One of the first things I did when I found out about E’s affairs was look at photographs of the woman he had been involved with and compare myself to them. I didn’t even question why I did it, it was just instinct – if I wasn’t good enough what did they have that made them better than me?
In comparing myself to these women, I immediately found myself lacking. To me they were so much ‘more’ than me – more youthful, more attractive, slimmer. I wasn’t young enough, I wasn’t pretty enough, I wasn’t fit enough, but most of all – I wasn’t thin enough.
I know that that’s an awful way to look at yourself, I would absolutely hate it if my daughters looked at themselves that way, but I don’t think I’m alone. As far as I can see most women (and increasingly men too), have been taught to value themselves according to what their body looks like. We are constantly battling our bodies, fighting them and regulating them, trying to make them conform to what is socially acceptable. We are never perfect; we are ‘too thin’ or ‘too fat’ (although the former is usually declared with envy or admiration whereas the latter is almost always uttered with disgust) and are bombarded with images of what we ‘should’ look like on a daily basis.
When I was a teenager there was incredible pressure to be slim, but at least then the images in magazines were of real slim women. These days I don’t think a single picture that is printed or put on social media (apart from the ones that are ‘shaming’ women’s bodies), is real, they are filtered and photo-shopped and all the flaws and bumpy bits are edited out. If it was difficult to compete with the models in Cosmo in the 80s and 90s, it’s bloody impossible to even get on the same playing field as the picture perfect women of Instagram. In the 80s we focused on thinness, but now teenage girls (and their mothers) have learned about ‘thigh gaps’, ‘back fat’ and ‘washboard abs’. These days, even if you’ve achieved the elusive ‘perfect weight’ (aka really rather thinner than most people are naturally) you might be the wrong kind of thin – you could be, horror of horrors, a TOFI! The diet and exercise industry are literally inventing ways to encourage us to criticise and demean ourselves.
If the Ancient Chinese regulated women’s bodies with foot-binding, now, in twenty-first century Britain we have the equally cruel Daily Mail. Women are bombarded with images of the perfect youthful body and taught to be disgusted by their own (especially as they age). According to this pernicious publication (which is the most widely read online ‘news’ site in Britain), woman don’t wear clothes, they ‘flaunt’ or ‘display’ their curves or their gym-honed bodies. Not only that, but looking our age is frowned upon – every day there’s an article about women who look twenty years younger than they are, or who look like their daughters, or how to drop ten years from your face age by adding a fringe, plucking your eyebrows or parting or colouring your hair differently. Add to that the daily onslaught of features about diets that work, diets that don’t work, what to eat and when, and even how to eat it, and it’s no bloody wonder that many women have a massively unhealthy relationship with food and with their bodies.
On top of that, we have Instagram, Snap-chat and Facebook all offering us the opportunity to edit our photographs before we post them to ensure that they look perfect – meaning that almost nothing we see these days is real. I find it both disheartening and upsetting to see the pictures I see every day of women so airbrushed and filtered that they look almost mannequin like. That’s not because I think they’re being fake or false, but because with every filtered and altered picture I see a woman who doesn’t think her actual face or real body is good enough.
Even if we choose to ignore social media and websites, having a phone means that we have personal access to millions of apps, all aimed at cashing in on our need to achieve the perfect body. We can wear fitness bands on our wrists that track our heartbeats, log our sleep and tell us how many calories we’ve burned, we can download apps that track our walks, our runs and our swims (and, again tell us how many calories we’ve burned) and, of course, there are apps which let us log every last mouthful that we eat. Whilst I think these apps have a place (if used sensibly) in increasing fitness and health, they tend to be used obsessively to log calories and weight to create a sense of achievement or failure based on those two criteria. In a funny sort of way they have removed responsibility for our bodies from us – if we have too much pizza we confess it to our calorie logging app, if we have walked 5k we smugly boast about it to our exercise app. There’s no sense of ‘just living’ – of being comfortable in our own skins and with eating food and doing exercise because we enjoy it.
The problem is that these apps seem to further complicate our relationship with, and responsibility for, what we eat. They can mean that we focus less on nourishment and more on calories eaten, they mean we look less at physical well-being and more at calories burned. They don’t take account of the fact that, naturally, we would have some days where we eat loads and other days where we’d eat next to nothing. They can make us so obsessed with food that it’s all we think about, and, naturally, if it’s all we think about we tend to want to eat more. They also mean that if we’ve exceeded our daily calorie allowance we tend to think ‘fuck it’ and eat shed loads more on the basis we’ll ‘be good’ tomorrow. The apps are supposed to be helpful, but I suspect that, for many people, they’re making the problem worse.
How insane is it that, for tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of woman, how they feel about themselves on any given day is dictated by a number on a scale or by what an app says regarding their food intake and exercise level?
I’m not saying that we should be unaware of what we’re eating and what exercise we’re doing. On the contrary, I think we should value health above all else, but I think things are getting dangerously out of proportion. Bodies, especially female bodies, expand and contract. Sometimes we are bloated because of hormones, sometimes we’ve just gained a few pounds because of a brilliant weekend. If we’ve had babies, the fact that they’ve stretched before means bloating can sometimes make our tummies obligingly stretch to what feel like pregnancy proportions. Sometimes we gain more than a few pounds because of a despairing cycle of binge and starve, of reward and penalty, and we’ll never get back to normal until we learn to trust ourselves. We need to re-learn to accept our bodies and take care of them. Food needs to be for pleasure and nourishment and exercise needs to become fun and something we feel we can do without feeling self-conscious about our less-than-perfectness.
I’ve decided that I’m going to try and lead the charge for woman in accepting who I am and not constantly criticising my body. It won’t be easy, because every time I look in the mirror I see every flaw, every extra pound, everything that wasn’t ‘good enough’ for E. But I’m determined to learn to like myself again and to be proud of the body that’s seen me through four pregnancies, that’s bounced back after Drunk Me lobbed copious quantities of chardonnay into it during times of stress and that’s carried me through life relatively unscathed, despite my notorious clumsiness, for the last 48 years.
I’m not sure how good I’m going to be at this, but, as a first step, I have hidden my scales, I’ve deleted my fitness and calories counting apps from my phone and I have bought an actual watch to replace my fitness band.
Eating without logging every mouthful is a funny feeling – a bit like swimming without armbands. Without a calorie and exercise counter I’m having to learn to trust my body to tell me what to eat and how much. Not knowing how much I weigh is a weird feeling, because I literally don’t know how to feel about myself or if what I’m seeing in the mirror is good or bad. I’ve realised that I’m unable to tell if I look ok if I have no number to measure myself against. It’s frightening how deeply entrenched the weight/calories way of looking at myself is. I’m trying to undo over 30 years of conditioning and of assessing myself by weight, so I suspect I have a long path ahead of me.
My new watch is a kind of symbol to remind me of my new freedom from calorie counting, daily weighing and logging every movement I make. Every time I look at it (normally as a reflex to check my steps on my fitness band, hopefully one day I’ll look at it to tell the time…), it will remind me that I am enough and that food and exercise are mine to use as I need them to keep me fit and healthy, not weapons to beat myself with.