12. Body Image, Food and Exercise: A Constant Work In Progress

TW: Restriction, calorie-counting, negative body image, over-exercising

I never really paid much attention to my body when I was a child. It’s important to say that this was largely because I didn’t have to. I never had a major illness, and I have benefitted from thin privilege my entire life. Even at my biggest, I have always resided within a palatable body by society’s standards. But in my own, limited experiences, my childhood body was never something about which I had any distinguishable feelings. It was simply the vessel through which I experienced life. I ran and played outside when I had energy, I sat down and read when I didn’t. I knew that I was the shortest in my Year Three class, which I saw as a good thing because it meant zero faffing about when it came to getting into height order for the school photo. I knew that I preferred allégro to adagio in ballet, because I enjoyed moving in faster, sharper, more decisive ways. 

But there was a moment when I was eleven. Several moments, probably, but I can only remember this one clearly. The rest are simply now stored in my bones. Around the end of Year Six, my mum took me to a dance shop to get a new leotard for a ballet competition. The shop assistant gave me several to try on behind a flimsy curtain at the back of the shop. They were all comically small. (There is part of me now that wonders if she did this on purpose – as if to say that if I could not fit into these desired sizes, then I had no place in the dance world). I poked my head out of the curtain and said in a tiny voice, “Sorry, they don’t fit.” The shop assistant snatched the small leotards away and huffed as if she was angry with me. I didn’t understand what I had done wrong. “Right, well, yes, you’ll probably need a large. I don’t know if we’ve got any large sizes in.” She drew the curtain on me and I heard her rustling around the shop. “Large… goodness… can’t find a large… where would those be…” Why did she keep saying “large” like that? That word had never sounded bad before. She returned and thrust a bright fuchsia-coloured leotard at me. “This is all we’ve got in a large.”  The leotard smelled new and synthetic. I was sweating and I felt heat pulsing behind my eyes. I looked in the mirror. It was the first time in my life I had felt genuine hatred. Mum asked if it fitted and I said yes. She said what a lovely colour and I said yes it’s a very lovely colour. It’ll make you stand out on stage she said and I said yes it will. My large leotard and I will stand out. Because we don’t belong. Because there is something horrible and disgusting, something wrong about us. 

I move on to senior school and I learn quickly that ‘thin’ is a compliment and ‘fat’ is an insult. When we learn opposite adjectives in French, everybody wants to be “maigre” and nobody wants to be “gros”. It is rude to introduce your friend and say that they are anything but “maigre”. I start noticing that adult women greet each other by commenting on each other’s size. “You look so slim! What have you been doing?” “Oh no really it’s nothing, I’ve just been stressed at work!” “Gosh, if you get any smaller you’re going to waste away!” “Look how tiny your waist is in that dress!” 

When I am a teenager, a boy says to me, “Don’t get mad, but you have a really nice bum.” I say, “What?” and he says, “I mean it’s big and round and you know, it’s nice.” I say that it isn’t actually that big, it’s just that my waist is small in comparison so it looks bigger than it is. He says that he is paying me a compliment and that big bums are nice. I keep saying that it isn’t that big, it’s just that my waist is small, and something about hip to waist ratio, and I don’t know why I am getting on the defensive about it. A few weeks later, another boy asks me if I would rather be really skinny or really fat. I say I would rather be really skinny, and he says that’s weird because he can imagine me as really fat but not really skinny. I do not know why this upsets me so much. I do not finish my dinner that evening, even though I am hungry. 

Somewhere in my adolescence, I start to consider exercise as a tool for weight loss and not something for enjoyment. How much I sweat and how many calories I burn becomes more important than how moving makes me feel. I go running after school every day before hours of dance, because people have noticed that I am smaller and keep saying that I look “so much better”. I go to the gym at the weekend and won’t leave until I have burned 650 calories. At university, I increase my running miles too quickly and end up with a bad case of plantar fasciitis. I do not rest it because resting does not burn calories. I go to the gym in between most lectures, and I am so exhausted that by 3pm I can hardly keep my eyes open. I drink black coffee (which I hate) and silently pinch my face at the back of lecture theatres to stay awake. I train on sore muscles, I fuel myself with egg whites and crackers and sugar-free barbecue sauce. I drop down to 17% body fat – which apparently makes me look “healthy” – and lose my period. (This percentage isn’t guaranteed to cause amenorrhea – many people are perfectly happy and healthy on lower percentages. But for me, this was too low). 

Over the years people occasionally noticed my restrictive behaviours around food and exercise. I became adept at disguising things under the guise of “health”. “Gluten makes me bloated so I can’t have the pizza.” Translation: I want an excuse not to eat “unhealthy” food. (Eating a pizza makes me as bloated as anyone else who has just eaten a pizza, but it doesn’t actually give me cramps. Cow’s milk, on the other hand, gives me terrible eczema and headaches and must genuinely be avoided). “I’m training for XYZ so I need to do multiple workouts every day for 6 days per week.” Translation: I am punishing myself. “I’m not hungry because I had a really big breakfast earlier.” Translation: I feel like I ate too much yesterday and I must make up for it today by not eating. 

I would like to say I don’t do this anymore, but sometimes I do. I have been worse and I have been better. For months sometimes, it is barely noticeable. But certain things can send me down a slope. These “strange times” – as everyone seems to be calling them – appear to be one of those things. There is more time to critique things in the mirror, more time for my mind to go wandering off into dangerous corners. A few days ago I caught myself weighing out 10 grams of raisins to put in my morning porridge. Later, I found myself hopping between three different sets of bathroom scales, taking the average and working out my BMI. Why on earth am I working out my BMI, when I know it to be frankly a load of bullshit? Last week, I stayed up until 2am looking at transformation photos from different weight loss plans. The next day I dragged myself out on a seven kilometre run which felt like I was wading through treacle. I struggled and wheezed my way through seven minute 30 second kilometres, when an easy recovery pace for me is usually around six minutes per kilometre. There was not one single atom of my body that wanted to do this run, but did I listen? No.  

The difference now compared to a few years ago is that I know I’m engaging in these behaviours, and more importantly, I am mostly able to talk myself down from them. I spend a good deal of my daily energy on having strong words with myself. It is a constant work in progress; I am always aware of my body image and how it affects me mentally. It feels strange writing this during Mental Health Awareness Week (last year’s theme was body image and this year’s is kindness, whatever that actually means) because the narrative of these weeks always seems to subscribe to the “it was really bad but now I’m right as rain again” norm – and that doesn’t ring true for my experiences or for those of many others. While I do think raising awareness is important, I’m tired of weeks like this becoming a tickbox activity where companies can say “we’re here for you” and universities set up petting zoos and offer free hand massages but nothing actually changes. It becomes suddenly okay to talk for a week and then days later the toxic positivity is back again and everything feels just as uncomfortable and awkward as it did before. It is far more complex than “just talk.” (Hannah Daisy shared a great post about this on Instagram). 

My brain was in a bit of a muddle before I sat down to write this. I have exercised for four days in a row and today was meant to be a rest day before a long run tomorrow, but a voice piped up in the back of my head and started saying, “but maybe you could do a bit of pilates, or maybe a low intensity bodyweight workout, or maybe a little jog, or a run, just a short one.” I know I perform better after rest. My fastest 5k time ever was after three days of doing absolutely nothing and eating a lot of pasta. I know this, but I am constantly battling against the snarky voice inside my head that says otherwise. Some days it is quieter than others, but it is always there. Things don’t get bad and then get better and go away in a straightforward, linear way. There are peaks and troughs and moments of peace and moments of unbearable noise. I am managing it today. I am choosing to go for a leisurely stroll in the sunshine with a podcast. I am not in such a muddle anymore. 

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