On Letting Go Of Body Guilt
I was 14 the first time I went on a diet. I wasn't overweight - in fact, I don't think I could have weighed more than about 9 stone at the time - but I felt chubby compared to my skinny class mates. I was also watching MTV for about 5 hours a day, and compared to super slim celebs like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, my teenage body felt competely inadequate. Inspired by those diet pages that you used to get in the back of magazines like Closer and Heat, I started counting my calories and running a mile a day on the treadmill in my parents’ garage. The results came quickly - I shed the puppy fat and within a couple of months, people were telling me how great I looked. I can still vividly remember a school friend commenting on how flat my stomach was when I was getting changed at her house - I felt prouder of this achievement than any glowing report or certificate I'd previously received.
I spent the next 3 or 4 years sitting at the same weight (thanks in part to my teenage metabolism, but also helped by the fact I was dancing 3 times a week), but the notion that "skinny = good" was already firmly lodged in my brain. And there it has stayed for the entirety of my adult life.
In the past ten years I have tried every diet under the sun. I’ve counted calories, I’ve had fast days, I’ve cut out entire food groups, and I’ve sat in a church hall discussing my eating habits with a bunch of strangers at a Slimming World group. I’ve paid for expensive gym memberships that have barely been used, signed up to every new exercise class under the sun, and even ran two marathons in an attempt to change the way my body looks.
During the last decade, barely a single Monday has passed by without me pondering which diet to start that week. I have cancelled dinner plans with friends so that I didn't have to go "off plan", and I have woken up two hours earlier than I needed to in order to squeeze in an extra workout and prepare packed lunches that I didn't even really like. I have wasted so much of my precious energy and brain space trying to work out how to make myself smaller.
Writing that down makes me realise just how bonkers my approach to food has always been. I’ve survived on a cycle of feast and famine - indulging in takeaways and goodies at the weekend, before punishing myself with drab salads and a 5k when Monday rolled around. There's no denying that my mindset and eating patterns have been anything but healthy. But it’s taken me so long to realise that there’s anything wrong because, quite frankly, it seems like we’re all at it.
My Mum, sister and I share slimming recipes on our family WhatsApp group, and diet and exercise regimes are dissected amongst my friends with more ferocity than our careers or love lives. Colleagues at work have a full audience as they reveal how much weight they've shed on their latest juicing diet, and it feels like there's a new TV show every week about people looking to change their body.
And really, who can blame us when society hands out praise like sweeties for every pound lost, rewarding us for every shredded inch that takes us closer to the standardised idea of perfection?
But in the last few months, something in my psyche has stated to change. The first trigger was returning from our West Coast road trip last month. I had just spent the happiest, most incredible two weeks of my life with my lovely husband, and yet as soon as the wheels of the plane home hit the ground in Manchester, I was consumed by guilt. My brain immediately started to calculate the diet I'd need to go on to undo the “damage” caused on holiday, and I felt the holiday high crashing round my ears as I contemplated that all too familiar regime of restriction and punishment.
I realised that I didn't want to be caught in this negative cycle of extremes, enjoying myself and then punishing myself to make up for it, for the rest of my life. I didn't want to feel guilty for having a great time on holiday, and I didn't want every day of enjoyment to be matched with five days of misery.
I also think that my recent happiness has been a contributor to my shifting attitude. I can't remember a time in my life when I have been so content with who I am as a person or how my life is working out. I have always been able to convince myself that I would be happier and that life would be easier if I was 10lbs lighter, but I know wholeheartedly that that isn't the case anymore.
And finally, I feel like the online world has finally woken up to girls who are a similar size to me - the ones who aren't super skinny, but who aren't plus size either. Instagram communities like #averagegirlsize and #midsizestyle have shown me that girls like me can be both stylish and gorgeous, and for the first time I've been able to find so much inspiration for dressing this curvy body of my mine.
That being said, I know that shifting my mindset and letting go of body guilt won't be as simple as following a few Instagram accounts and deciding not to go on a diet anymore. I have 15 years worth of diet habits to unpick - I can't simply forget overnight how many calories are in a banana, or which exercise burns the most fat. It will take a while for me to see someone who has lost weight and not immediately be filled with a burning desire to find out how. And it will probably take even longer for me to learn how to eat intuitively, rather than scrutinising the nutritional information of every meal, or eating with reckless abandon because #YOLO.
But even knowing all of that, I still feel more hopeful than I have in a really long time. I'm excited to start re-establishing a relationship with my own body on healthier terms. I can't wait to free up the extra energy and mental space that I've always dedicated to calorie maths or beating myself up over "cheat" meals, and use it to do something more productive and creative.
I'm looking forward to being happy with who I am right now, rather than making false promises to myself that I'll somehow be better or happier or more successful in two months time when I've lost half a stone. I can't wait to see what my life looks like when I've completely let go of body guilt.
It won't be a straightforward path, I know that. But boy am I excited to shed all of those stupid rules and pre-conceptions I've learned over the past decade and a half. My body is healthy and strong and beautiful in it's own unique way, and I'm ready to celebrate that. Who's with me?