Dumping “Body Image” in Return for “Body Love”

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Diet culture is everywhere. It is pretty difficult to avoid, especially when dental adverts are colluding success rates with weight loss rates, and big influencers like Kim Kardashian are partnering with companies like Flat Tummy Co. to promote appetite suppressing products to their hoards of followers. It is difficult to believe that being in a body that doesn’t fit the beauty ideal of slim, toned and strong is OK. It’s hard to believe that you too are an acceptable body or that you can run a marathon.

Bryony Gordon and Jayda Seza ran the marathon this year in their underwear to show that runner’s bodies come in many different shapes and sizes. Being a different size to the bountifully pushed ideal does not mean you can’t enjoy physical activity, that you can’t be strong and most of all that you can’t be healthy. There are so many brilliant body positivity activists now showcasing that you can be “bigger” and healthy. There is a wave of activists fighting back against the body fascism and fat phobia in the name of “health”.

Since recovering from my eating disorder admittedly with a helping push from my meds increasing my weight in a way that was out of my control, I learned to relinquish any form of “control” over my body. I knew this time around on Quetiapine that it worked for me, but for it to keep on working for me I had to stay on it. Without it I relapse, plain and simple. A toss-up occurred between keeping a sense of control over my “recovered” weight and remaining mentally unwell, or relinquishing such control and giving the Quetiapine a real chance to work in the longer term. This was a very scary time for me. I have spent a decade of my life at war with my body, trying to control it and living in the safety confines of my eating disorder. Suddenly, recovery took a whole new turn – I wasn’t only maintaining a “healthy” weight, I was letting this medication cause havoc with my appetite and metabolism. If I had any hope of maintaining some stability with my moods though, this was it. Having tried most other medications suitable for my illness that this was the one that worked if I let it – and by let it I mean staying on it regardless of the weight gain. I made the only decision I could if I wanted to really start building any sort of future for myself. I stayed on the medication.

I learned a lot during this time. I learned that being well in a bigger body was definitely the right decision. My fitness journey into running, climbing and falling in love with movement, in addition to my studies in anatomy and physiology have caused a complete dimensional shift, and ultimately an entirely different view for me, on what body image is.

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Although I am no longer a skinny, my stomach has an extra padding of fat as opposed to the almost concave structure of previous years, and my thighs touch for the first time in my life. I have boobs, which are great although still slight, and it is easier to catch myself at an angle wherein which I have a double chin on show. I can shake my arms, and they wibble a little, and I have speckled cellulite over my thighs and bum when I tense. Speaking of which, I still have absolutely no bum. I need a larger size of clothes than I ever have previously yet still, no bum, and you know what? I am the most comfortable I have ever been with my body.

Yes, it looks a certain way in pictures and mirrors – but really, my body is not a picture. My body was not made solely to look a certain way. My body was made to function, to breathe, contract, relax, move, jump, run and skip for joy. My body lets me enjoy the senses of living be they the smell of fresh bread or dog shit on my shoe. My body brings me enjoyment in food, and digests it pretty well as energy in order to continue functioning as the amazing, complex piece of biological machinery that I am. Not only do I function, but my body allows for me to have a mind and a conscience. My body allows for emotions, and it fights diseases so I can still keep on enjoying experiences and living healthily. My body is not a picture. My body is so much more than that.

The sum of all this? I value my body more for what it can do, where it can take me, and the experiences it can give me. I’m no longer so hung up or concerned with looking a particular way, but more in doing particular things. Sure sometimes I have a momentary dip in confidence, sometimes I catch myself iterating diet culture messages of too much, need to lose weight, pain is gain and all that tom fuckery – but my choice in responding is to try to check in with myself when I notice these thoughts cropping up. I remind myself I am more than my mirror image and always will be.

I want to climb walls, and climb them better. I want to gain strength and resilience, and run all these races that I’ve signed up for. I want to dance, and move, and shake and enjoy what my body makes achievable for me every single day. I want to celebrate my strengths, and work on enjoying my body in more ways than I can possibly imagine. I can eat wonderful foods thanks to my body. I can conquer feats I never before thought would be possible for me like The London Marathon. I can have sex and enjoy all the sensations that brings. I can get myself around every day, and my legs do a fucking fantastic job of getting me around London on my bike. My arms do a great job at allowing me to do all the things I enjoy:  writing, reading, playing the ukulele really badly, climbing, eating, drinking, and in a hap hazardous way they contribute to my atrocious list of dance moves that I like to bust out when the party’s right. My eyes, they let me see all these beautiful sights that make me thankful to see everything I can: nature, skylines, sunrises and tropical storms. I can smell the warmth of the rain, and the freshness of cut grass and fresh coffee. The complexity of these joys cannot be captured in a photo or a mirror. Life is richer than that and so am I, and so are you.

My awkward smile may hint at the joys I have been experiencing, and my over excited crazy photos may capture a moment, but how my body looks, fuck that. It’s not important. I am healthy. I am capable, and I am taking advantage of those biological wonders that nature has blessed me with. So it no longer matters that I don’t fit into my skinny jeans, and it no longer matters that my arms aren’t spindly spaghetti features. My face is no longer structured by emaciation and malnourishment, and my waist is no longer so tiny it’s to die for, quite literally. My body is giving me life, and it is up to me to capture and cherish that fact.

So for as far as my body image goes, it’s not about image; it’s about sensations, feelings, experiences and love. Instead I will say that my body image is largely irrelevant but my body love is engaging with a pattern of exponential growth.

So there it is. I fucking love my body – and I bet yours is pretty darn fabulous too regardless of how it looks.

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What Is ‘Health’? And How Do We Define It?

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What is health and how do we define it? It’s a pretty complex topic and our interpretations will vary as much as our personalities. In 1946 the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (1) at the International Health Conference. This definition was put in place as of 1948. I don’t know about you but aiming for complete health in each of these areas feels like quite the daunting task, much like asking your crush out face to face in year 8 it isn’t going to happen.

“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”
– Mahatma Gandhi (2)

Well-being focus and all the buzz around it is booming. Gone are the days when it’s a popular idea to starve yourself to nothingness in order to achieve a fashionable “look”. The greater the engagement from each of us with our health can only be a good thing. With all this focus on healthy living, healthy eating and “living my best life” what happens when the foundations of understanding what health is and is not are poorly understood? In this sense, striving for health can be like navigating the maze in a Triwizard tournament with an extra catch, you’re blindfolded and there is no cup to be found. Bah ha! You’ve been Tango’d. Except when health is concerned, the consequences can be a bit more dire than a double happy slap. 

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Being aware of and taking responsibility for our health can help us in many ways, whether it’s feeling able and capable, happy and content, experiencing sadness in proportionate bouts and even saving us money on health visits and prescription charges. With the age of the internet however, the health messages we receive can be combobulated and skewed – identifying fact from fiction is a bit of a tough cookie to crack.

So how does the evidence for what is and isn’t healthy translate into simpler ideas? Is it being a certain “ideal” weight? Having the “right” body fat percentages? Is it healthy to living in one emotional state? Is avoiding the GP unless you think you might be legitimately dying mean you’re healthier than everyone sat in the waiting room for said GP? The waters become murky very quickly and it’s easy to lose sight elusive Goblet of Health whilst sashaying amongst the currents and tides of fads, shock factor headlines and public health campaigns that are somewhat not accurate anyway – think Weight Watchers in American schools and the Ob_s__y campaign by Cancer Research UK earlier this year. 

The crux in relation to nutrition and our relationship status with food doesn’t boil down to one measurement, or one aspect of health. What we eat and how we do or don’t eat affects countless aspects of our bodies and functioning. Some very real questions in relation to health and nutrition is currently in an antler head bashing contest amongst those in the field, whether accredited and qualified or not. Is it healthy to marginalise a population group because of a pattern of association without identifying causation? Is it healthy to drill diet culture into young minds, and thus setting them up for a lifetime of living “healthily” on diet culture? Is that even possible? I’m not convinced. I’m also not convinced that everything stocked in Whole Foods is automatically healthy – sorry not sorry. I’m also not convinced about the healthiness of many modern day normalities, such as our phones becoming an extra part of the human anatomy, using social media to gain self worth and validation, or extreme approaches to anything much at all. 

With health food shops donning more supplements than we can possibly afford or swallow, and health influencers donning skimpy clothing to show off abs, glutes that can crush walnuts and who can do more chin ups than an excitable dog can tail wags, does being healthy have to be so extreme? I’m going to go out on a whim here and speculate that there’s no extremes in being healthy. It’s actually more about a balance and happy medium as boring and unexciting as that may sound.

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A little secret not pushed by those cashing in on the trend, you don’t need an extreme diet to eat healthily. You don’t need an extreme exercise regimen to be healthy. You don’t need to always be happy and content to be healthy. Nor do you need to spend crazy dollar on fancy ingredients and farfetched meal plans. Health isn’t even a number on a scale. The BMI is a tool for guidance and definitely not definitive – many athletes have a BMI considered obese and I’ve never seen someone typically considered to be ‘obese’ competing at the Olympics.

Each of us will define health differently drawn from our lived experiences. The most important point to be made though is that health is not a destination but a tool for living. It isn’t the be all and end all, merely a snazzy individualised car for scooting through your days with. Yeah, you want to keep the gear box in check but you don’t want to be obsessing over whether your gears are always sliding perfectly. You also need to keep your oil and waters tanks topped up, but you don’t want to be watching them furtively whilst missing out on the enjoyment of your drive. It would be a shame to not enjoy and take in the views.

Sources:
1. http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/
2. 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705649/

What It Really Means To Love Your Body

“I looked in the mirror and loved what I saw. If I can do it, you can too” – Insta Influencer

Of course you do, you epitomise the current beauty ideal: Gym Bunny Barbie, Health Freak Barbie, Can Survive In These Proportions Barbie – but this image is still unattainable for most.

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Apparently loving how you look is still the secret elixir to loving yourself and your body. Loving yourself still equates to enslaving yourself to your reflection. I mean, it’s important to not hate what you see but apparently, according to this particular Insta influencer, aesthetics remain key to happiness and health.

Good for you but I call bullshit.

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When you love someone else how do you say what it is you love about them? Do you say, they have chiseled abs, a stunning jaw line and a booty worth twerking about? Of course you do during the lust phase, the honeymoon period of not being gable to keep your hands off each other. What about a year down the line, or five? After you’ve dealt with their death shattering snore, their farts at the airport security from nerves and little habits that are generally quite annoying, what do you say then? Valuing a partner on looks alone won’t sustain a relationship.

A deeper connection. The way they know what to say to cheer you up? The way they so badly don’t know how to cheer you up but you find it funny in hindsight? How about the conversations that never end and stimulate your mind and soul to no end? And the way they put a packed lunch in your bag even though you said you didn’t want one because they knew you’d get hungry and eat it anyway? None of those things are banging on about abs and jaw lines, so why should we focus on loving ourselves in this way? Putting the sole focus on body positivity on loving your reflection is pure, utter and complete bollocks.

The process of starting to love yourself includes more depth than this. It includes acceptance and appreciation, gratitude and developing core self-esteem. it is a process of the mind and a matter of perspective. I’ll use myself as an example. I don’t love how my body looks, far from it. I’ve gained a lot of weight these past couple of years from my medications, being unwell and generally neglecting myself at times. Self neglect when unwell with mental illness means more than not showering enough or brushing your hair, it includes not eating properly, not changing, not exercising, not sleeping, or over sleeping and neglecting every aspect of self-care there is.

I’m actually ‘technically’ according to the archaic BMI chart overweight at the moment. At the same time I don’t hat my body, far from it. In fact, I like my body more than I ever did and not because of how it looks. I accept that my body is at its biggest and I’m working on managing that in order to remain healthy. I accept my belly, and the scars on my arms and that a lot of my clothes no longer fit. I don’t like it and I accept it.

The reasons I love my body are more of an appreciation. My body allows me to run and climb. It allows me to have energy to do things in the day My heart beats and my lungs breathe with ease. My muscles are stronger than they one were and this allows me to progress at my sports activities if I put the effort in. I am capable of different experiences like the view from the top of a great big hill over a beautiful landscape, all thanks to my body. I feel different textures which can be soothing for me. I smell the beautiful wafts of perfume and baked bread thanks to my body. I can enjoy sex thanks to my body – here’s a hat tilt and wink to my nervous system and vagina for all the orgasms. I can see beauty. I can express myself fun entirely uncoordinated dancing. The list really is endless, but thanks to my body I am alive and can experience many wonders of living thanks to my body.

That’s some pretty dope shit and you know what the crux of all these things is? I can’t see any of this in my reflection or a picture alone. Yet I love my body for of these things.

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Through psychological work over many years I learned to respect, appreciate and accept my body in a holistic way. Becoming toned, health food obsessed and going to the gym most days didn’t change my perspective and feelings towards my body, therapy did. I didn’t even heal through an Eating Disorder service or therapeutic programme for eating disorders. I did it via a course of schema therapy. I am very lucky to have received this on the NHS I know, and I wouldn’t recommend going down the roads I did to land in the place. Now I’m on the other side of that part of my life though, I acknowledge this isn’t necessarily the answer for everyone. I also learned to stop caring what others thought of me and my body.

I enjoy my body and this provides my motivation to live a healthy lifestyle in order to maintain good physical and mental health. I exercise because it makes me feel good holistically in addition to reaping the health benefits over the longer term. I exercise because I love my body, not because I hate it to want to change it or look a certain way, and this is why I’m not buying the “I looked in the mirror and loved what I saw” as a phrase of self empowerment and body love.

Our love for ourselves goes deeper than our reflection, just as our love for other people does. It comes from our mind, our heart and a healthy dose of self compassion. Acceptance and gratitude are also helpful ingredients for the elusive loving yourself recipe. And if you don’t love yourself yet, but you are embarking on a journey of gratitude, acceptance, and self compassion honestly, it only gets better. It pays to pay attention to our mind and how we think about ourselves. Not everyone needs intensive therapy in order to achieve this, and if you do, that’s OK do. This is the part where I say, if I did it, so can you. You’ve got this, at whatever stage you’re at.

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I can honestly say I know how it is to hate yourself – and now look at all the things I think are pretty neat about my body. Reach out, ask for support, but most importantly work from the inside out and eventually maybe you’ll look in the mirror and say, “You’re not looking perfect dear body of mine, but I think you’re pretty neat and I love you anyway like I’d love a cat with three legs and one eye”.

*fist bump*

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