Six weeks ago, I found myself hunched up in a change room, snot-faced and blotchy, with a hand clamped over my mouth to stifle my sobs.
I wasn’t just crying. My body was heaving with great big cathartic shudders that just about knocked the breath out of me.
Judging by a reaction like this, you’d think that someone had died or a terrible tragedy had occurred.
But no. I was simply jeans shopping.
I am not proud of this reaction. Nor am I trying to elicit your sympathy. I am writing this in the sincere hope that sharing my experience shines some light on other women’s personal battles around food and body image.
And that if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll have some strategies to turn it around even faster than I did.
So let’s back up and explain what lead to this little incident…
A week earlier, I was sharing breakfast with my darling when he offered a genuinely sweet suggestion. We were headed to the Gold Coast that weekend and he suggested that we could go shopping for new clothes at their large mall.
I am innately frugal. (Not scabby, there’s a difference!) Since buying our house a few years ago and adjusting to a mortgage, buying new clothes just doesn’t even occur to me.
Yet when I looked at my jeans with fresh eyes, I realised that it was loooonggg overdue to upgrade. It had been seven years since I’d bought a nice pair!
So, I agreed.
On the drive down to the Gold Coast, I had three hours available to start browsing for clothes. I jumped onto Instagram and started looking through fashion feeds. I browsed popular online fashion sites and checked out the latest trends.
Yet, as I did so, that sneaky voice of comparison started piping up,
“YOU would never look good in that.”
“Her legs are way nicer than yours.”
“I’d look stupid in those.”
Usually, I am very, very mindful about social media exposure. I limit my time online and choose who I follow carefully. Yet in my quest to get fashion inspiration, I ignored my own rule and was deluged with one body shape, one beauty ideal, and found myself sorely lacking in comparison.
So by the time we pulled up at the Shopping Centre, I was already feeling stirrings of dispirit about the whole endeavour.
The start of my jeans excursion did not go well. Like many women, I do not fit the ‘model’ proportions that many of our clothes are tailored for. I have a small waist but curvier butt and thighs, which means one of two things:
- I can’t get jeans to pull up over my thighs, or
- When I try on jeans to fit my lower half, they gape around my waist (and nobody likes the plumber’s crack look).
As I spent the next three hours trying on jeans (and not finding anything that fit), I found the scrutinising voice inside my head getting harsher and meaner. My vision zoomed in to just see that square foot lens consisting of ‘butt-hips-and-thighs’ and all I could concentrate on everything ‘wrong’ with that area. How I was somehow wrong. Although I intellectually recognised the cognitive distortion, the emotion behind it was visceral.
Six stores and thirty-odd changes later, something inside me literally snapped. Suddenly, I felt like I was 17 again and the sensation of being in that horrid place with disordered eating and body image hatred came flooding back. Hence the humiliating sob fest.
Thank GOODNESS I have an amazing, supportive partner. As soon as he soon my tear-streaked face, he knew what was up, gave me a massive hug and reassured me with words of love and compassion. We high-tailed it outta that place, looked up an awesome craft brewery and spent the rest of the day getting merry (which is far more interesting than shopping, anyway!).
Yet all that afternoon, I felt a lingering sense of shame and guilt. You see, I felt like I should know better. I work in this space. I am a fierce advocate for positive body image. And I realised why, after this little meltdown, that part of why I’ve chosen this as my vocation is because it can be so damn hard.
I am fully cognisant of the fact that I don’t have any objective right to complain about my body image. I conform with society’s paradigm of a ‘normal weight’ body and as such, I am not subject to the extra emotional burden of weight stigma. I can honestly barely begin to imagine what the lived experience is like for women doing this inner work within bodies that our society has deemed to be too big.
Despite my woeful ignorance, the plain and simple fact is this: Boddy image concerns are on the rise across all weight classes, all ages and all women of different backgrounds. To me, this context makes honest conversation all the more important.
Today, we are bombarded with images of a thin ideal at an unprecedented velocity. Within our hyper-connected technological world, the implicit (and sometimes very explicit) marketing of female beauty is unrelentling.
At the same time, the medical stigmatisation and attack upon obesity as an ‘epidemic’ thrusts fatness in the spotlight as something to fight, avoid or be ashamed of.
Imagine if your body was classed as an ‘epidemic’? How would that feel? And what messages is this sending to women?
It’s not that skinny women don’t deserve to be represented online. It’s just that this shouldn’t be ALL we are seeing. If you ‘zoom out’ and reflect on the diversity of body shapes and sizes in real life, no two humans are made the same.
So why is it we only see one body type, one weight, one female body ideal as being ‘right’ in beauty and fashion?
How to deal – or ideally prevent – a change room meltdown
I have spent a great deal reflecting on my mini-meltdown and have realised a few things. Firstly is that healing from disordered eating and body image battles is like peeling the proverbial onion – there are layers. And perhaps until real changes happen in the external world, the internal work is an ongoing process.
Although I am not a psychologist and think there’s no better solution than professional therapy for this issue, here are some personal insights that worked for me:
- FOLLOW & UNFOLLOW
For me, social media can profoundly uplift or drag me down. I’ve just done a massive ‘UNFOLLOW’ of accounts that portray an unattainable beauty ideal and have started following more body positive peeps who make me feel and offer inspiration on those ‘bad body’ days.
Here are some ideas if you’d like to do the same:
There are soooooo many more but these are a few great accounts to get started 🙂
- SEPARATE yourself from ‘it’
When I hear bad body thoughts rattling around my head, I know on the deepest, truest level that this isn’t really me. It’s not congruent. It doesn’t align with my values and it doesn’t belong in the core part of who I am. Although it’s tricky (and I don’t always succeed), I try not to identify with it as being me. So I might say to myself things like,
“Oops – there goes another bad body thought. Geez that was a doozy!”
“Goodness gracious, my inner critic is loud today!”
Sometimes…I just get angry and tell it to F$@k off. Yes, truly.
By visualising it as something that’s not truly part of me – rather as being the electrical activity of my brain and only 1 of the 70,000 odd random thoughts that my mind fires each day, I know it’s not really true. I don’t have to buy into it.
- SURROUND YOURSELF WITH GOOD PEOPLE
I have had the polar opposite experiences of both being with a partner who was not supportive of my body and (thankfully) the experience of being with a partner who now is. And I can tell you, the latter makes a HUGE difference.
Whilst it is nobody’s responsibility to make us feel better or soothe uncomfortable emotions for us, the back up of people who love you and are encouraging can be incredible.
At the very least, I would think very carefully about extricating yourself from people who actively put you down.
This doesn’t just apply to romantic partners. I once had a close girlfriend who was a big fan of asking men on nights out which one of us had a nicer butt (needless to say, we are not friends any more). I’ve also let go of friendships with people who feel the need to obsessively talk about weight loss and diet trends. It just doesn’t serve me.
It’s been said that we are an expression of the top five people we spend the most time with. So how do those five people influence how you feel about your body?
- Don’t put up with it
Body image is now cited within the top three concerns for young people. Up to 50% of western women are trying to lose weight at any given time (with dieting on the rise across weight classes). It is virulent. It’s widespread. And just because it’s ‘normal’ doesn’t mean that YOU have to put up with it.
I have an extremely strong role model in my mother and when I feel myself getting pulled into that black sinkhole of body hatred, I imagine her voice in my mind saying firmly, ‘Don’t let this beat you Kales’. It is kind, it is compassionate, yet it is defiant and strong.
What would the people who love you want for you? Would they want you to be stuck in hating your body for the rest of your life? Or would they imagine a life of freedom, joy and ease for you?
Don’t settle for the self-hate. There are so many resources, psychologists, qualified, practitioners, support groups, programs and books available. And you are worthy of receiving that help.
- Go back to body image basics
I must admit that in the rush around of everyday life, I sometimes get complacent with my positive body image practice.
I say practice because it really is exactly that – for me, positive body image is like a muscle that needs to be strengthened or else it loses its tone.
However, just like the muscle memory of physical activity, I find it much easier to regain that strength when I relapse because it’s built on a great foundation of what I’ve already worked on.
You can check out some ideas on how to get going in my video, ‘Body Image Matters’ here. The ‘how to’ content starts at about 5.55 mins.