I remember walking into a room when I was about 18 wearing a dress I didn’t really like, one that I had thrown on at the last minute, and somebody told me I looked beautiful. I remember it so clearly because it was such an unexpected remark. But although it was unexpected I don’t remember assuming it was undeserved, in fact I remember it washing over me and I remember accepting it – I just smiled and thought it was a nice thing to hear.
I think that is probably the last compliment I have honestly accepted for 9 years.
A few months later I was at one of my lowest points with my chronic illness and my body changed in a multitude of ways. It became a place I resented having to live in, and its outward appearance began to morph in front of my eyes and out of my control. Weight gain and bloating and being forced to stay in bed meant that my clothes became somewhere to hide – a safety blanket, a retreat. (I wrote a blog post on this a while ago).
Those of you who know me will know that most of my wardrobe is about 5 sizes too big for me. One of my most frequently worn items is a vintage Ralph Lauren men’s denim shirt. It is a size XL and it comes down to my knees. ASOS has a new feature that means it can suggest the size you need based on past purchases - in the last week I have taken my actual measurements and discovered that my recommended size is 1-2 bigger than I need.
I loved training as a dietitian and I am obsessed with nutrition science, but I have always felt defensive about not being as slim as my peers because of my career choice. Throughout my placements I was always terrified of being asked about my weight. What if my supervisors questioned me about my diet? What if patients refused to take my weight loss advice because they thought I was not practicing what I preached? The truth, of course, is that this never happened. This curious mix of vanity and self-loathing meant I felt simultaneously unworthy of any attention and also under constant scrutiny by everyone around me.
This week there has been a lot of talk about mental health recently thanks to a high profile campaign over here in England, and that is why I have decided to publish this post. There is no doubt that I have experienced depression and a distorted body image throughout the last 12 years from battling daily against symptoms like fatigue and chronic pain. I have realised that all the issues I have had with my appearance are actually rooted in the disappointment and betrayal I have felt by my body letting me down and limiting my life. I have been angry at it for its reluctance to cooperate with my plans, with its consistent insistence that I fail to reach my goals. I think I have been punishing it by hiding it away and wrapping it in a cocoon of baggy jumpers and oversized t shirts.
So this week I did something new. I bought some tight t shirts and I tucked them into my jeans. And you know what? Nobody cared. I left the house, I went the shops, I got on the tube and not one person stopped me to tell me how awful I looked.
A large factor in my change of heart was actually Instagram accounts like @theeverybodystandard and @any.body_co as well as models like Iskra Lawrence, Kate Wasley and Sophie Dahl. I hadn’t thought that seeking out and seeing images like these were important, but finding women who don’t conform to a typical marketable body type has actually really put in perspective the narrow range of bodies deemed attractive enough to advertise anything from handbags to razorblades. Their punctuation of my feed has become a very welcome change. If you are struggling to face the constant barrage of images of women that look nothing like you then curate the space you can control to be full of people who instead make you feel good about yourself. Unfollow that underwear model, hide the newsfeed from that friend who is a professional dancer and ignore the videos of that lifestyle blogger. We can control so few of the images we see day in, day out, that taking the time to create an online space where you feel empowered and not inadequate can be a small but powerful change.
Another important moment for me was the realisation that I was putting my life on hold until the day when I fitted my ‘ideal’ body shape started to scare me. A few things lately have made me realise that life is ridiculously short and it dawned on me just how miserable it would be to look back and realise I had spent a single minute of it worrying about how I looked.
If you aren’t there yet then I feel your pain, and I know that reading this might not make any difference. I know that I read and heard things like this all the time, and none of it ever sunk in because my mind wasn't in the right place. But I also promise you that you can get through this and learn to feel comfortable in your own skin without changing it. Trust me, you've got this.