Everywhere you look—especially during summer—there is an ad with an obnoxiously happy skinny woman in a bikini with the byline: “Get your bikini body ready!”
I thought my body was a bikini body simply because it was body in a bikini. Surely a torso with arms and legs that can help me navigate the ocean, swim laps in a pool, or, better still, lie with a Margarita in hand merits a ‘bikini’ body?
The media constantly bombards us with the notion that more is required of our bodies to be able to wear a bikini. Allowing our bodies to be in their natural form isn’t good enough and we are constantly told that we need a tighter tummy, leaner legs, or a bigger bum in order to have the ‘right’ body for such attire. The days of nonchalantly squeezing into a swimsuit as a child without a care in the world now seems a distant memory.
This constant stream of messages is met with a variety of responses: some shrug it off with a scoff or a laugh, others pause for a moment of insecurity and diet overhaul, some ignore it completely. For the unlucky ones however, it becomes a taunting demon that pitches camp on their shoulder to constantly prod and pinch them whenever their hand reaches for something other than a celery stick. These little demons spawn out of posters, magazine editorials, and TV screens like a disease, infecting vulnerable schoolgirls, college students, and women in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s the world over.
It’s got nothing to do with the model in the poster—if she’s rockin’ a bod that is slim in the all right places and toned to perfection due to genetics or hard work, more power to her! If there’s a woman with voluptuous curves in a dress that hugs her figure like it was made for her, more power to her! Where the problem lies is in the advertising itself, which time and time again imparts the tacit message: “Don’t look like you, look like her.”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t come down to an ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ body shape, as beauty comes in all different sizes. What it comes down to is how comfortable we feel in our bodies. Insecurities are a natural part of the human existence—even the most confident person can occasionally worry about their nose or whether their voice is too loud, and for the most part, people simply ignore these niggling feelings. But we all know that tapping into people’s insecurities is a vital part of advertising, and by imparting the notion that a person should look like someone else people (and in our society, especially women) start to turn on themselves.
Unfortunately for me, I was one of those people. As soon as I turned 12, I started to notice that in every TV show, magazine, advertisement, and film, the female characters were all skinny, beautiful, and happy. I wanted to be like those women, and I thought that by getting a body like theirs, I would be as beautiful and happy as them. In hindsight I can say that I was deeply insecure. I had been bullied since primary school and all throughout high school by other girls. I thought that by being like the skinny, pretty women in ads, I would have friends and a boyfriend, and that people would like me. There was only so much of the bullying I could take before I started to believe my bullies, and my own little devil arrived and pitched camp on my shoulder.
My road to self-destruction really got going when I was 14. One day in health class, we learnt about bulimia and anorexia, and it was as if a light bulb went off. I already had some experience with anorexia during my ballet days as a young girl; I often saw my peers throw out their lunch or hide food from their parents. At the time, neither my peers nor I had heard of anorexia as a disease or knew anything about it. Somehow the girls in my class one day figured out that if they stopped eating, they could look more like the gaunt ballerinas in the posters that were hung on the walls of our studio.
At that time, I didn’t take much notice of what the other girls were doing. I had a low birth weight as a result of being a premature baby and was therefore naturally far skinnier than many of my fellow ballet dancers. Many of my teachers would comment on my “perfect” figure for ballet, but I didn’t think anything more of this than the dismay my friends felt as the same wasn’t said to them.
Three years on and ballet was all but a distant memory. As I sat in health class that pivotal day, learning about eating disorders, I thought back to my friends’ behaviors and realized they were all symptoms of eating disorders.
That week, I experimented with skipping meals. And I liked it. I realized the feeling of having my tummy rumble from hunger gave me a power trip. For every mean thing a girl said, I knew I was secretly stronger then her because I was able to resist food. My desire to starve myself ignited and I found myself throwing out my lunches, and cutting and mushing my dinner into pieces so my parents would think I was eating.
Whereas starving myself was my main focus, I eventually detoured into experimenting with bulimia. After coming home from a long day at school and starving myself, I would be hit with immense waves of near animalistic hunger. I would binge on anything I could find that was sugary or high in carbohydrates—things that my body craved—in order to peak my worryingly low blood sugar levels. Usually after these binges, my anorexia would torment me with horrible insults and self-hatred. I would shame every aspect of the body I hated, vowing that the next day I would not be so weak. One day however, I remembered the ‘magical cure’ I learnt about in health class, whereby a simple finger down my throat would undo all the damage I had done to my diet. Ice cream is very easy to bring up, so my first experience of bulimia was a quick one.
I only experimented with bulimia for about three weeks at age 14 and relapsed momentarily again at age 16 for a week at best. I wasn’t very good at purging and barely brought anything up each time, so my relationship with bulimia fizzled out. For the record, the one thing I learnt about bulimia is that—for anyone who wants to glamorize eating disorders—there is nothing glamorous about being hunched over a toilet and heaving in the hope that something comes up. To this day, I still feel faint if I see any depiction of induced vomiting due to the horror I associate with it.
I think my experience with binging and purging was so short-lived because people with eating disorders tend to have a preference. I was certainly not inclined towards bulimia as it clashed with my mindset of abstaining from food all together, in which I felt my true power lay. Eating disorders always stem from a deeper issue and whatever form that demon takes, there is usually some simpatico with that particular type of eating disorder.
Eventually, I regained my confidence and was healthy for a few years until the devil on my shoulder resurged again when I was 16, a result of the pressure I felt to meet my elite school’s expectations. Boys started to make cruel fat jokes towards other girls and in an effort to feel a sense of approval and worthiness—which I couldn’t give myself—I rapidly declined.
I became a human calculator of calories. I was able to look at any piece of food and tell the amount of calories it had, a skill I still possess today. I memorized every pro-anorexia quote I could find, such as “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” or “once on the lips, forever on the hips,” which became my mantras at every mealtime. I would lie to my loved ones’ faces that I had eaten. I would abuse laxatives in an attempt to lose weight. There were days when I only ate an apple. There were days when I ate nothing. There were days where I would do anything to avoid the stabbing hunger pains that tore my stomach apart. I would spend hours Googling “thinsporation” and looking at all the pro-anorexia blogs my tired mind could latch onto to drag itself further into starvation.
The thing that interested me most about these pro-anorexia “thinspo” blogs were the quotes amidst the photos of underweight girls, quotes such as “I’m not worthy,” “Eat nothing so I disappear,” and “Weigh less for him.” These quotes are so pertinent as they reveal the true root of an eating disorder, which lies solely in self-hatred. Eating disorders really have nothing to do with achieving the perfect body and everything to do with punishing insecurities and deep-rooted self-doubt.
Even attempts at body positive songs, such as Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” are problematic. Take the lyric, “fuck those skinny bitches,” which shames women’s naturally slim bodies. Sure, there are strong arguments about why slimmer women shouldn’t feel offended by such statements and that this kind of discrimination is much more potent for curvier bodied women. I agree with this to an extent, however I still feel that lyrics such as these trigger certain women, especially those who are easily prone to self-hatred, as they once again taps into the idea of “look like her, not you.” I can’t help but wince when I hear that lyric because, ironically, I was often bullied for being too thin in primary school, with other kids not allowing me to play skipping rope because my “bones might break.”
It is also worth pointing out that the lyric “Boys like a little more booty to hold at night” is undeniably absurd and implies that women should equate body acceptance with the desire of men. Yet whilst body image in a sense stems from an innate primal desire for physical attraction to attract a mate in order to reproduce, the notion that potential mates should dictate one’s body image is archaic. An individual’s sexuality is a very personal and unique, and transcends possessing a particular body type; it’s all about the vibe a person emits. And we all know that confidence is sexy!
Fast forward to the present day and I am mostly recovered, shifting my focus to being fit and healthy instead of starving myself. I am also training myself to notice not what my body looks like, but what it is capable of. This year, I trained and ran my first 6k run, starting from a non-existent fitness level, and for the first time, I felt the strength my legs, heart, and lungs have to propel me down the racetrack. Yet even now, when I look at fitness Instagram accounts or blogs for inspiration, all the women are white and skinny, with very little diversity. It seems that even the fitness industry, which supposedly focuses solely on health and fitness, is still obsessed with achieving a body of a particular type and mold.
Our obsessions with dieting are also unhealthy. Diets in general never work, as there isn’t a ‘quick fix’ solution to losing weight. The only tried-and-tested measure is healthy eating and exercising. Any mainstream diet is a mini form of an eating disorder, which often encourages extreme calorie restriction and involves the individual giving up due to binging. I find the obsession with dieting—as a person who has recovered from such issues—fascinating and triggering all at the same time. Seeing people lament about their bodies or talk about the latest diet fad can sometimes sound like anorexics or bulimics swapping tips. It’s sad that this sort of talk and behaviors has been made acceptable by dieting companies, fashion labels, gyms, and advertising alike. It’s surprising that people still wonder why young girls and boys are increasingly becoming insecure and body conscious.
All bodies are different: there are curvaceous bodies, pear-shaped bodies, apple-shaped bodies, bodies with big hips, and bodies with small chests and big chests and long legs and short legs. Bodies are tall or short, and this is irrespective of diet or exercise. A lot of how our bodies look is beyond our control, and really our bodies are just vessels for our souls and personalities.
I have to tell myself daily that I am so much more than a number on a scale. I remind myself that I am the sum of my dreams, passions, achievements, and convictions. I have become vegetarian, and for the first time in a long time, I have been able to eat guilt free by looking at food through an ethical lens instead of a dieting one. Food is now a friend and I am nourishing my body, not punishing it.
When I look in the mirror, I force myself to accept the physical, and then look deeper into the emotional. I am who I am. I always have been and I always will be. I hope that one day society will accept that, but for now it’s up to us. Body image problems will always exist, but it’s how we choose to handle them that defines us. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “no-one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” so why should we make ourselves feel inferior? We are our own best friends and worst enemies, if we want to be. I know which one I’m choosing.
Main image courtesy of bangordailynews.com.