We know from various media and psychological studies that young women have a hard time with body image, and though it’s not just limited to young women I am going to focus on this for the purpose of this post.
Recently I’ve had cause to think more about my present body image – the weight loss surgery and trying for a baby just two reasons for this. Nowadays I am more at peace with how I look, but when I was 16 I hated my body. Unfortunately this is not uncommon for girls that age and like many young women there were several reasons for why I felt that way.
- Parental Influence – my mother was obsessed with dieting and because I had my “father’s genes” I was likely to be overweight. So she banned various foods from the age of 8 and often told me if she thought I was putting on too much weight. She measured my health only by my weight, even though the doctor told her I had heavy muscle because I did a lot of sport. I would binge eat and throw food up, though I don’t think I had bulimia, it didn’t last for long but it was still a road I went down because of the pressures of diet. Don’t get me wrong, my mum’s dietary options were super healthy, but she missed things out. For instance, bananas were not allowed (something she heard about not being the “healthiest” fruit) so I had to sneak them into my lunch so I had them to eat while I played sport. Bananas were common at half time and during tournaments.
- Peer Influence – the people I hung out with were not body shamers but other school kids were as was the media. At school myself and a couple of other girls were called “thunder thighs” and this was just another way of calling a girl fat. Boys and girls used these names. In truth I knew it was because we were developing faster, so had more womanly shapes, but this “fattening” was seen as a bad thing and something to be teased.
- Boys Teasing – this was one of the worst things to happen to 14 year old me because I wanted these boys to think I was pretty, not fat. And fat inevitably means you are ugly too – according to the logic of many teenagers. Such teasing happened at home as well, I was the only girl child in the house for a decade so when I was a teen my sisters could barely walk and talk. Thus, my brothers were horrid to me. It wasn’t just body shaming, it was physical abuse too; punching my stomach to see if I “had enough padding” and pushing me to the floor because my ass was such a huge cushion. When they broke the mirror in the bathroom they said it was me, that my fat ugly face broke it. Most of my low self esteem was because of boys. It was constant, at school and at home and it led to very dark days indeed.
- Child Abuse – perhaps if the boys at school had known about this they might have been kinder, but from a very young age I had a poor relationship with my body. I didn’t self harm in the traditional way, but I did not take care of myself either. Much of my negative self worth is rooted in my shame and guilt and I punished myself by neglecting myself. It was something only mitigated by a determination to not be defeated. It’s not about “winning”, it’s about survival. Yet, whenever I was teased or bullied it chipped away at an already damaged and fragile self worth. When I reported this bullying to my parents or teachers and was called a “liar” by the boys it only made it worse. As an abused child I’d been told “No one will believe you if you tell…” It’s cruel that those words were only reinforced by society. Girls are often implicitly or explicitly told that their opinion doesn’t matter, that they should be silent and not complain. That men rule the world and we are merely occupants of the same space. This was a lesson I learned at a young age and continued to learn all throughout my teenage years.
- Male “attention” – apparently we should be grateful or flattered when guys wolf whistle us, try to pull us into cars, or grope us in public. Being approached for sex in broad daylight is something we should just accept and see as a compliment. And when you don’t respond to car horns or wolf whistles you are teased, or called “frigid”, or should be “grateful” for the attention. So the options are – be abused by being called fat and ugly or be abused by being told how fabulous your tits are and how much men want to fuck you. When you protest at being groped you get accused of being a cock tease and asked, “Why wear that dress if you don’t want to be touched?” I was consenting by wearing clothes that showed a little skin or were tight? That is all kinds of unfair.
When I looked at my reflection in the (broken) mirror as a 16 year old girl I saw a fat and ugly person whom I despised the look of. Now, when I see pictures of that girl I want to tell her how pretty she was and how healthy she looked! I had a wonderfully healthy shape, a very womanly shape as a young teenager. Sadly this was “unfortunate” because it meant I stood out and that men paid me too much attention.
In my late teens I figured that because mum was not there to control me I could get even fatter and uglier. My motivation for this? So that men would stop touching me and approaching me for sex. I thought getting fat would mean they’d stop. I was wrong. Girls are never taught that men have various tastes, and so whatever your look there will always be men who will quite happily abuse you and degrade you.
My body image is not rooted in how others see me – now. It’s not about being what men like to look at, or what they don’t want to see. As a young woman though it was impossible to disentangle those emotions and expectations from the men of the world because men control so much of our lives. We have to pay for being a woman in so many ways. All humans pay for toilet roll but only women have to pay for menstruation. We are expected to dress a certain way, to wear makeup, to style our hair.
Reflecting upon my reflection was prompted by a few things – the bariatric surgery and trying for a child, yes, but also watching “The Keepers” and “13 Reasons Why” on Netflix. By writing this down and posting publicly I just want to add to the conversation and let others know they are not alone.