Earlier this year, I ran a really gruelling, painful, half marathon after which I swore I'd never run again. After finally staggering over the finish line I burst into tears from sheer exhaustion and disbelief that I'd willingly put myself through that torment. A couple of days later, before the blisters had receded, the race organisers sent me an email with the screaming caption: GREAT WORK! hanging over a photograph of me looking the very worst I've ever seen myself look. It's 12 miles into the race, I'm dragging myself forwards, shoulders sagging, feet barely lifting, hair frizzing around my face, which is a sickly shade of grey and etched with deep, deep lines of pain. I look utterly defeated, in serious distress and at least 15 years older than I actually am, with every single wrinkle right there in sharp relief for everyone to see. Hideous. But instead of deleting it, I spent £6.98 to download it and sent it to my family and friends.
Like many of us, I'm guilty of looking at pictures of myself and instantly zooming in on the negatives. I search my face for wrinkles, damning myself for not finding more flattering lighting, or wondering, 'Does my stomach look fat from that angle?' I'm always looking for an Instagram filter that can successfully blur out the chicken skin on my arms. And I will immediately untag myself from Facebook photos that have captured me unawares. My boyfriend finds these habits baffling. Why would you put yourself down? His mantra is, 'Back yourself because if you don't, who else will?' He makes it sound easy, but the pressure to look good in photos is deeply ingrained. And obviously I'm not alone in feeling this way. You don't have to read any of the millions of articles written about the negative effects of social media on body image to know that a lot of us feel the need to conform to our world's selfie-obsessed beauty standards. I've spent hours of my life retaking pictures for friends horrified at how the first, second, tenth takes turned out. A recent survey even suggests that as many as 80% of women in the UK are unhappy with how they look.
So yes, when I was first sent that awful race photo, my initial instincts were 1) to obsess over every unpleasant detail and beat myself up for how awful I looked, and 2) to delete the email immediately. But something stopped me. I thought, the people who matter to me know what I look like and love me for reasons that have nothing to do with my face. As I do them. One bad photo doesn't mean I really have aged 15 years, or regularly go around wearing a look of ingrained pain. It also doesn't define me in any way. Rather, it was a snapshot of the mental and physical struggle I was going through that morning, and that's what I wanted to celebrate. The fact that I got up on that cold, windy and rainy morning after an awful night's sleep and three weeks off training because of the flu, and decided to run anyway. I could easily have rolled over and had another few hours sleep - I had valid reasons to skip the race. And based on that poor preparation, it was never going to be an easy run - I was well aware of that. But I did it anyway. And once I had gotten over the pain, exhaustion and disappointment over a pretty slow finishing time, that was something I felt proud of. Sure, running for over two hours isn't the toughest thing in the world, but it's not easy either. Dragging myself around that hilly 13-mile course felt pretty awful at the time, and not giving in to the persistent voice in my head telling me to stop after every step proved to me that I'm stronger than I often give myself credit for.
Thankfully, this self-imposed pressure to look good is diminishing as I get older. Sharing that photo felt like a little act of rebellion against it, another sign that, more and more often, I'm managing to turn down the volume on that draining inner monologue that's telling me I don't look good enough. But I wish I hadn't spent so much of my teens and twenties believing that voice. It turns out that looking at yourself at your worst, taking in every line and spot and roll and feeling OK about it actually feels quite liberating. Because how you look is not all you are. And you can wear all the make-up you want, and get your hair done and feel fantastic - that's great and it's not something I'm ever going to give up. But it doesn't speak to the kind of person you are, or of what you're capable of achieving. And that - as well as the fact that I knew it would give them a good laugh - was why I chose to share that picture with my friends, and why I will keep hold of it to remind me of my own strength of mind, as well as body. And isn't that a beautiful thing?