The other day, I pinched a bit of fat around my tummy and said to my sister, “I can't believe my stomach is still this flabby.” She responded with a swift, “Are you mad?”, pointing out, “That’s just your tummy, you fool. Also, you can deadlift your own body weight.” I grumbled and chose a more forgiving top.
Two days later, I got a similar text from my sister, this time about her own stomach. “Are you mad?” I responded. “You've had a kid and you are in your forties and you go to crossfit like mad.” I realised that we were both, like my colleagues and friends, constantly caught in a death spiral of fat-shaming ourselves and then seeking reassurance that our bodies hadn't collapsed into soufflés.
I wondered about why we do this and where this all begins. Then, I read over the weekend about how scientists discovered that looking at pictures of slim women for merely 15 minutes changes our perception of what the ideal body should look like. And things started to make a bit more sense.
Fifteen minutes may not sound like a lot, but it can span two rounds of TV adverts or a quarter of a fashion magazine. I love magazines, but I almost invariably have to scream into a pillow afterwards at the serious lack of diversity – particularly body shape – on the pages. I don’t know about you, but while I may glean ideas for my autumn wardrobe and learn intricate details about Katy Perry’s love life, I don’t ever finish reading one of these feeling great about myself.
But this new research adds serious weight to how ad campaigns and magazines make us feel – it’s not just in our heads. These images fundamentally feed into some very real emotions about our own bodies, and how we feel we measure up. Or, rather, don’t measure up.
And this stuff matters. Because, for some reason, of late I’ve noticed a lot more self-fat-shaming going on than I ever have done before. I hold my hand up – I’m as guilty as the next person talking about how big my arse is, or how “I’m feeling fat at the moment”. I know this rhetoric isn’t helping me in any way, but it just blurts out like diarrhoea and it needs to stop.
Fat-shaming is built from all the experiences we had as teenage girls, a comment from someone, the time we couldn’t quite fit into an old pair of jeans
It’d be one thing if it was just me, but over the last few months I’ve heard my sister, friends, work colleagues all do it – berating themselves for not fitting into clothes, having that extra brownie, not losing their baby weight quickly enough. Age and race are no bar – we all do it.
The final straw was my amazing, strong mother, who, at 66, had a picture of her taken while doing hanging knee raises, but was so focused on whether or not her tummy looked flat, rather than the fact she’s a legend who can, well, do hanging knee raises in her sixties.
The problem with fat-shaming isn’t just that we are seeking validation from other people to say, “No, you don’t look fat.” The problem with fat-shaming is that it means we never get to enjoy our bodies in real time, so we spend a lifetime permanently dissatisfied with how we look.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve looked back at a photo of myself on Facebook and Instagram and thought I looked great, when I know at the time I felt crappy and overweight. How extremely tragic it is that the only time I will probably really appreciate what my body was capable of is when it is no longer capable of much at all?
It is mind-boggling how powerful fat-shaming ourselves can be – how a few correctly placed words so greatly influence how we feel about ourselves and our bodies. But therein lies the way to undoing its hold over us. Because all fat-shaming, really, is a story.
A story we tell ourselves about how we look, or how we will never measure up. It is built from all the experiences we had as teenage girls, a comment from someone, the time we couldn’t quite fit into an old pair of jeans. And let us never forget, it is a story gone bad, because it is based on the warped reflection of other people’s lives – here we are, comparing our bodies with women who have an utterly different existence to us, some of whom have not had children, worked 14-hour days, survived illness or are even the same age as us.
We carve our arms, thighs and breasts into chapters that we underline in red for critiquing and we don’t take into account the bigger picture. That our boobs may not be symmetrical and, yes, there may be bits bigger than the others, but there are parts of it which are strong, beautiful, stupendous. That move us around, sprint after buses, make great Sunday roasts.
While the fat-shaming stories are destructive, the good thing about stories is that they can change. They have to change, actually – because hearing women talk about how fat they are is what starts the next generation of women doing it about themselves.
Because we may live in a world that idolises tall, thin bodies, because that’s the story they have been spinning for a very long time, but I think it is long overdue that we take charge of our own narrative, and start looking at what our bodies are, instead of what they aren’t.