It can be hard to like your body. Even in the years when I've dieted and felt "thin", I've hated trying on swimwear in a tiny changing room, every flaw spotlit in a full-length mirror.
It seems being unhappy in our bodies is the norm. The theme of this year's UK Mental Health Week is body image; a foundation survey of UK adults found that one in five felt shame, 34 per cent felt down or low, and 19 per cent felt disgusted because of their body image in the last year.
Instead of body positivity, consider body neutrality.Credit:Shutterstock
I get the impression that, like me, most women have a constant low-level feeling of our bodies not being good enough. Friends of mine are always happy to talk about their hang-ups. One, a great runner, calls her thighs "huge". Another apologises that she's "got no tits". We have ugly names for the parts we point out to each other: cankles, spare tyre, bingo wings.
My body shame started in puberty. I remember being on a beach in Egypt aged 14, looking down and for the first time, seeing my body through the eyes of a critic rather than as the person living in it. I saw that my stomach stuck out, my breasts were too big.
In academia, this lack of body-mind connection, seeing the body not as yours but from the outside, is one of the defining features of negative body image. "It is viewing our bodies as objects, as a collection of parts to be critiqued and scrutinised and monitored," says Nadia Craddock, of the Centre for Appearance Research, UWE Bristol, whose PhD is on what industry can do to foster positive body image. This leads to us seeing our bodies as a project to fix, to fit with society's strict and slim beauty norms.
So, until the past few years, going on a diet, for me, was a normal part of this. I did my first diet aged 13; boiled eggs, grapefruit and cardboard crispbread. Aged 22, March to July, all I consumed per day was one slice of ham, two pieces of toast and 10 Marlboro Lights. I spent three, joy-free years of my 30s eating zero carbs.
But in the past few years, the rise of the Body Positivity movement, especially on Instagram, has made us rethink. I smile at @bodyposipanda dancing in her underwear. I've cheered on Bryony Gordon running in her underwear. I love Stephanie Yeboah’s fashion shots. I have begun to see the beauty in women of every shape and size.
Body Positivity hasn't given me all the answers, though. While it started as a political movement for bodies that didn't fit the ideal, it has been co-opted as a marketing tool to sell products to women who aren't a size 10, so the message has increasingly become commercial. That explains the size six #fitspo Instagram influencers hashtagging their posts as #BP. And spending time and energy thinking about your body's appearance still puts the focus on what your body looks like.
The anti-diet dietitian Laura Thomas, author of Just Eat It, told me about a new way of looking at the body that might suit me, Body Neutrality. "It's what's called rational self-acceptance in body image literature," she says. "It's knowing that I don't have a perfect body or it doesn't align with societal ideals, but it's my body and it allows me to move through the world. It functions for me. It's being accepting of the fact that this is your body, your home."
On a practical level, the idea is simply to have fewer thoughts about your body's appearance – both criticisms and positive ones, to not let the way you look define how you feel.
Spending time and energy thinking about your body's appearance still puts the focus on what your body looks like.
This is the thinking behind Jameela Jamil's brilliant I Weigh campaign on Instagram too – that appearance is a tiny drop in the wonderful mix of your qualities, accomplishments and reasons to feel worthy.
If body neutrality sounds like a comfortable place to be, how do we get there? What I've found helps is focusing on what my body can do, on the fact I am able and healthy, on yoga and swimming and walking. "It doesn't have to be about being able to achieve impressive sporting accomplishments, like running a marathon," says Craddock. It can include things as everyday as housework, as creative as craft, as emotional as hugging.
Anuschka Rees, another body neutrality advocate and author of new book Beyond Beautiful, stopped wearing any tight or uncomfortable clothes, bras that dig in, high heels. "Every time you wear uncomfortable clothes, you're telling yourself your wellbeing is less important than what you look like to others," she says.
This year, I have promised myself, no more diets.
I am still not looking forward to trying on swimwear, but then we are all just our own work in progress, right?
The Telegraph, London
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