bodies of the people around us- don’t exist in a vacuum; those thoughts are the product of everything we’ve ever been taught about weight, worth and beauty, and all the ways bodies are placed into hierarchies of who is more or less deserving of respect.”
Hierarchies that are designed to keep people down and to make money from people aspiring to climb them. Hierarchies that are absolute bullshit and we should stick two fingers up to them and completely disregard. If only it was that easy.
Our relationship with our body can be complicated for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it feels like the only thing we can control in the world. Sometimes it feels completely out of control. We are also up against a lifetime of negative conditioning that we need to consciously unpick and unlearn. And we are not always going to get it right. Some days, it’s going to win. We cannot be completely immune to the poison society pours in our ear.
It feels somewhat cliched to say that the number on the scales, on the label on your clothes, on your follower count on Instagram is not a signifier of your worth and validity but its true. That’s why, even if you can make them reflect what you think they should be, it probably won’t make you feel happy in the long term. But what will make you happy is recognising this inherent worth and giving your body the respect and care it deserves, regardless of these things. I don’t think you even need to love absolutely everything about yourself to do this. Discovering the iWeigh community on Instagram, set up by activist and actress Jameela Jamil, has taught me to think “You have a body. You might not always like everything about it. But look at all the amazing stuff it helps you to do and be!” This is the stuff I want to define me and to love myself for, because it is who I am.
Prioritise what you need, want, and will make you feel happy and centred.
Just a side note on “giving your body the respect and care it deserves”. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to do this, and what you can and will want to do will depend on your context. If, for you, that is pounding the pavements in your running gear at 6am or giving yourself permission to sit down for five minutes and just think, do it. But prioritise what you need, want, and will make you feel happy and centred, over what you think you should need and want.
And remember that health is not just physical health. Conversations around body image and body positivity are often shut down by with conversations around physical health. I don’t think anyone is disputing that it is important to take care of your physical body, but we need to remember that there isn’t one right way to do that and what that looks like will differ from person to person. It’s not just one thing. In the words of the World Health Organization: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”
For example, I tried the whole early morning running thing when lockdown began and I was worried I had lost my daily exercise from commuting. But I hated it. It might have been doing my physical body some good, but whacking awake my sleepy body and brain with adrenaline (and pollen) made me feel amped-up and disorientated for the whole day. It felt a lot more like punishment than nourishment. So instead I gave myself permission to sleep later and then just sit and do some meditation for 10mins whilst I let my moisturiser sink in. “It’s just an excuse to be lazy” the dickhead, conditioned part of my brain told me. But it has, and I am not exaggerating, been life changing, helping me to both manage my high stress levels (which are SO damaging to your health and can cause all kinds of horrible illnesses) and learn to listen my own needs (which again, is pretty fundamental to ensuring your body is getting what it needs to be happy and healthy!)
Also, give yourself permission to like things about yourself! It’s not vain or short sighted to like things about your body, even if you do not think perfect. You might have sparkly eyes, wonderful teeth, sexy arms, a perfectly formed big toe, and you should own it! I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or because we feel like if we accept and like something then we might have missed the reason why we are wrong, but a lot of people (me included) feel uncomfortable liking ourselves in any capacity. But try it. You don’t have to post a picture of it on Instagram or shout about it (although if you want to do that, please do!!!). You can just start small, in your own head, quietly choosing to see and celebrate the positives and challenging the negative thinking patterns that tell you you’re wrong. Ask yourself questions: “why don’t I feel comfortable with this?” “why do I feel I have to qualify a thing I like about myself with a negative thing?” “where did I learn this?” Because it is okay to like yourself.
What your body looks like is for other people, and what your body feels like is for you.
There is just so much tied into the way we made to feel about our bodies and how detached we have become from actually understanding what it is that we need and what really makes us us. I guess what I am trying to say and what I want people to take away from this is that what your body looks like is for other people, and what your body feels like is for you. We live in a visual world, where it is incredibly difficult to see how we can define ourselves outside our external image and, as I said at the beginning, for some people this is often all they are defined by. And, as much as I wish I did, I don’t have the answer for how we can change that. But maybe if we not only allowed ourselves to feel comfortable, if not positive about our bodies, but also recognised how we look is just one part of who we are, we can begin to create a shift in ourselves and our world view. Our bodies are important, valuable and can bring us a lot of joy with the things they can do, but it is our minds and intentions which make them do these things and what ultimately make us who we are.
Finally, I just want to say to anyone reading this living with an eating disorder, diagnosed or not, please know that you do not need to carry that shame. You are simply reacting to the world around you in the way you know how and makes you feel safe. A wise woman once told me that everyone is born with inherent worth, and whilst it might feel like this is a million miles away from how you are feeling, please know that that worth is still there inside of you and there are ways and people here to help you get back to it. And you deserve to get back to it and all the brilliant things that will happen when you do. You are so needed in this world. Please keep fighting.
Some ideas for actions we can all take to create a better relationship with our bodies:
- Look at who you follow on social media and mute/block/delete anyone that makes you feel shit about yourself. No one has the right to govern your online space.
- Whilst you’re there, check out the iWeigh community.
- Donate or upcycle any clothes that do not make you feel good. Seriously. “I’ll grow/slim down into this” is not a valid reason to keep something as it is, sitting in your wardrobe like a self-confidence black hole.
- Remember some of these amazing quotes. I don’t care how cheesy you think this is, I bloody love a mantra. Copy and paste them into your notes. Write them on post its and stick them on your mirror. Shout them at the people you love, or even the people you don’t.
- “The woman wind who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her” Naomi Wolf (please alter gender as appropriate!)
- “Don’t worry about your body, it isn’t as small as it once was but honestly the world needs more of you” Clementine Von Radics
- “Your body is not your art, it’s your paintbrush.” Glennon Doyle Melton
- Focus on what you need, not what you think you should need.
- Own the things your like about your body! You grew it, you deserve to think its wonderful.
Some actions you might want to take if you are concerned by your relationship with your body:
- Talk to someone, anyone.
- Speak to a GP or other professional who can help you to find the right tools to find your way through it. There are loads of things they can offer you and it is a common problem they face, so will not be taken aback by what you say.
- Check out Beat, which has lots of helpful resources for eating disorders
- Know that you are not alone, you have worth and beauty just by being here, and that there is a way through.