All photos by Lucy Ridges www.lucyridges.com
Before we get started on what on earth prompted me to paint a (slightly see-through, skintight) dress with all the things -- good, bad and ugly -- that people have said about my body during my 31 years of existence, I just want to get a few things straight. This piece isn't an attack on anybody. It's not a vanity project, or a pity party. I'm not trying to make people feel sorry for me just because somebody once told me I have thunder thighs, weird knees, sausage fingers and minging teeth. And I'm not looking for anyone to tell me that my arms really aren't that big and butch, or that my thighs aren't that chunky.
Besides, there are plenty of compliments on the dress too. What woman doesn't want to hear that they've got 'a smile that lights up the world', 'bangin' curves' or 'nice chebs'? In fact when I was about 16, a lad from the local pub decided my 'chebs' were so nice that that was what he would call me from then on. So I've had more than my fair share of compliments.
I've reached a point in my life where I finally feel at peace with my body. I still long to be in just one photo wearing a sleeveless top where my upper arms don't look like giant hams. Or to find a pair of denim shorts that my thighs don't bulge out of like sausage meat making a desperate escape from the confines of its casing. But I am very happy with my lot. I'm healthy (cross fingers touch wood), strong, and have a body that enables me to do all the things I love (dance, walk, wear tropical print jumpsuits, fling kettlebells around, and sit on my arse watching back to back episodes of The Walking Dead). So what if my upper arms continue waving long after my hand has stopped? Those same upper arms enable me to carry massive boxes all by myself, punch punchbags really hard, and wave my arms in the air like I just don't care for a really long time.
I respect my body and I look after it. Occasionally I test its limits by trying to cram too much pizza or wine into it, or dancing a bit too enthusiastically, but on the whole we're good. I've stopped treating exercise as a means of bullying my body into fitting into things it's never going to fit into. Now I exercise in celebration of it, not in battle with it.
So why the dress?
Well, the love I have for my body these days is something I've had to learn. And it requires constant maintenance. Like lots of people, I think about my appearance a lot. And most of the thoughts that creep into my head uninvited are negative. I bat them swiftly away, but they still keep coming. They come when I'm getting changed, when I'm deciding what to have for breakfast, when I'm shopping, when someone offers me cake, when I really fancy a beer, when someone invites me out to dinner, when I catch sight of myself in a mirror, when I black out and suddenly find my mouth full of Haribos, when I'm thinking about how handy it is to be able to rest snacks on my belly, or whenever I see someone rocking a pair of really short denim shorts. (Damn them to hell.)
The urge to delete unflattering photos of myself is overwhelming, even when they represent really happy moments which I never want to forget. I had an absolute blast at my wedding. I felt on top of the world and my husband and I loved every minute. But when I first looked at my photos, my stomach lurched. My eyes skipped past the smiling face, knockout dress and movie star hair and all I could see were chins and bellies. Everywhere. I had a go at myself for not sucking my tummy in more and not learning to smile in a more photogenic way when I'm ecstatically happy. Then I got over it. Turns out that when I'm having the best day ever my chins come out. All three of them. And frankly who can blame them. It was one heck of a party.
So why are we so obsessed with how our bodies look, instead of marvelling at the mind-blowing wonder of them? The fact that my brain is allowing me to type these words on my keyboard right now while also telling me that I am thirsty and allowing me to ponder what I should make for tea tonight is nothing short of amazing. Yet we constantly pick ourselves and each other apart, as if our the bits that make up our bodies were items to choose between in a shop rather than a beautiful, connected whole. Would my ass be as mighty fine as it is if my fingers were less sausage-like? And would I have such a great rack if my thighs weren't quite so thunderous? Unlikely.
A great compliment has the power to make someone's day. But why do we feel the need to share cruel, unwanted and unsolicited comments on people's appearance? I don't believe that it really makes anybody feel good to put someone else down. The nasty things people have said about my appearance don't upset me anymore, but they have stuck with me, and they have definitely shaped the way I think about myself. I think it's a massive shame that we waste so much time thinking badly of ourselves and knocking each other down, when we could all collectively decide to end this madness once and for all.
As a child I noticed the differences between my body and other children's, but it wasn't until a kindly older lady told me not to worry about being a bit plump, and that the weight would fall off me as I got older, that I ever thought to worry about my the way I looked. Until that point I'd been happy testing out my body's capabilities playing rounders, football and basketball and doing handstands on the hill by the river. It had never crossed my mind to worry about what it looked like, and I don't remember having any sense of which body type was 'right' and which was 'wrong' until then.
The second memory I have of somebody commenting on my appearance is when I was dressed as Mole from The Wind in The Willows at Brownie camp, aged about eight. I'd made myself a paper mache mole head, but I hadn't had time to make the accompanying cushioned suit that would give me Mole's physique. This girl said I didn't need a cushioned suit because I was fat enough already. When I got home I had the bright idea of lying on the rug in front of the fire on my front in an attempt to flatten my belly (sit ups were not on my radar aged eight). I did this for about a week, until one day a piece of coal leapt from the hearth and literally set my synthetic-material-clad arse on fire. One way to get rid of it, anyway.
Then when I was about eleven I went off to the local disco wearing quite a tight sleeveless shirt, a choker I'd got free from Just Seventeen (which I wasn't supposed to read) and some leggings. In the car on the way there my friend told me I had big butch arms. It had never occurred to me to be self-conscious about them before, but as soon as I got to the disco I went off to the toilet, examined myself in the mirror and vowed never to wear that top again. I'd loved it just an hour earlier.
I don't think I'd ever felt self-conscious about my legs until I was seventeen and a male friend remarked in the taxi home from a night that I probably shouldn't wear dresses as my legs weren't that nice. A few weeks later, another male friend looked perplexed as he cast his eyes over my legs and asked me if anyone had ever told me I had really weird knees. They hadn't.
A few years later, I was walking into a pub to meet some friends when a man at the bar nudged his mate to say 'What about her, she's a bit of alright'. Spotting my friends, I smiled and waved, and the man at the bar's mate's face contorted into a sneer and he said 'Nah, she's got horrible teeth'. Inside I screamed 'yeah you're no bloody oil painting yourself mate' but I felt crushed. And tried not to show my teeth so much when I laughed.
We are all amazing in our own ways. And we've all got better, more important and more fun things to think and talk about than whether our shoulders are too broad or our legs too skinny, our eyes too far apart or our knees too knobbly. Some of us can eat more than others and exercise less than them and still be thinner. I could be thinner. I've been thinner. But for me, it involved eating lots of ryvita, fruit, cottage cheese and not a great deal else and turned me into a complete bore. I'd rather be the me that isn't afraid to go out or to eat the cheese or drink the wine or do the running man at wholly inappropriate times, than the me who's half a stone lighter. And if that means I'm never going to find a pair of denim shorts I feel great in, and that my arms are probably always going to look like giant hams in photos, then I'm good with that. Because we should all be able to celebrate and love ourselves without fear of criticism from others, whatever shape or size we are.
As the great Groove Armada once said, 'If everybody looked the same, we'd get tired of looking at each other'. And as the great Bill and Ted once said, 'Be excellent to each other'. And as loads of wise people always say, 'If you can't think of anything nice to say, you shouldn't say anything at all'. I reckon that just about covers it.
See the full project at www.lovelyjojos.com