DISCUSSION: Down with Body Negativity

My body negativity is so deeply ingrained that I’ve found it incredibly hard to escape from. I haven’t managed it so far, and I sometimes wonder if I ever will. What I have realised though – and it’s taken me a long time to get there – is that losing weight, which I used to think was the ultimate goal, isn’t the solution.

The problems go much deeper than that, and it’s only by looking at how it starts in the first place that I think we have any chance of promoting a body positive culture.

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It starts at home

There’s a lot written these days about the images of perfection constantly in front of our faces in the press, TV and film, not to mention social media. While there’s no denying the influence this has on young girls, I think we need to look closer to home first.

It’s taken me a long time to realise what a difficult relationship my mum has with food and her weight. Now I see evidence of it all the time. She eats barely anything compared to the rest of our family, complains often about being full or having put on weight, and constantly criticises the way she looks. The most ridiculous part is that my mum is incredibly slim.

As I’ve become more aware of this behaviour, it’s made me realise what an impression it made on me growing up. I felt, and still feel, guilty eating anything. Anything at all. I knew that being fat was bad – particularly hard to bear as a child, as I was quite chubby.

Perversely, I often relied on biscuits and other sweet things as a form of comfort and after being bullied horribly in my early teens I began to binge eat. Of course this meant I put on weight, making the bullying worse and reinforcing all those negative images I associated with my own body.

All I knew was that I wanted to be thin. I believed that I would be happy and the bullying would stop if I was thinner.

Too fat, too thin, you just can’t win

Those early experiences are, I believe, at the heart of the ongoing struggle I have with accepting how I look. In my late teens and early twenties I was about size 14/16 and I was always incredibly conscious of what I ate and what I wore. I didn’t wear any sleeveless tops because I hated my arms so much. I would agonise every day over lunch choices at work, some days not eating anything.

Eventually, I began to develop a better relationship with food. Cooking for myself, and learning how to make healthy meals was a big help. But I would still feel guilty for eating, particularly if I did treat myself to something a bit naughty.

Then I discovered the joys of exercise – in particular walking. I started walking to and from work every day and before I knew it the weight started to drop off. From walking, I graduated to running and in the space of a year or so I was a size 8/10.

I was definitely more confident, but rather than feeling completely positive about myself – as I imagined I would – I now felt obsessed with staying thin. If I missed a run one week I would feel terribly guilty. I weighed myself obsessively and agonised over any weight gained. I still hated my arms, felt I wasn’t thin enough and kept finding new faults with my face and body.

The supposed ‘magic bullet’ of thinness hadn’t worked. While I felt healthier and certainly more positive than I had, losing weight didn’t resolve the underlying negativity. What’s more, people’s comments about how amazing it was that I’d lost weight reinforced the negative connotations of putting weight back on.

When I became ill about a year ago, I did put weight on through enforced restriction of what exercise I could do. My confidence took a real nosedive as a result, and it really brought home to me just how much my self belief was tied up in my perception of how I looked. And at a time when what I should really have been worrying about was recovering my health.

The funny thing is, it was around this time that some people told me I looked better and that I’d been too thin before. You just can’t win it seems.

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What does all this negativity mean for body positivity?

While this feels like a bit of a ‘woe is me’ story, the point I’m trying to make – admittedly in a somewhat long winded fashion – is that being body positive needs to start when we’re very young.

If I’m lucky enough to have my own children, it’s going to be goal of mine not to pass on my own weight, eating and body issues to them. There will undoubtedly be plenty of external sources to contend with too, but my adding to them isn’t going to help. I know this will be easier said than done, but I think it’s a challenge worth setting, and one that we all need to consider carefully.

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Kam Arkinstall is a digital communications specialist living in Liverpool and working in Manchester. A keen walker and (sometimes) keen runner, she’s decided life’s too short to obsessively worry about your weight and is doing her best to live by that – which is easier said than done! You can follow Kam on Twitter via @kamkmk and @walking_girl.

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