I told Tilly I would write this months ago, and each week when she’s asked where my post is, I’ve shrank away with muttered excuses of ‘too much work’ and ‘nine articles to edit by tomorrow morning’.
And this is part of it of course, the unending exhaustion and boredom of third year, but the bigger part, the part I didn’t tell Tilly, was that I don’t know the words to choose to talk about the body that I carry around with me each day. I don’t know the words I can use to talk about my fear of it, my occasional hatred of it, my awe that it has brought me this far.
It’s a complicated thing, this relationship we have with our bodies. They are the one constant of our lives, we are born with it and we will die with it, it is inanimate at the same time as being the most animated thing we hold in this world. It has no feelings but it expresses itself with every emotion that flickers through our brains throughout the course of the day.
And yet for all its wonder, for all the amazing things it can do, as women the discourse that surrounds our bodies is invariably to do with the size of them. ‘You’re so tall, I’m so jealous’, ‘Wow, you’ve lost so much weight’, ‘I don’t want to sound like a bitch but she’s put on a couple of pounds recently, hasn’t she?’
I can’t remember the last time I heard myself say the words ‘My body is so strong! It helped me swim twenty five lengths in the pool today without stopping’, or ‘My body needed a rest today.’ However I can tell you that I say things like ‘I am so fat’ (and unfortunately, I am not one of those women who can happily accept her fat, even at a size 12 I am constantly bullying myself to fight against it) and ‘I can’t believe I didn’t exercise today’ on an hourly basis. Why? Why do I do this to myself? Why do women do this to ourselves?
I think it’s because we’ve been taught to value ourselves primarily for our bodies, and for that belief to be validated, they must look and act a certain way. We’ve been taught by the media, by society and by our mothers that our body is what must be developed and punished, that we need to occupy a small amount of space and our bodies need to compress to fit it. We’ve been taught that our bodies must always be a work in progress, that we will never be the complete and perfect finished product. We have been taught that eating a lot of food is ‘greed’. Men are taught that eating a lot of food is ‘manly’. Look at the example of Joey from Friends, compared with Monica. Joey’s overeating is endorsed, he is a character we laugh WITH, yet he miraculously stays skinny. Monica, on the other hand, presented as an overweight teenager is a character we are encouraged to be relatively disgusted by. We laugh AT her because she is fat, and her ‘significant character growth’ into an adult is not represented by her financial or emotional development. It’s represented by the fact that she gets her eating ‘under control’ and becomes skinny.
My one, flawed, example is presented time and time again not only in the media but in real life. Two years ago, I became very unwell with anxiety and depression and lost one and a half stone in the space of six weeks. Even friends and family who were aware of my illness congratulated me on the loss, as if it was something to be proud of, as if it was even in my control. My body was being praised whilst my mind was in the depths of self-destruction, and it was the most warped thing imaginable.
I sit, two years on, with that extra one and a half stone plus some, resting on my tummy and hips. And rather than being contented that I’m no longer depressed, I sometimes catch myself looking at pictures of myself in that time and thinking ‘Yeah, your head was a state but damn girl, you looked hot’.
And that thought, whenever it catches me unaware, is so ridiculous, so destructive, that I have to write about it. And I have to write about it to make myself believe that I am my body, and yet I am so much more than it. And that for every moment I spend fat-shaming it, I am dishonouring not only myself but the feminist values that I try my best to live my life by.
Some of us can’t change the way we feel about our bodies overnight. Some of us look on the women who accept their bodies happily with awe and jealousy. Some of us don’t know how to look at ourselves in the mirror and see the great things first. Some of us don’t take joy in clothes shopping, convinced that the cute dress is not meant for women like us.
And the thing is, I’m not just talking about fat women. I’m talking about skinny women, about short women, tall women, women who strike others with envy. Because no matter how we look, there’s always something, something that can be better.
I don’t know what I can do to change this for myself, let alone anyone else. I’ve tried a lot of positivity techniques, I’ve heard every compliment standard to ‘curvy girls’. So I’m going to concentrate on making my body as strong as it can be, for its own sake. I’m going to jump in the swimming pool tonight and work my feminist legs. Because even though, to many of us, they will never be perfect, our bodies will carry us to the places we need to go. And even though I might not love what mine looks like, I’ll try to love it forever for what it can do.