Growing up I had two beautiful older sisters. I was always aware of their beauty and in awe of them and, unfortunately, I was a fat kid. What I now know to be comfort eating combined with a different body shape to my sisters and mother contributed to my feeling different and less than (although there was substantially more of me than them). I now understand that overeating was the coping mechanism I adopted at a very young age to deal with the chaos going on at home. I think my sugar addiction was in already in full flow when at the age of 3, I got up early when everyone else was asleep, got up on a chair and necked the infant calpol in the top cupboard. Luckily for me, I wasn’t particularly bullied at school, and always found it easy to make friends – I was the sweet, funny, chubby girl.
As I got older I lost some weight but was never ‘skinny’ and always had womanly hips and a bum and a round face. I found myself a bunch of beautiful friends – maybe a subconscious reinforcement of that familiar pattern of feeling less than with my sisters. I can remember being at sixth form crying in the loos at school because I hated my appearance and my friend doing her best to comfort me. At that point I was probably a size 10 or 12, not exactly huge! I think I’d had this fantasy that once I grew up I’d turn into this swan and look like my sisters. I did grow to look like them to a degree but the round face, curves and thighs remained.
At University things got worse. Towards the end of my first year I had put on a lot of weight through drinking and eating crap. My hatred of my appearance had gotten so bad I wouldn’t go out at night with my friends. Overeating was my tried and tested form of protecting myself. Moving away from home was hard and often lonely and I ate to soothe myself. I went to the university counsellor, joined a gym and lost a bit of weight. On my last session the counsellor told me “you’re actually very pretty.” I think it was the first time I believed anyone who’d said that. Looking back on unhappy periods of my life I’ve always been heavier. I wasn’t unhappy because I was bigger. I ate more when I wasn’t feeling good. But, of course I became unhappy about my weight and the viscous cycle continued. I couldn’t control it.
For me, being overweight has always been linked to my value and my ability to be loved. I was never one to have many admirers and I was so jealous of my friends when they started getting boyfriends. Eventually I did have boyfriends and looking back I’m sure they picked up on my insecurities. One long term boyfriend used to pinch the flesh on my tummy and arms saying “look at this” – which was really cruel when I think back. I’d make myself ‘lovable’ and ‘sexy’ by losing weight but totally missed the point as I never felt lovable inside.
I can remember being at my sister’s 40th party. I was 26, and having a go at my dad for never telling me I was beautiful, like he told my sisters. He said that he had, he always had, I just didn’t hear it. I think it’s true. I never believed my parents (or anyone, for that matter) when they said nice things about me. My low self-esteem was being constantly reinforced by me, by what I chose to believe and what I chose to filter out.
In my 20s and early 30s I went through phases of doing punishing bootcamp and detox retreats- I don’t think these were intrinsically bad but ultimately they were unsustainable and fed into my fantasy of being fixed by something extreme. If I just do this I’ll be slim and gorgeous…
I still dislike photos of myself (you’ll notice I don’t put many on my Instagram) but I am getting better. Therapy and 12 step recovery has helped me to address the core self -esteem issues I have. I’d lumped them all in with my appearance but I know now it was much more complex. It was easy to blame all the shame I felt on the external. I’ve since had to look at the inner stuff and it’s an ongoing journey. I still get the odd shame attack when friends talk about diets and losing baby weight. I feel ashamed because my excess weight is all my own.
That said, today- I do better. I look in the mirror and am not disgusted. Often I like what I see. I can appreciate my good bits, my good skin and nice teeth. There are high cheekbones there even though my face is still round. I look young for my age and I’m grateful for that. I do not diet; I’m pescatarian as my body doesn’t like meat but I have no other restrictions. I eat chocolate often. I do yoga and I walk and I attempt running occasionally. I absolutely do not have a perfect toned body and I’m not the slimmest I’ve ever been but I’m more accepting. I mostly quite like my 1950s shape and big bottom. I look good in a wrap dress. I can take a compliment. I still comfort eat but I’m much more conscious of it and I do it less. The previously excruciating and pervasive compare and despair has diminished. My flat mate is a Personal Trainer and has an amazing body. I’m OK with my soft body and don’t compare at all – this is truly progress.
If I were to give advice to anyone struggling with body image (and I often do with my clients) I’d say it takes time. The changes are often subtle. Acceptance comes way before loving one’s body so work towards that. Do the inner work, heal the fat kid you were if that’s what it takes. Pay particular attention to the shame and work on that- it’s often misplaced and carried from family. Working on your insides impacts every single area of your life even if it doesn’t usually feel like there’s a direct correlation. Perfectionism is dangerous and perfect doesn’t exist. I’ve found there’s no one set formula when it comes to overcoming poor body image in all its different manifestations but the right combination of tools will get you there. Get help with overeating behaviours if you’re struggling with them but don’t leave out the inner work.
I do think this stuff is often inherited and goes way back generations. My Mum suffered with low self-esteem and really believed she was ugly. This message was reinforced by her mother and then later her husband, my Dad. She isn’t! She’s gorgeous, always has been and is exceptionally lovely at 72, everyone agrees. She often tells me beauty is wasted on the youth and I should appreciate mine. My Mum tends to be right about everything else so I’m going to trust her on this.