“Something has changed within me, something is not the same, I’m sick of playing by the rules of someone else’s game…”
If you’d said to me a few years ago that I would spend a hot, Summer evening sitting naked with two strangers in one of their living rooms, being recorded for a podcast talking about my body image, having been abused physically and emotionally and various other things for a podcast that anyone anywhere in the world could listen to, I probably would have said that that is bollocks. But a couple of weeks ago I did just that, I headed to Jenny’s flat to record for The Naked Podcast, having put myself forward to do it.
For most of my life I’ve had a difficult relationship with my body image. For a long time I thought I was fat and how could anyone like or love that, but in the last 6 months I’ve actually found a peace within myself and a comfortableness with myself that I could not have imagined before. The beginning kernel of this change in attitude started in February when I sent out a request to some of the women I know from school. I messaged them saying that I’ve been thinking of writing something about body image, this is how I thought of myself back then, what are your memories of me and how did you feel about yourself when you were a teenager?
Here’s a response from Keelie:
“Firstly, as a “chubby child” myself I certainly never ever thought of you in anyway other than ‘normal’ size wise. I always remember, even at a young age, seeing you as someone who appeared body confident and seemed to be happy and comfortably in your own skin. You always had your own lovely unique style and were always smiling!!
“I have had lots of ups and downs with my body image over the years. My weight has fluctuated, often dependent on levels of stress! It never helped that I had a super skinny mum and sister than I often got compared to. Also super skinny and attractive friends! And my bloody huge boobs have been always drawn attention to my body for the wrong reasons, and I hated being sort of sexualized from a very inappropriate age! After all the operations after Louie’s birth I hated my body so much and piled on the weight massively! I grew up watching my mum do everything she could to stay thin and attractive..which I think made me go the other way.
“Fast forward to now and I have never been more comfortable with my body. I have recently lost around 4 stone and finally feel that I’m close to how I should be. I haven’t really had to try very hard and I think that’s purely down to being in a better place mentally and being at a place in my life where I have nothing to prove to anyone. I just want to be happy and be around those that I love and who I know don’t care what I look like or what size I am!
“I couldn’t think of anything worse than being a teenager in today’s world!”
I was about 12 when I started reading magazines that told you how to dress, what to wear and what you should look like. It started with Shout, it had things like free lip gloss, pull out posters of kittens, ponies and models like ‘Dan’. I didn’t use the posters, I had film posters from Empire and Total Film, but I used the lip gloss and I poured over the articles that told you what to wear for different types of dates – for bowling you should wear jeans, a t shirt and cardigan, for a picnic try a cute dress and ballet pumps. I’m now 34, I think I’ve been on one ‘date’ in my life, but I still think of Shout each time I’m planning on going bowling.
My friends and I got older and moved on to older magazines. At 14 we were reading Just 17, at 15 had moved onto 19 and now we had articles about how to get the ideal beach body, 15 sex tips to keep him interested, the current diet and make up trends. We were told how to make our legs super smooth and shiny. How to lose the weight ready for the beach. How to spend hours on our hair to make it look like we’d just woken up.
At 14 I loved All Saints, Spice Girls, No Doubt and Madonna. I went swimming every Saturday and went to see a film in Banbury every Sunday. I went to a youth club on Friday nights where I would run around and play games. I was a perfectly healthy weight, but I felt enormous. I compared myself to everyone else in P.E., all of us in our Airtex shirts and P.E. skirts, running laps in P.E. knickers. I had shape, a rounded belly, biggish boobs, and I saw others who were stick thin. I saw models in magazines who were skinny as hell and I felt as though I was wrong to exist as I did.
I was bullied by a girl in my class. I was clever and would answer questions because I knew the answers. She mocked me, would call me names, pick on me and try and trip me up when I was walking to lessons. She made me feel like crap and mainly through commenting on my body. Girls can be terribly cruel.
I’ve got very few pictures of me as a teenager, far more of me under ten, taken by my parents around the house, on holidays etc.
I was, and still am, a different shape to my sister. She’s got a more athletic build, she did swimming and running, I’m far more stationary as a person. I was talking to Mum about this recently and she said that I was always a bit rounder than Alex, even as a child, with rounder hips and waist, she was a bit more straight up and down. I know it’s probably not very helpful to compare yourself to others, but it’s something we are trained to do from such an early age.
“My memories of being a teenager aren’t the same as how I recall I felt at the time. I realise now that nothing mattered, but at the time it was everything. Everything we did was open to scrutiny – wrong clothes, wrong grades, wrong friends, wrong food, wrong hobbies – what the fuck were we meant to do?
“How I remember you. This is hard, because to me you’ve always been Ellie – my clever friend, who can sing, who makes me laugh, with the cool hair, with infectious confidence and admirable strength. I hate to think that this is not how you’ve seen yourself, or known how you were perceived, but I know that too is part of you.
“I don’t recall other people’s weight or body image being part of my teenage agenda. I was too self-absorbed to worry about what everyone else thought about them self. I think we all were. I got tattoos to make myself feel better, others felt better about themselves by calling me a boy. And if people thought I looked like a boy, then why fight it…so at age 33.5, very definitely female, I still lack the confidence to dress and look ‘nice’ (except on occasion).
“I don’t think I’d change any of it though. I’m happy(ish) with myself now. I know my flaws and I know what I need to do to make me a better version of me. The teenage me wouldn’t recognise this person.”
I know exactly what Lou is talking about, I’ve recently realised that I’ve been giving myself false memories – in the last ten years or so I’ve been telling people that I was a chubby child, so no wonder I’m fat now. This is despite the photo evidence above that that is complete nonsense. But maybe I’ve been doing that because as a fatter adult, perhaps I thought it was better to say that I’ve always been this way than to see that I’ve been gradually getting bigger. I remember that I did get less comfortable with being photographed as I got older. Here’s an example of two school photos, in the first one, I’m quite out there, by Year 6, I’m shrinking away from the camera more.
“I don’t really remember much about school… my parents split up when I was in year 7 so I has a free rein to do what I liked. I don’t ever remember you being fat at school. I remember you were clever and had such a lovely family home. I was so uncomfortable in my skin at school. My daughter Niamh is 12 and she has developmental coordination delay and I see so much of myself in her. Trying to be kind and gentle is hard but I try and instill that in her. Bloody Instagram and selfies. I just remember thinking you were strong and original. Still think that now. I don’t want my girls to be like me then… fingers crossed.”
I wouldn’t want to be a teenager now. I’ve stopped reading women’s magazines. I’ve realised that they are just monthly ad books, telling us we should be this way or that, often contradicting themselves from month to month, shaming us into thinking that the way we look is not good enough unless we follow the rules. It’s all bollocks. I’ve never been on a diet. One look at my CD, DVD and craft material collections will tell you that I can easily fixate on something and I don’t want to develop a fixation on food and weight. My Nan was very glamourous and thin, she looked like the ideal shape when she was in her prime, but I think she also had disordered eating.
What really didn’t help in my 20s was being in a relationship with someone who made me dislike myself. Once we’d moved in together I got more isolated from my friends – he was alcoholic and I didn’t feel like I could have people round the house because I didn’t know if I’d be coming home to him being sober or drunk. Despite his alcoholism he took reasonable care of his physique. He went to the gym and cycled a lot. When he was drunk he was very focused on what he wanted to say – he’d tell me that I needed to look after myself better physically, he didn’t want me to die early because I was fat. I had to exercise more, eat less. Then the next day he would buy me a cheesecake or ice cream or chocolate. He would tell me that I looked awful in clothes that I loved and that I was too fat for them. He told me that no one else would love me. If he couldn’t make it with me then he couldn’t make it with anyone. He wore me down and it took me over two years to build up the courage to leave him. I even had to leave the country to fully break away from him. I’m not going to let that happen to me again. I’m worth more than that.
The only time I can think of that I lost a considerable amount of weight was a few years ago when I had my last major depressive episode. I lost my appetite entirely, had no energy to cook proper meals for myself, I was also on benefits so didn’t have a lot of money to buy food with anyway. I don’t weigh myself, so I don’t know how much weight I lost, but I got thinner and was able to fit into a dress that I’d bought that claimed to be a 16, but is closer to a 12/14.
People said how great I looked, how losing the weight really suited me, but I didn’t see any benefits beyond the fact that I love that dress. I tried it on about a year ago and split the zip because I’m bigger than it can cope with. It might fit again at some time, but I’m not going to try to get smaller.
I asked for photos of me as a teenager to help me write this post, I only really had one that I could find, aged 18 at the prom:
I was maybe, what, a size 12? But felt huge (again). Bloody nonsense. But despite feeling crap about my body, I still wanted to perform, be on stage and be seen. I got into the cast of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and ‘Gypsy’, evidence of this can be seen below. I was sent the pictures after my call out request for teenage pictures.
I’m annoyed that I felt so bad about myself then. I had shape, I had boobs, it’s possibly the best I’ve looked (let’s ignore the horrendous stage make up on picture two). Thanks for the pictures Stuart!
“So my main memories of you are your super bright clothes, lots of reds and turquoise. I remember you having amazing boobs too! I definitely had boob envy haha! Yes you were curvy but I wouldn’t have said overweight. I think your face changed a lot in the few years I knew you at school – not sure if you did a diet part way through maybe? But you always had nice eye makeup which was the main focus really and your bright red hair too! I wonder if you hid behind the colours maybe? What do you think? Although I can’t imagine you in dull colours like browns and greys, that would’ve seemed weird for you at school!”
From another Claire:
“I never perceived you as being big – it never even crossed my mind at all! With regards to myself as a teenager I struggled with my appearance – my facial features mainly and my hair. I hated my nose because of its shape mostly and the colour of my hair and how lank and greasy it was. I could go on. I wasn’t into hair dye or make up and wouldn’t have known where to start had my parents bought stuff like that for me. I wasn’t good with fashion either – I was given what I was given to wear.
“I always thought of myself as really ugly back then and used to worry about what others thought about my overall appearance (never size though). I’m not sure when I changed my way of I thinking, but I don’t think that anymore. I’ve grown a lot more confident as I’ve gotten older and with it I’ve found care less about what others think about my looks. I wear what I think suits and I feel comfortable in – easier of course since I was able to start buying my own clothes. I only dislike my nose now when I see in certain angles in photos, but otherwise I don’t care. The people in my life don’t care and to me that’s what matters. I struggle more with my weight image now interestingly, but whether that’s because I yo-yo now where as a teenager I never put weight on no matter what I scoffed! The struggle is with myself though and not about how others see me – like it used to be with my looks as a teenager. Overall though I’m a lot happier in myself as I’ve gotten older-I think many of us care less as we get older. I think anyway.”
It’s such a shame that we put so much pressure on ourselves to look certain ways. Fashions change, the ‘ideal’ shape ebbs and flows.
So what’s happened to help me feel better about myself and who I am? I guess I’ve grown up. I’ve read more, feminist and body positive literature. I listen to podcasts with inspiring people: The Guilty Feminist, Made of Human, Hoovering. I question more, I care less about the thoughts of others. I can almost take a compliment!
I seem to have finally settled into my own skin. I have wobbly bits, a big bum, thighs and tummy. My boobs are relatively big, but not uncomfortably so. I’m not horrified by the thought of having a full body photo taken, though it’s rare, because I’m mostly on my own taking pictures. I wear clothes that I feel comfortable and happy in. Sometimes I wear make up, sometimes I don’t. I don’t care what other people think about how I look. I *like* myself, which is something I’m not sure I thought I would. I tweeted and emailed a podcast to offer to go and sit naked and chat about my body, the things that have happened to it and how I am now. And I think that was an excellent thing to do.