Illustration by Emilie Maguin
It's that time of year again when people pack away their Christmas decorations, look hopefully toward the new year, and sadly, for many- and especially women, begin a dedicated, systematic campaign of self hatred. It's encouraged in most of January's magazines, TV ads, talk shows and blogs. Instagram and Twitter are full of people anxiously discussing their weight loss targets. I've overheard people talk about it on the train, in the market, and amongst friends. They feel bad about bingeing over Christmas, want make a real effort to get slim, to ditch the flab, drop the pounds, get a body like so and so, to 'sort it out' so to speak. And each time I hear it, I grit my teeth against the small, involuntary rush of rage that courses through me.
Not only is dieting proven again and again to be pointless and the concept of detoxing complete tosh, these diets are so often piggy backing on seething self-hatred. Plus, I suspect that at the core of these diets, like a festering mouldy peach pit, is a desire to conform to unrealistic celebrity beauty standards set by the diet and cosmetics industry.
The average women's BMI is getting further and further from the average models BMI, meaning most women hanker after a body shape that is clinically underweight . Pressure to live up to unrealistic body images leaves children as young as four feeling pressured and anxious and the number of young people in the UK admitted to hospital with eating disorders has grown steadily in recent years. I am by no means free of the pressure that surrounds us, the ad shaped devil on our shoulder whispering self-hatred in our ears. As a teenager and woman in her twenties, the list of body parts I'd deemed unsatisfactory would trip off my tongue at a moments notice. From wanting thicker hair and fewer spots, to changing my oddly shaped little toes and my weirdly double bending elbows, but I soon realised the futility of those lists and began a slow, meandering journey (prone to occasional derailing) to that thing called self-acceptance. Now my aim is to eat seasonal whole foods, to be intuitive about hunger and have more energy. But having wasted more than a decade of my life on it already, I'm pretty committed to giving the body hatred a rest.
If the start of a new year is not for wallowing and self-indulgent reflection and planning then I'm not sure what it is for. For example, I have been looking back and charting the main navigation points that pointed me to my feminism and disdain of the diet industry. Being raised by my Dad was probably the nucleus. I think through osmosis I have taken on at least some of his strength, confidence, directness, ambition, sense of entitlement and other traditionally 'manly' traits. An early and misdirected foray into the modeling world that left me feeling cheap and inadequate in the visible bones arena was another point. There was a DIY armpit wax that left me with open sores on my armpits and a deep rage about why I even felt like I had to remove that hair in the first place, learning about the deceptions of the diet industry at WOW festival; how they hide behind false health claims. But the navigation point with the most impact- a veritable iceberg in the stormy sea of this feminist-discovery journey- is the following blog post by Lisa Lynch.
Lisa began her blog to chart her experiences of incurable cancer, relaying her experiences in an honest, light hearted and even *shock horror* joyful way. A post she wrote at the time has never left me; and was the main reason for my moratorium on passively hating myself, that pervasive thing that so, so many women (and men) do without really thinking about it.
She begins by saying that despite her prognosis, she has no regrets so far, apart from one;
"There is something, however, that I have, very recently, felt shamefacedly defeated into having to class as a regret; something that, to anyone not staring down the barrel of the most bullshitty of Bullshit prognoses, might seem pretty insignificant. Petty, even. But - having not just admitted to it ... but found myself noisily sobbing at the confession - let me assure you that it's far from trivial. In fact, even as I write about this, I'm getting progressively more angry with myself. Furious, in fact, at all the time - all the precious, precious time - that I've squandered worrying myself into a frenzy about what I look like. Because now - in a place where, coof, am I fast realising what's important - nothing seems like more of a criminal misuse of a life than the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months (dare I say even years?) spent fretting about my weight, my skin, the size of my arse, the circumference of my thighs, the thickness of my ankles, the shape of my belly button, the shovel-like span of my hands, the inward slant of my left knee, the... well, you get the picture. Doubtless because, in your own way, you've probably done it too...
It IS a joy, isn't it, food? It's there to feel glorious about, not guilty about. And yet, far too often have I seen it as the latter. 'Ooh, well I didn't ought to be having butter over Flora, lest I find myself unable to squeeze into that frock.' 'And hm, perhaps we could meet for dinner at Wagamama instead of Itsu? I can recite the Weight Watchers points of their entire menu, see, so if we go there I'm all set.' What a fucking drag. It's shameful, really: if you add it all up, I'd be willing to bet my flat that I've spent more minutes worrying about what the outside of my body looks like than worrying about the preposterously vile things that have been happening within it. And what a stupendously idiotic waste of time...."
Without wanting to sound too fan girl-ish, she's amazing, isn't she?! Even reading this now, years later, for perhaps the gazillionth time, I feel the metaphorical ground under my feet shift, my perspective on myself rapidly coming into focus, a sense of sadness and regret. This is one of the most sobering, yet hopeful and inspiring bits of writing I've ever read. What she has to say is even more gut wrenching because she has since, horribly, died.
And that makes me even more determined. I know that at times I've been guilty of fretting about my body like Lisa so eloquently (and freakishly accurately) describes above. Thankfully I think about my appearance much less as I get older, and far less than many of my friends and family. I know that most of my female friends and family members hate their bodies to varying degrees in a way that the blokes I know just don't. Not to the same bottomless extent, anyway. And it makes me indescribably sad. How else could we be spending that time?! If we put that focus in to something else what could we be doing? How does the miserly self-worth we apply to our bodies affect the other parts of our lives? We have to STOP, damn it. Stop hating our bodies. Stop seeing food as the enemy. Life is quite simply too short.
I am not irresponsible enough to fling all health worries to the wind and begin a year based on the sofa eating chocolate fingers. I think there are huge benefits to eating well, for our health and long life, to ward of sickness and have more energy, for sex drive and good moods. I have a whole host of resolutions around eating well, sleeping more and moving more. But only in recent years could I truthfully say that none of those plans were motivated by looking skinnier. 2014 has been full of life changing brilliance, but also a lot of illness and times of feeling quite low so this year, I am taking myself by the horns in a bid to ward off sickness and tackle my energy levels. Perhaps even more importantly, eating whole, seasonal food is essential for the planet (the topic for a whole other blog post). But collectively, lets wrench the association with saving the earth and eating nutritious food faaaar away from looking like Gwynnie sans a few sandwiches.
So, as you look toward the New Year, having, I hope, recently enjoyed a gloriously food filled festive season, rather than regret that food you ate, savour it. Rather than look down at your body and frown about what you see, celebrate what it can do! If you're making food/health based plans for the new year, think about why you're doing it- are the reasons pro your actual body?! If not, ditch 'em!
What do you reckon? Will you join me?!
Lisa's blog has been turned in to a book which you can buy here and has also been turned into a BBC drama in which she's played by Sheridan Smith (waah!) Details should be released soon. In the meantime you can read her brilliant blog here which is kept updated by her friends and family.