I am writing this after getting out of the shower. I am currently wrapped in a towel, sitting cross-legged on the bed with my laptop on my lap, as the manufacturers intended. There’s a mirror propped up against the wall opposite me, as though I were a girl in a book and on the brink of giving the reader an early-doors preview of what I look like, under the guise of checking myself out.
So, what do I see? My shoulders are gleamy with coconut oil, my face a bluey grey, because I’ve put a clay mask on and shoved my spectacles over the top. I look like Brainy Smurf, the one who has a slightly unhealthy complexion because he sits in his room all day with the curtains drawn. I can also see my thighs, wrinkled, dimpled and vast. The roll of stomach pouching just under the towel, which won’t go away even when I suck it in. The arms, with patches of keratosis pilaris, which always put me in mind of lurid red kebab meat rotating on a metal spike, sweating under fluorescent lights. This is not the description I’d give if I were putting myself in a novel. I’d write myself gorgeous, slender, pert, leggy, lithe of thigh and definitely not grey of face. At this moment in time, I have many feelings for my body, and “love” is low down on the list. I’m not staring at my reflection with joy and acceptance. I’m looking at myself like I’m an £800 council-tax bill I’d completely forgotten to pay, or a louse egg that I’ve just discovered in a child’s hair.
For every day that I feel good about myself and what I’m made of, there are 20 or 30 where I can only look at myself as though I’m a Picasso painting, dismembering my body with my own gaze, because the full horror of it all is too awful to contemplate
In the 31 years that I have existed in it, my body and I have been on many adventures. There was primary school, where cruel classmates invented a game called Survival Of The Fattest, in which objects, people and monuments were listed and the challenge was to work out how I would crush them with my colossal girth. (This was the most cerebral element of the bullying.) There was secondary school, where I starved myself to bare bones and fainted so frequently that the nurse in the sick bay joked about installing an air bed for me. There was the year of university, where I fed myself so determinedly with pasta and mayonnaise that I almost accidentally made human foie gras, and the following year, where break-ups and bad marks put me on a distracted diet of Glen’s vodka with an occasional slice of toast. I’ve tried juice fasts and yoga and cutting carbs. I’ve eaten at some of the most celebrated restaurants in the world and Wetherspoons. I’ve done the 5:2 – and accidentally eaten half a jar of crunchy Lotus Speculoos spread on a designated fast day.
I struggle to love my body unconditionally. When the planets are aligned, the lighting is right and I’ve surprised myself by being able to button up my slightly-too-small maroon jeggings (and I know I’m not living my best life when I’m scared of my own trousers), I can look upon my flesh kindly and think, “That’ll do, pig.” But, for every day that I feel good about myself and what I’m made of, there are 20 or 30 where I can only look at myself as though I’m a Picasso painting, dismembering my body with my own gaze, limb by limb, because the full horror of it all is too awful to contemplate.
It’s not just about hating my body, but hating myself for hating it. I’m vain, I’m wicked, I should be endlessly thankful for my functional arms and legs, the feet that take me out and bring me home again, the hands that type, the head that is useful for keeping hats on. I’m a hypocrite, always telling my sisters and friends that we’d all be happier if we stopped worrying about the way we look, and focused on the way we feel instead. I see adverts shouting at me to open my mind, love my curves and embrace the fact that beauty doesn’t know shapes or sizes – and I loathe myself for wanting to look like Chrissy Teigen, while still feeling angry with myself for not looking like Chrissy Teigen.
“Love your body” is a very sweet instruction, but it’s empty of any practical advice, up there with “Just ignore the trolls” and “You seem stressed – you should try to relax”. If we’re capable of loving something, we’re capable of feeling a wide spectrum of emotions towards it. I grew up experiencing and internalising so many difficult, negative things about my body. I have to accept that it isn’t realistic to suddenly think, “Oh, I love it now! This is great! That makes everything better!” If it was that easy to love, why do so many of us sometimes think we hate our bodies? We all live in a patriarchy and we’re all sold the same narrow standard of beauty and sexiness. When I binged and purged and starved myself, I swallowed so much bullshit, and that negativity isn’t going away overnight.
So, I’m trying to love the fact that I don’t always have to love my body – or, at least, make peace with the fact that I feel many things towards it. It might take the rest of my life to undo the damage that all the hate caused. But if I can get better at being kind to it, I believe the love might come. If I do my best at nourishing it with good thoughts as well as fine foods, I can find joy and happiness in my relationship with it. For now, I might not be delighted with what I see when I look in the mirror, but I can start by smiling at myself.
It's #BodyHonestly week on The Pool and all this week, we will be discussing our bodies, and how we feel about them.