Tag Archives: Body Image

Live a little. Like your body.

Text and image via Caroline Caldwell.

Text and image via Caroline Caldwell.

On Sunday morning I got up, showered, and put on tights, pencil skirt, short-sleeved blouse. We were travelling to a family baptism, and while Tim’s family are, without qualification, the nicest people I have ever come across, I get a bit quivery about these things beforehand. My Stress Items that morning included the 100% likelihood that T would dirty his pants at some point during the day, and the Introvert’s Dilemma, i.e., the real possibility that I would forget how to talk and smile like a human when faced with large crowds of people. The clothes were on the stress list too. What did my arms look like, exposed like this? Would my skirt ride up when I bent over small children? Did I look fat? I went out to the car, on edge. I applied lipstick outside the lines as we drove down country lanes.

Anyway, all Stress Items were relatively unnecessary, as always, and we had a lovely time. On Monday morning I got up, showered, and put on a printed blouse, a bright jumper, a pair of skinny jeans, Hogwarts socks and leather trainers. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt overpowering, heady relief. I wear a version of this outfit almost every day. It gives me permission not to worry about belly overhang or wobbly thighs. I can leap to grab a wipe in an emergency and rough-handle a pushchair over tree-roots and mud. I can do anything, and it feels most like being myself. Oh, the buzz of returning confidence nearly knocked me over. I went out cheerfully. I smashed my to-do list.

Accepting how you look and wearing things you love seem to me to be two sides of the same coin. They say: I inhabit this body with appreciation and without shame. I deserve to take up space. I deserve to be happy, regardless of what shape I might see in the mirror. It’s not a message women get from many places. The more I think about feminism, the more I realise that when you don’t find what you need around you, then you have to get on and carve it out yourself.

Accepting how you look and wearing things you love seem to me to be two sides of the same coin. They say: I inhabit this body with appreciation, and without shame.

I would have saved myself decades of Stress Items if I’d concentrated on loving what I saw in the mirror, rather than wishing I saw something else. I felt out of place as a teenager with a slight, flat-chested frame, at a time when my peers were filling bras and having their straps twanged in class (sometimes I think that if teenage boys weren’t necessary for the propagation of the species, they would be caged and quietly sedated). Pregnant-me couldn’t control how much she weighed or how big she got at all, and to my shame – there’s that word again – it was one of the hardest things about it. I don’t want to repeat that mistake if I head towards pregnancy again (a possibility we still haven’t ruled out).

As Caroline Caldwell says, ‘In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act’.

I am ready to be rebellious.

So, instead of Stress Items, I have set out four Items of Body Appreciation for myself.

one, Eat More of the Good Stuff (Along With the Less Good Stuff; I’m Not a Sadist)

Hi, here comes a person who could live entirely on beige foods – bread, cheese, potatoes, custard – and call it good. While I will defend the noble carb to my dying breath, I do feel and look worse (I’m talking flaky nails and spotty skin here, not fat) when I’m not eating a properly balanced diet. I will not hear of cutting out food groups, ESPECIALLY the nice ones, COME ON, but I have been making huge efforts to buy in nuts, fruit, unusual vegetables, fish and spinach, and eat more of the good stuff. The best thing about it is that I feel like I’m taking care of myself. No, the best thing about it is that I’m still eating chocolate. But the first one is the other best thing.

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two, Walk Fast Every Day

I’m not in a running phase right now – the pure hatred has temporarily overcome the benefits – but I love walking and, with the school run, usually get through about five miles a day. The effect it has on me is miraculous: the air, the birdsong, the woods, the feeling of boots in mud, the muscle strain of lugging the pushchair over bumpy ground… I am more relaxed, more expansive, and feel better about everything. When it pours and we can’t get out, I feel basically the opposite of all that.

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three, No Weigh-Ins Unless I Have Excellent and Pressing Reason

I wrote about this here, and I’m sticking to it. If I’m prioritising points one and two, there is no reason on earth that I need to know what numbers are on the scale. How could you – you, with all your history and your loves and struggles and hormone waves and mysterious depths – know anything about yourself from a number? It. Is. Irrelevant. After a lifetime of anxiously totting up each pound, I’m trying so hard to let it go. Like Elsa, but about love handles.

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four, Never Ever Ever Trash Talk My Body In Front of My Kids

H wore just a t-shirt to school the other day, for the first time, but demurred about showing his arms. ‘What on earth’s the matter?’ I asked him.

‘I don’t want people to see these’, he said. Pointing to two minuscule freckles on one skinny forearm. It was the first time I’d ever heard him criticise his body, which in his four-and-a-half years has only ever been something that could run, jump, climb, laugh. For a moment I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

I have never trash-talked freckles in front of him – I have approximately seventeen thousand; what would be the point – so it’s possible that he’s got that from someone else. But he has certainly seen me stepping on the scales, and pulling handfuls of chub away from my hips, though I try not to say anything negative out loud. How dare I? How dare I teach him about body anxiety – huffing my discontent about the belly that grew him – before he’s even learned to read?

In a world in which they will learn which parts of them are acceptable and which are not, and very quickly, the only thing I can do is surround them with countermessages of acceptance and love, as strongly as I can. They deserve to love themselves. They can only do that if we show them how it’s done.

I’m going to practise how it’s done.

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I eat my feelings, and maybe you do too

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I am the sort of person who thinks a lot about food. You might be able to tell. Most of my jokes are about biscuits, aren’t they? I maintain forever and always that a good biscuit joke sets most people at ease and, an additional benefit, encourages them to think more about biscuits.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether my relationship to food is as healthy as it could be. My goodness, food and I are complex, intertwined, weirdly co-dependent creatures. Here are a few things that are true for me (are any of them true for you too?):

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I am northern. My cooking tends to be on the heavy, meat-and-potatoes side of things. I like meat and potatoes best when it’s in a pie. DO NOT EVEN GET ME STARTED ON PIE.

I do not smoke, drink or take drugs, but I use chocolate ice cream in a way that resembles all of these things.

I like good food, whole food, expensive food…and down-and-dirty food, greasy food, delivered-to-your-door-in-a-damp-paper-bag food. I eat unhealthily often, and gleefully, but with a sad sense of grossness afterwards.

I tried counting calories once, and it bored the freaking pants off me. I would never, ever consider giving up dairy, wheat or meat unless I were actually dying. I mean, CHEESE.

I come from a family where our genes run small and skinny. I have a vastly skewed sense of ‘normal’ size and weight as a result. I place far, far too much emphasis on how much I weigh, rather than how I feel. If you ever asked me my weight, I could tell you and the number would be accurate to within 48 hours.

I would rather spend money eating out at a restaurant than buying almost anything else.

I don’t enjoy being pregnant, and I think maybe one of the reasons is that my body shape is out of my own control.

I often go days or weeks between fizzy drinks, but I have to close my eyes in intense appreciation after the first gulp of cold Coke. Every time.

I use food as reward and emotional salve: the times I’m eating for other reasons – exhaustion, boredom, stress, sadness – far outnumber the times I’m eating because I’m hungry. And by the way I talk about it (‘will some fruit snacks make you feel better?’), I think I encourage my children to do the same.

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Doesn’t that make me sound seriously unbalanced? I’m not, I promise. But this is hard: food is energy and health and a delight in its own right, a bringer-together of families and friends, delicious in its earthiness and physicality. You should love it, we say, but not the bad parts and not too much and not in a weird way. There has to be a line you can walk between ‘I like to eat’ and ‘I am unhealthily dependent on liking to eat, and use it to propel myself emotionally through the day’. I want to find that line. I think it would do me some good.

So I’ve been trying to make some changes around here – not so much in what we’re eating, but in how we eat it. These are not refined theories at all, and I’m really just feeling my way to some better habits. What do you think?

one,

I’m trying to be a little more aware of why I’m opening the  kitchen cupboard, and organising the continual grazing into structured meals and snack times. Ben & Jerry’s after the boys go to bed and before I start work? Reasonable. Ben & Jerry’s at 9.30am because drying my hair took less time than expected? Unreasonable.

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two,

I’m trying to eliminate the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ eating (adults talking about ‘naughty’ food is a cringey bug-bear of mine), and consider instead what my body might need to take in, and how much it needs before it’s full. I can appreciate the iron in our beef lasagne and the vitamins in my salad…while also accepting that sometimes a whacking great burger and fries is exactly what I need, because it tastes nice and I enjoy it.

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three,

I’m trying to make our daily family meals more of an event, particularly dinner time. Flowers, place mats, fancy napkins and serving bowls, little side dishes to round out the main course…we usually saved these for guests, but why should we? I am a big believer in forging our family links around a dinner table. This is where the boys learn to talk about their day and listen to someone else’s. They need patience and social graces to make it through a meal. And I’ve noticed that when I make it feel a little more fancy, Henry is more excited to be there, and more inclined to raise his game.

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four,

I’m trying not to make quite so many jokes about biscuits. KIDDING, AS IF I WOULD EVER.

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I ate Ben & Jerry’s while writing this, and I can’t decide whether this is ironic or whether ice cream and blogging is a perfectly reasonable combination. But here’s to food in its proper place: on our plates, in our bellies, making us happy but not, somehow, needing to. I’ll clink our cheeseburgers together to that.

Five ways to throw yourself a thank you party and mean it

Big news! Next year I am thirty, and I’m preparing for it with a grapefruit scented face wipe.

By rights the Big Three should set off all sorts of anxieties and crises. It might, yet. But I thought it might be nice to spend the year leading up it trying hard to take care of myself, and appreciating my body for everything it does. It’s a good egg, my body. The last few years have been pregnancy-birth-pause-pregnancy-birth, which is all miraculous and everything, but does take a lot of hard work on the part of my cells. Well, put your feet up, cells. This time’s for you. Here’s a grapefruit wipe to show my regard.

Here are the five ways I’ll be treating myself right this year, in small ways and large:

clean up better. 

These wrinkles, they’re not messing around. I’m sorry to admit in such a public forum that I’m the sort of skanky toad who leaves their make up on at night. It’s true, alas. But now I’m taking off my make up every night before bed (hence the wipes), and using face cream. Do you know, my face feels all soft in the mornings now. I just want to rub it against things.

bath better.

I don’t actually know whether baths are good for you. I tend to use water hot enough to scald, so perhaps not. But they make me feel better, which means less stress, which means less nail-biting, fast-breathing and anxiety-bowel-churning.

eat better.

We came home from the States feeling greasy and exhausted. Did you know that eating too many chips will turn you into one? We’re off fast food completely for January, just to recover (ohhh, those burgers. I REGRET NOTHING). Thereafter, while I’ll worship at the Altar of Doughnut as enthusiastically as ever, I want to stop eating when I’m full, and eat more of the vitamin-packed stuff that will make me feel good. I switched to whole-wheat spaghetti last week. That’s how much I mean it.

move better.

Blech, exercise. I am not the sort to feel fresh and buzzing with life after I’ve come in from a run. I feel like all of my internal organs are crying salty tears into open wounds. But thanks to my sister, I have a free gym membership, and I think my body would thank me if I used it. Yesterday I went in and ran and stretched and planked until I sweated. Normally I only sweat when sprinting to stop Henry using Teds as a bobsleigh, so it was a nice change of pace. My abdominal muscles appear to have left the building without telling me, and today I am a walking bruise. But I think I do feel better.

think better.

This is the big one. I was dressing for church while we were at my mum’s over Christmas, and looked critically at my outfit before we left. Hmm, I thought. A bit fat. Then, for the first time in, I don’t know, EVER, I thought you know what? I just had a baby. It’s really ok. So I turned firmly away from the mirror and didn’t think about it again. Every time I feel guilty this year about looking like I had a baby, I have resolved to give myself a mental slap. I did have a baby. It’s really ok. And my reflection doesn’t own me. It sits in two dimensions, and lucky, lucky me, with my arms and legs and eyebrows and small intestine, all of it fitting together like a dream: I get to run around in three.

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Eight pounds

Eight pounds, eight pounds, eight pounds. It’s all I can think of at the minute.

Eight pounds is how much heavier I am than before I was pregnant. Teddy is outside now, and chunking up nicely, but I still have the weight of an average-sized baby slapped on my thighs, belly and all the other inconvenient places it tends to hang on.

Do you know that I know how foolish this is? I know, oh I know. Only four months ago I carried around a bump the size of a giant beachball on my front. My skin stretched, my ribs widened, my organs shuffled over and I made a baby out of my own self (Tim helped. A little). Teddy’s insides and outside came all from me. Flesh of my flesh. My body has done something momentous, here. These babies will grow into long-legged boys, angry teenagers, tall solid men who will go out and make something fine, and all of that life and goodness came from their nine months with me.

I think about all of that, and feel overwhelmed with the stupidity of eight pounds. I also feel guilty, sick with it. Some women don’t have the opportunity to do this at all, ever, and it tears them to pieces. Some women embrace their bodily changes and gather their children up into their lovely curves. Some women hurt to their soul for more than they have, and here I am, listening to whatever stupid messages come from outside, and desperate for less. Just eight pounds less, and I’ll feel good about myself. Eight pounds less, and I’ll fit into my old trousers, my old body, my old life.

I will not do this, this time. I will not. When I think about what these babies and years have done for me, it feels like I’m standing on top of a hill, sweaty and grubby, looking down over miles and miles of newly discovered country.

Look, there I am crouched in the back of my green Fabia, gross with morning sickness, trying not to throw up a salad sandwich.

Here I am flinging up my hands and yelling like an idiot, because Henry finally let go of the sofa and walked to my chair.

Over there I am crying in a cupboard, because I’m so tired I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck, and a little boy is pushing the tears off my face one by one.

And here, look, just here: 2.3oam, and my battered body is sat on the edge of the bed, cradling a brand-new boy. He is so tiny. It is so quiet. His fine hair ruffles under my breath, and his soft little fingers creep around mine as he swallows, swallows, swallows again.

All that, and the only thing to show that I’ve lived there are these last eight pounds. Dear friends, if you struggle with this too, please remember: your wonderful body shows you where you’ve been. Let’s gather our wealth, and move on.

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This isn’t the first time I’ve had to write myself out of this. It probably won’t be the last. Here are the previous entries in my Diary of a Post-Partum Body:

Making the leap

On building a body

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

 

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Today Hen had his first haircut. It was long past time to cut off that ludicrous wispy mullet at the back. His bed hair looked like a back-combed tumbleweed, but I still dragged my feet when it came to cutting it off. I wasn’t ready at all to see a boy’s face on those skinny shoulders. He looks smart, serious and old, so old, and it hurts in a funny way I can’t put my finger on.

Today Tim cycled 37 miles for the heck of it. He does that, sometimes. I enquired afterwards how much he weighed (surely he must leave behind ten gallons of sweat) and he shrugged and said ‘I don’t exercise to lose weight, now’. I thought, hmm, there’s something worth thinking about. Also, there are other reasons?

I ache.  Oh, I ache all over like I never did before. After a couple of miles all the muscles and ligaments in my back and legs start to screech like a rusty car. I think it’s pretty wimpy, considering I’m not even in my third trimester, it didn’t happen the first time, and I’m not yet half as heavy as I’m going to be. I know this because I check a pregnancy weight gain calendar more often than I should. I am impatient with the changes in my body – glaring at elongated thighs and stretched skin in the mirror – and spend too much time wishing them over and done with.

It is Easter weekend. Time to consider what else – apart from a baby’s mullet – I might be hanging on to when it’s best to let go. Time to think about renewal, and trying again, and failing again, but failing better. Time to remember that there is grace everywhere, including in myself; and that there is always room to treat people better, and that also includes myself.  

Have a wonderful long weekend! Be kind to yourself. Wishing you chocolate and much happiness.

The body that grows

Today I am wearing a hugely oversized Union Jack t-shirt. Under two large hoodies. And with pink fluffy bed socks.

It’s very cold. But it’s also time to buy some proper maternity clothes. Sometimes you have to know when enough is enough.

This is a tricky stage to dress for and, historically, I haven’t done it well. I was so determined to be practical, last time, that I bought a few things when I absolutely had to and rewore them over and over. And this bit in the middle is probably the hardest: no proper bump to fit under maternity clothes, just a lot of extra wobbly flab. When I wear my pre-pregnancy clothes – which is still all I have – it kind of just looks as though I’m trying really hard to reveal the Superman suit underneath.

(Note: ‘Superman suit’ here is not a euphemism. Unless you want it to be.)

My attitude to weight is not terribly well-balanced (is anyone’s?). It seems most people either wish they didn’t have it, or avoid it meticulously and obsessively, or try strenuously to get rid of it. There is a persistent voice in my head that tells me I can’t have anything fatter than no fat at all. I spend so much time during pregnancy and post-birth telling myself to LOVE THE BODY THAT GREW YOU A BABY, STUPID.

While the answer to weight anxiety is healthy perspective and body appreciation, not pretty things, I do find the healthy perspective comes easier when I’ve bothered to wear something I love. So this morning I found some pretty things, and some warm things, which means I can hopefully ditch the saggy t-shirts and grow this baby with a little more panache. And maybe at some point in the years to come, between stretching and unstretching and stretching again, I can learn to appreciate this body for the astonishing, miraculous, selfless thing of wonder it really is.

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(You can see some of the stuff I looked at on my one and only Pinterest board, if you’re into that kind of thing. My commentary is fairly profound (‘i really like this’. Whoa, whoa. Someone call Vogue) but I think we could probably all agree just to look at the pictures. Ok? Ok.)

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hey, here’s a Pinterest board.

On building a body

Here is the most profound thing I ever read on a blog:

Your body houses a spirit. The spirit changes constantly with intelligence and progression. Your body will change with your spirit, constantly. … You might feel a need to restore your body to a certain age where you think your body belongs–even though you would never will your spirit backwards to that same place.

(Read the whole thing, here. I think you’ll like it.)

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, recently, because of my high-waisted skirt.

Oh, it’s a beautiful skirt. It was the outfit I wore to our wedding dinner, once all the white satin got too heavy to swish around in. I was dazed with exhaustion and tingly with happiness and keyed up with anticipation (ahem), but I really loved that skirt.

I wore it a lot once we were married, and carried on wearing it until breathing in it became a problem. Now it doesn’t fit. When I cleared out my wardrobe of too-small clothes, I kept it. It represents my old body to me – when it had settled into adulthood, when I’d come to terms with how it looked and started to embrace it, when I didn’t understand, yet, how much it could still change itself and me.

Once I get back into that skirt, I keep thinking, I’ll be back to how I was.

Here’s the thing, though: my ribs are wider. They stretched out when I grew a baby, obligingly, and haven’t gone back. So I don’t think I’ll ever zip that skirt up to the top again. Body and spirit, I am not who I was back then. Carrying and birthing and feeding this boy has marked me to the bones, that’s the truth of it, and it feels like a truth I should welcome. Our bodies have carried us through momentous things, whatever those things have been. Of course I am different. Everything is different. It should be.

I don’t want to go back. So I need a new skirt.

 

Making the leap

When Henry sees the top of a staircase, he accelerates over the edge like he enjoys that sudden-drop whoosh in his stomach. I’ve given myself more than one carpet burn leaping to grab his ankle as he disappears. We’re fitting stairgates tonight, and my grazed knees are grateful, but part of me likes to watch him do it. No fear. No testing the water. Just delight in his own movement: a giddy, headlong rush into somewhere he hasn’t yet been.

It’s the same with everything he does. He climbs high because he doesn’t understand falling. There’s grace in every crouch and reach. When he finds something new he can stand on, he cackles.

And me, with my backache and body image, my duck feet and flat chest and spare tire, I have years of weighing scales and mirrors behind me. Years of I’m-not-good-at-sport and don’t-photograph-me-from-the-side and four-pounds-too-heavy. Too frightened of the ungainly bump to earth to climb anything new. I am encramped with bodily limitations I’ve heard and made my own. I have an ear infection on the way and I’m filled with holy terror imagining my 5k run on Saturday. This is what being an adult means, but I do not want it for him.

I could learn from him, I think. Stretch and crouch. My body can do anything. Mattresses are for jumping on. Oh look, a drop into nowhere. Let’s see what’s over the edge.

For a gorgeous, gorgeous poem on babies and body image, see here

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