I had lunch with a friend yesterday. I’ve known her on and off for years, and have always rather admired her beauty, as well as her so-much-more-consistent-than-mine feminism, and healthy politics when it comes to things like gender, and equality, and all that. We did the food stalls at the Brunswick Centre, and then had coffee, and I had a good whinge about how I’m still feeling ill, and wish it would just bloody well get itself out of my system.
She recommended I go to a sauna, and sweat it out, and I launched into another whinge about how the women’s sauna scene is so much less vibrant than the men’s, and how there are hardly any places where you can just go and sit around naked. She admitted this was the case, but said she probably wouldn’t want to go to one anyway, at least until she’s found a way of being a bit more comfortable with her body.
And I was shocked. And rather sad. She’s so gorgeous, and so intellectually confident, that it seems absolutely absurd that she should be ashamed of her body. But, of course, telling her that – as I did – isn’t going to make much difference to the way she feels. I’ve been there. Compliments just glance off. And what’s more, as a feminist, she feels ashamed for feeling ashamed. I’ve been there too. I’ve put so much intellectual energy into liking my body, and spent so much time pointing out to myself that I am normal, and had arguments in my head every time I see a poster, or magazine, or film, or anything else that features an unrealistic example of female beauty ideals …yet, I still sometimes wish I were thinner, or feel secretly pleased when I notice I’ve lost weight. And then feel guilty for betraying my own principles.
It annoys me no end that I have this stuff cluttering up my head. And if it’s like this for me, when I’ve spent so much of my life trying to appreciate my body as it is – then what on earth is it like for the vast majority of women, who don’t? No wonder they’re all on ridiculous diets, and spend all their money on cosmetics and drop-a-dress-size jeans. And hating themselves.
But I think cycling has helped. Another friend, only last week, remarked that she thinks of me as someone who’s happy and confident in their body. And, the odd wibble and PMT day notwithstanding, by and large I am. It seems that, over the last 3-4 years (I didn’t really cycle seriously till 2006-7), I’ve gradually begun to prioritize what my body can do over how it looks. And it seems a bit unfair to hate it when it carries me over 300 miles a week.
Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to like my figure at the moment. I’m probably the leanest I’ll ever be and, no matter how much cake I eat, I keep having to buy clothes in smaller sizes. But my body is faaaaar from perfect! If I take my clothes off and look in the mirror, I see:
- a big fat tummy
- saddle bags
- stretch marks
- saggy breasts
- body hair
I’ve got a lot of muscle, and I can storm up Pentonville Road without getting out of breath, but I’m built more like a rugby player than a ballerina. And I weigh over 12 stone. (I quite like telling people this – they’re always shocked. And some of them are the same size as me, but only weight 10 stone. Which just goes to show how irrelevant weight really is.)
It’s a measure of how positive my body-image is that I actually felt a certain amount of glee typing out the above. I’m not afraid of my imperfections any more. I love admitting to people that I’m medically overweight (my BMI is 27.5) and really not bothered about it – and then wowing them with my muscles. And I’ve begun to accept that some people will find my body off-putting. It doesn’t really matter that they do – I know enough people who find it wildly attractive, and there are probably many many more who just wouldn’t give it a second glance. That’s OK – I don’t need the whole world to love me.
But it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when – eventually – I change my lifestyle. My body will almost inevitably get bigger, and softer, and I’ll probably start to find it more difficult to be proud of it. This, I suppose, is where the real challenge starts. I’ve long felt a certain solidarity with fat pride, and admired the work of Joy Nash, and the wonderful Charlotte Cooper. It was only comparatively recently that I realized that I wasn’t actually fat by anyone’s standards, and therefore probably had less of a claim on it than I thought. But, given that just about every woman my age seems to think of herself as morbidly obese, maybe fat pride has something to teach us.
I once came up with the following criteria, as staircase wit after a snide comment by grandmother. (My gargantuan size 12 frame seems to be something of a family disappointment.)
- Am I fit and healthy?
- Can I fit into my clothes?
- Do people find me attractive?
I can answer ‘yes’ to all three. Surely there should be nothing more to it?
Now to spread the word…