I just finished watching ‘Cherry’s Body Dilemmas’ on BBC3. Now, let me just explain myself. This is not at all the kind of thing I usually watch, and I wish I could claim that I found it revelatory, or that it was a cut above the rest of a slew of similar shows, or even that the people interviewed were uniquely charming. It was none of these things. Cherry Healey seems like a very sweet person with a totally darling little girl, but that doesn’t change the fact that this show gave me nothing new whatsoever. What’s that? Girls in their twenties with body issues? Someone who is ok with being ‘fat’? How strange – one girl wants a bigger bottom, not a smaller one. And a nudist! Goodness me, just mull over these different points of view! My mind has well and truly been expanded.
There was something that was different, though, which really had little to do with the actual content of the show, but more to do with my reaction to it. At some point during the last couple of years, without actually registering it at all, I’ve become really happy with my body. What?! How did that happen? It strikes me as funny that something so huge and all-encompassing has just changed for the better, and I’ve not even noticed. It’s especially bizarre when I think about all the hours spent agonising over my looks as I grew up, and even moments of claiming I ‘hated’ my body.
In the show, Cherry trawled through her old diaries, shocked at how many pages displayed scrawled longings for a thinner body. I know even without looking at mine that they contain some similar pages, particularly at a few choice periods of my life. I’m fairly sure there might even be lists somewhere, of everything that I felt was wrong with myself, or things that I wanted to change. I remember going on crazy diets, not eating for days, then falling off the wagon spectacularly. School, my lovely Private all girls school haven, was obviously an interesting place for this kind of malarkey. I distinctly remember an ‘anorexia watch’ at lunchtimes that made sure we were eating enough.
I remember one awful Summer, long ago, where I suddenly became horribly self-aware. Even in the most blazing of hot days, I kept myself swathed in a long, thick coat, because I was simply too self-conscious to go without. I weighed myself obsessively, I noted down everything I ate, I cried and cried to myself and imagined how perfect everything would be if I just lost all that terrible weight. I can’t ever have been more than 9 stone, if even that, but I felt huge. Even at uni, during stressful periods the eating was always the first to go. Break-ups, exam stress, anxiety, and suddenly I’d be eating less and less. But so what? Ask a certain type of girl, and they’ll all cite exactly the same experiences.
My worst habit is getting too into things. So I’d start with ‘healthy eating’, which was just trying to be a bit more careful, you know, not a diet or anything, obviously, but just eating a bit more fruit and veg. Two weeks later and all bad foods would have vanished. Another fortnight after that and I’d be eating a bit of vegetarian sushi from M&S and obsessing over calorie free drinks. Another two weeks and I’d be falling into a pile of cake.
What changed, then? It must be a number of things, looking back. I haven’t weighed myself in years, for a start. Last time I did I think I was around 8 stone, but that doesn’t really mean anything to me in the real world. Clothes sizes are untrustworthy, so I make a point not to care too much about those. I got into exercising, but not obsessively. I ran to raise money for Cancer Research, and I loved doing that. I started listening to compliments from girls and boys, instead of shrugging them off. I learnt to dress for myself. I am now extraordinarily confident about my body, in a way I never even dreamed would be possible.
I only measure myself against myself these days, if that makes sense. Years ago I used to constantly look at other girls and think ‘are my thighs bigger or smaller than hers?’ It was ongoing, and thoroughly miserable. Now I just focus on me, because really, what’s the point? It’s not like you’re going to be able to swap thighs with that girl, so why agonise over it? Exercising has helped hugely, because you start thinking about what your body can achieve, instead of what it can’t. I eat what I want, at regular intervals, and I never look at calorie counts, because that’s a downhill slope for me. I avoid anything ‘low fat’ or ‘sugar free’, because it’s rammed full of nasties. I enjoy food, and I enjoy cooking. I started looking outside of myself. I met people who’d suffered life-threatening illnesses and were glad just to be alive. I’m now an ambassador for the Teenage Cancer Trust, and I’ve learnt so much about being grateful for what I have.
But back to the confronting the day to day issues. Experimenting with my clothes has really been a huge saving grace. I have a very small waist that I used to hate, as I thought it made my hips and shoulders look bigger. Now, I’m grateful. There’s a classic Edith Piaf quote that says ‘use your faults, use your defects, then you’re going to be a star’. Now, I don’t like to think of my body as defective in any way, but I catch her drift. Sometimes it’s the things that you hate about yourself that you learn to love the most. I used to always long for blue eyes growing up, going so far as to look into coloured contacts (the ultimate in vanity, as far as I’m concerned) until I realised that my dark green eyes are one of my best features. Likewise, I am now almost inordinately happy and proud of my bottom, after years of –ahem- eyeing up Kate Moss’s boyish posterior.
I’m afraid I’m going to bring this back to a bad note, though. Being confident about your body is not necessarily the difficult part – it’s how that confidence is received the people around you. After all, it’s not how we, as women in 2011, are expected to feel. How many times have you bonded with friends by saying ‘I wish I had her legs’, or ‘you’re so lucky to be so thin, if only I was like that’. Putting yourself down is part of the female experience. I can’t imagine myself sitting in a group and going ‘god, I’m sooo lucky to have the body I’ve got. I look great. Right guys? Right?’ It’s just totally anti-instinctive. I’m not sure it’d be a good thing to happen either, actually.
So what do we do, then? I truly believe chucking away the scales and stopping the ghastly diet is a good step. Compliment your friends. I know so many beautiful girls, and I must make sure to tell them more often. In turn, listen when you are complimented. And if you’re feeling positive about a part of your body, be proud of that! There’s no reward in putting yourself down. We are told, as women, (and very probably men are too), that it’s ok to feel insecure. This is damaging! Why should we? Why are we now expected to be so unhappy with ourselves? This is my primary issue with Cherry’s program. It was all about her insecurities, and coming to a vague happiness with herself (which I’m not sure she did.) What about actually encouraging us to be happy with ourselves?
Sorry for the long post. This is something I clearly feel strongly about. We all have the right to feel beautiful.