A narrow set of rules that just don’t work

I’ve been thinking about my age old stumbling block – my body – since I went to see the Guilty Feminist Live a few weeks ago.

I was lucky enough to hear the amazing music of Grace Petrie who is a singer/activist and also a self-proclaimed butch lesbian who never felt she fitted until she came to peace with who she was and how she looked.

And in hearing how she felt she didn’t belong because she didn’t fit into the ideal of femininity, I realised just how much I only feel I belong if I’m at my thinnest and fit into the female ideal of beauty.

I don’t really understand why I feel this way, but I do.

I don’t hold other people up to the same standard. If someone is overweight it doesn’t make me question their worthiness or think less of them.

I might wonder whether there’s a reason for it – some hurt they’re trying to bury with food, a medical reason, because they love food and don’t feel ashamed of being who they are in their body.

But with me, I believe being a bit soft round the edges shows me as weak, not able to cope, lacking in self-control and so many other things…

But after seeing Grace and marvelling at the idea of fully embracing myself, I’ve been wondering about a few things.

What if I lived by Grace’s words?

Some of her song lyrics – and the title of this post – are ‘a narrow set of rules that just don’t work’.

And that’s, in my ‘logical’ thinking moments something I understand about my thoughts about my size.

Not everyone is made to be a size 6/8/10/12.

And by saying ‘you must control yourself to stay thin and within these narrow views of beauty’ I’m saying to myself that it’s not ok to not be perfect.

But perfection isn’t real and these rules about what is ok to be, food-wise, is too narrow.

It’s not realistic.

It’s not something that works for me.

It’s not ok to not be ok

Food and body image becomes more problematic to me when I’m not doing ok.

When I’m treading on new and tricky ground.

When I’m challenging myself in areas that I’ve not challenged myself before.

And that’s what I’m doing at the moment – I’m out of my comfort zone and so it’s no wonder that the old self-critical voice and comfort-eating behaviour is creeping back.

It’s not a wonder really with the strides I’m taking in my life:

  • I’m shedding the thought that I mustn’t stand out or ask for things for risk of being thought of as a nuisance.
  • I’m getting the self-belief and assurance to take time for myself in my personal life. Seizing time for myself just as my husband does when he goes to park run on a Saturday or football on a Wednesday evening.
  • I’m doing different things at work which are new and uncomfortable – having challenging conversations, staying in ‘adult’ mode when I want to be the rescuing ‘parent’, considering how I might work as more of a team instead of staying safe through being self-sufficient.
  • So I suppose what I’m saying is that I’m not entirely ok at the moment.
  • But that’s ok.
  • When I am going through periods of growth, I tend to turn to food for comfort before I slowly unfurl into new territory.
  • And that’s ok.
  • I don’t quite believe that I could be a size 14/16/18 and still think of myself as fantastic, worthy, brilliant. But I’m recognising this and trying to change my inner dialogue.
  • I’m making headway.
  • What if I loved my body like I love my son’s body? 

    Like with other people, I don’t measure my son by his body. But it’s a part of him that I love. His beautiful, plump arms and legs ripe for the biting, his cheeks so soft to stroke and kiss as he lies next to me, sleeping.

    He could be twice or half the size and I would still look at him as perfection. And, although I love his body, it is a small part of who he is.

    He is his cheeky smile and his ability to spot small details at such a small age.

    He is his obsession with bubbles and his pushing around of Harold the Bear in his little pushchair.

    He is the ‘woof’ he says when he sees the dog and his concentration as I read story after story to him.

    He is his strong legs that allow him to toddle around.

    He is his hands that clap and his fingers that he moves to try to mimic ‘baby shark’.

    He is his body – and I love it for all it is – but he is so much more than that too.

    And to view it in isolation is to do him a grave injustice.

    To view my body in isolation is, likewise, to do myself a grave injustice.

    What if loving my body was a great act of rebellion?

    It does feel rebellious, the thought of accepting, loving and cherishing my body, whatever its size.

    To see rolls around my waist (just the act of writing this feels disgusting!) when I sit down without any sense of disappointment or judgement or disgust.

    To no longer look sidewise to see how narrow my body is because it’s just not a priority for me.

    To look at my body as I did just after giving birth to my son – with wonder, respect and gratitude for what it does for me.

    To not be defined by how I look.

    To not think I’m less deserving because of not being a small size 12 or that my body and my size has anything to do with my worth or my worthiness as a person.

    When I look at myself through this lens, it feels like a deeply rebellious act.

    It’s not an act of self-sabotage – pushing as much food as possible in myself to defy a society which tells me who I should be.

    It’s an act of deep self-love and freedom to nourish myself, give myself food I love and food that provides nutrients without any heed to my size.

    Without any pressure to my anything other than I am.

    Without any rules defining what I should or shouldn’t be.

    So where do I go from here?

    I accept that I still have far to go on my journey.

     I remind myself that it’s ok to not be ok.

    I send gratitude to the divinity of motherhood for the chance to see a love I want for myself mirrored in the love I have for my son.

    I see the small seed of hope for the future me.

    I am reminded to look at myself with love and compassion.

    And I’ll end this blog with some words from Grace’s beautiful song:

    “You will figure out what’s yours and that it’s got nothing to do with fitting neatly in a box that was constructed to make it seem like people come in just two teams and anything that’s in between ain’t good enough”

    Validation

    I was in London last weekend with my parents, Gregg and Jenson to celebrate my birthday. It was a lovely time and also a time that has left me thinking about some body stuff.

    My mum said to me at one point ‘you look slim‘ (or something like that). She meant it as a lovely compliment but then corrected herself and said ‘oh, I’m not supposed to say that, am I?‘.

    This came from an article she had shared with me earlier in the year (which I can’t find now), but which is similar to this article in psychology today.

    The main headlines are that if you don’t want your child to have body issues:

    • Don’t talk about your body in a negative way. Instead of saying ‘I hate my stomach‘, say ‘It’s incredible that my tummy kept you safe inside me for 9 months!
    • Model eating a variety of foods in moderation
    • Don’t diet, but talk about eating healthily and exercising for the pleasure of feeling good and taking care of yourself
    • Don’t comment on what other people look like, praising those who are thin and criticising others who are larger. Make body size a non-issue by not even mentioning it.

    But I understand my mum making that comment because, in saying it, she was noticing me, connecting with me, wanting to say ‘I see you and I think you are lovely’. (I think she was, anyway!).

    And it’s what I do to people as well. When someone has lost weight, I give praise. And when someone mentions how dissatisfied they are with their body, I try to make them feel better by saying how gorgeous they are or how I haven’t even noticed that they’ve put on weight.

    It’s how we are conditioned in society – to say ‘you look well’ (which most always means something about body size) or to comment if someone has lost weight.

    It’s normal validation.

    But I don’t want to be part of it anymore.

    And so I’ve been thinking about what else can be said to validate someone instead of commenting on weight/body size.

    Here are some of the things I’d like to hear myself:

    • I love you
    • I’m so proud to call you my friend/daughter/son/part of my family
    • I think you’re a wonderful person
    • It looks like you’re really taking care of yourself and I think that’s great.
    • You’re glowing for someone surviving on such little sleep!
    • I really admire X in you
    • I love your top/skirt/shoes
    • I think you’re gorgeous, inside and out!
    • I’d love to know how you’re really doing

    It was really hard to think about these phrases and I’m still not 100% convinced by all of them, because they all feel a bit more intense.

    A comment like ‘you look great’ feels safe. Whereas saying how proud you are of someone feels more vulnerable. And asking how someone truly is, listening fully to their answer takes more effort and engagement.

    So I don’t have any answers really. And I suppose this is normal because observations about weight are conditioned in most of us.

    All I know is that I’m determined for Jenson to not grow up with any weight phobias and so I’m going to see how it feels to not mention my body negatively or to mention someone’s size as a validation over the next month or so.

    This means:

    • Praising my body, especially the bits I find imperfect
    • Not engaging with conversations about how someone looks
    • Avoiding the ‘you look well’ ‘have you lost weight’ comments

    Let’s see how it goes!

    Weight

    I’m getting so angry with this fixation we have as a society on external appearance, specifically people’s weight. This anger was triggered as I went into my work kitchen earlier this week and saw the headline of a trashy magazine blaring out “I’m size 18 but I’ll loose the weight for my son”.

    It was a declaration of a celebrity who has just had a baby. Just entered motherhood.  And her seemingly key priority was getting back to tip-top shape physically.

    Ok, I know. This lady probably never uttered those words – most of the stuff in these sorts of magazines is made up and sensationalised to pull in people and make a sale – but it makes me livid that others may read these words (especially young women) and have the idea reinforced that losing weight and being skinny is the epitaph of success.

    It’s a load of bullshit.

    When we’re lying on our death beds we won’t think ‘if only I had been thinner‘ or ‘if only I had lost those last 2 pounds’.

    We’re more likely to think ‘if only I had laughed more, worked less, told my family how much I loved them more frequently, traveled the world, taken myself less seriously, been braver, had more fun, put less importance on how I looked’.

    Our weight doesn’t matter.

    It doesn’t measure your courage, your humour, the strength of your heart, the uniqueness of your thoughts or anything else that makes you, you.

    I’m not saying that being healthy isn’t important – doing what we can to take care of ourselves physically is something I believe should be a priority. Eating a balance of foods, keeping active, sleeping as much as we need, drinking enough water. These things are all good for us.

    And of course, I’m not saying to stay as you are if you’re stuck in unhealthy cycles of eating to comfort yourself or to push down your emotions. I know the hell that this is – stuck in a spiral of shame and despair.

    If you’re suffering with comfort or binge eating, I’d encourage you to get some support to get a hold of it, dear friend. Perhaps even get in touch with me – I work with people specifically on stopping the comfort/binge eating.

    So while I am not advocating for unhealthy lifestyles or staying in a cycle of unhealthy relationships with food, I feel deeply against this fixation we have with being young, lithe, thin.

    I want to shout to the world “it doesn’t matter! We’ve got it round the wrong way! It’s the inside that truly counts!!!’

    But really as I think about this more, I know deep down that my reaction – the anger – is also a frustration at myself for still basing my appearance as a measure of my worth when I know at an intellectual level that I’m so much more than my physique.

    I find myself sometimes standing side-on to see how flat my stomach is. It’s a habit I’ve not yet been able to kick (although I’m able to check myself more and I do it less frequently).

    I also struggle with how I look at myself physically when I’m tired or upset because my neural pathways still interpret these feelings as being linked to my weight. I catch myself judging my appearance more critically than I usually would when I’m in these states of fatigue or upset. And it’s only when I ask myself what’s really going on that I realise it’s nothing to do with how I look – it’s about the feelings that I am trying to hide away or the lack of care I’ve given myself when I’m tired or sad.

    I’ve not yet been able to kick these two habits and I so sorely want to do so. I want to live free from any obsession with my physical appearance, but it’s so hard to shake it off when I’ve got constant reminders around me – in magazines, TV shows, conversations, adverts – that ‘thin is better’.

    So I suppose this blog post is as much for me as it is for you, dear friend. It’s a cry to myself to stand free from the unhelpful, dysfunctional thoughts that my importance, acceptability and belonging has anything to do with me being thin.

    Writing this post has made me realise that I need to have a conversation with the person who is putting those magazines in the kitchen. I need to ask her to stop bringing them in, because they’re really unhelpful and are triggering to me and my continued recovery from the eating disorders of my past. I commit to you, friend, that I’m going to do this when I next get the chance to.

    So yet again, I’m left astounded that what was really going on was not my anger at the world (although I do feel enraged by these magazines and the perfection expected from our bodies). Instead it’s a frustration at how I’ve not yet shaken off the remnants of the thoughts and behaviours that no longer serve me.

    So I’m going to be mindful in watching out for this behaviour – on order to change the side-on glances and critical eyes on my body when I’m tired/upset. But I’m not going to be unkind to myself or frustrated that I haven’t yet reached the nirvana of not caring about appearances.

    I know that this will all come in time. I’m on the right path and that, for now, is enough.

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    It’s a reflex

    I’ve just been reflecting on the three nights I spent in Hoi An on my month-long exploration of Cambodia and Vietnam. It was an interesting experience, although not my favourite place in Vietnam. Everything was so centred on selling and buying things.

    The old town was full of shops with similar leather goods, tailoring shops and holiday nicknacks that I’d have wanted to buy once upon a time. But instead, probably fresh from my shopping ban, it made me feel a bit sad.

    Sure, it was a beautiful place at night, strewn with lanterns and with lit-up rowboats gliding up and down the river, but it didn’t seem to have much of a soul as a city. It seemed like a huge marketplace when it was once a place of worship, of traditional Vietnamese life.

    But it still didn’t stop me from feeling the reflex to buy. A beautiful lantern for our house, an inflatable toy for Jenson to use in the water, some new underwear because it’d be so much cheaper over here, some insect repellent just in case our near-full bottle was finished before the end of our holidays.

    Each time I felt the urge, I would remind myself of all the reasons why I wanted to not buy stuff (there are so many reasons!) and the urge would slowly dissipate. I imagine over time that these urges will come and go, just like the tide.

    And this experience made me think about the various other reflexes that I have which I hate but haven’t been able to shake off.

    • The way I instinctively turn sideways to look in the mirror daily for a view of how slim my stomach is
    • The judgement I make on myself based on how I look instead of all that I want to hold as important – my personality, my brain, my capacity to love, the inner strength I possess.
    • How I catch myself doing what I think I should do, even if it’s not what I really want to do

    And part of me knows that the fact I’m conscious about these things is the tide changing in my life.

    But I’ve taken heart from this shopping ban too that these areas in my life that I’m not satisfied with are the culmination of many different reflexes and daily actions.

    And these are moveable, changeable, not who I am.

    And with that I take heart. I believe that I can instead tell my stomach and body how glad I am for it’s strength and power, I can spend time appreciating all that I am, I can ask myself “what do you really want to do”.

    They’re just reflexes that I have the ability to change.

    My personal mean girl

    I have a mean girl voice inside me. I think we all have a version of a mean girl, although many of us don’t listen to her much.

    I’ve been a bit poorly over the last couple of days. Nothing major, just bunged up with cold and with a bit of a cough. And coupled up with broken baby sleep (albeit around 7 hours a night), my usual defences against my mean girl had been lowered.

    I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a puffy face, eyes without their usual shine and then my gaze lowered and I saw my post-pregnant body through mean girl eyes. I don’t want to share what went through my mind, but my thoughts were less than kind about how I looked.

    In the past these thoughts would have sent me on a spiral down a rabbit hole of promises ‘I won’t eat any sweets today’ that I would most probably break because it was a promise made out of meanness, not kindness. And then the cycle would continue – promises (broken) and overeating followed by such shame and guilt.

    I would perhaps look at myself through the day, pinching any excess fat, or would desperately avoid looking in the mirror so I wouldn’t have to see myself through these mean girl eyes.

    But today I saw my mean girl for what she was – mostly tiredness, perhaps a distraction from the reality of being dog-tired and a habitual way of thinking which no longer serves me.

    And with this knowledge, I was able to say ‘thank you, mean girl, for your input, but I don’t need you today’.

    And instead I showed myself kindness.

    It’s taken me over 30 years to get to this point – able to show myself kindness in moments of stress and when I’m a bit low – but now that I’m here I couldn’t be more thankful.