Body Image. Seems like quite a self-explanatory phrase doesn’t it; an accurate reflection of your body. But it hasn’t meant that in a long time. Instead it stands for the dislike many young people feel towards their own bodies, how uncomfortable they feel in their own skin, how looking at themselves in a mirror makes them feel like they’re never going to be good enough.
“I’m too fat.”
“My hair’s too frizzy”
“My nose is too big”
“My cheeks are too round”
“I don’t have long legs”
Words you would never think of saying to the people around you. So why do we talk like that about ourselves? Thinking more about your body during puberty is normal. We develop, we grow, we change and all do so differently. And that’s normal. But when I was growing up looking at adverts spread across billboards and magazines all I saw were the perfect bodies of models and celebrities.
I began to see this ‘perfection’ as normal, found myself wanting to achieve beauty standards that are beyond possible without the help of Photoshop or silicone. Looking at myself in the mirror, I was constantly comparing; my waist wasn’t as small as the celebrity’s in the next advert so I was fat, my hair wasn’t as smooth as the model’s in the magazine so I was obviously ugly. This seeped into everyday life. I saw girls in school who seemed to have achieved this amazing image, making me question what I was doing wrong. Why couldn’t I look like that too?
The sad reality was that seeing the girl sitting in front of me in class with a figure like Kate Moss, my first thoughts weren’t “she looks lovely like that and I look lovely as I am” or “everyone is built differently, I shouldn’t compare myself”. Instead thoughts of “why don’t I have that figure?”, “I need to lose weight”, “she looks amazing and I look horrible in comparison” led me to continuously beat myself up about the way I looked. Influenced by the media, my self-esteem was pushed down to a point of sadness and self-loathing, never feeling like I was perfect.
I looked at myself in the mirror and cried. Got angry. Was I fat? No. I was overweight for my age by a few kilograms, but I was also 12, loved the Sugababes and covered my Facebook profile pictures in stickers. I was a normal child, with a bit of puppy fat that would disappear in a few years’ time. I had nothing to worry about. But everything made me feel like I did. I was sure that I’d never be thin or pretty and therefore never good enough.
Honestly, I had this mind-set for most of my teenage life, until I came to what I thought was the solution. Of everything I saw when I looked in the mirror my weight bothered me the most. So I decided that action needed to be taken. I monitored my diet, measured portions, made sure I covered all food groups, didn’t eat sweets and followed a strict exercise plan. Did I lose weight? Yep. Did I feel amazing? Nope. But to me this was the logical solution. Alter my body until I looked like I thought I should.
I’m 5”3, let’s be real I was never going to look like a model, but that didn’t even cross my mind. I was determined to carry this through until I felt happy with myself. Until I came to uni, struggled with my course and fell into this pit of sadness. I would look at myself in the mirror, and see my round 12-year-old self. No matter what weight I had lost, it still hadn’t given me the confidence or the happiness I so desperately wanted.
Throughout first year, with the help of some fab people, I did a lot of thinking, learning about myself and appreciating who I am to get myself out of the rut I had become stuck in. And this led me to a realisation. My body image had far less to do with how I actually looked, and far more to do with how I thought of myself. I didn’t see a confident and happy person because I wasn’t. I was broken and frail and that made me feel worse and worse about myself.
I realised that it felt so much better having positivity shine through your body, than having my positivity rely on my body.
Appearance is never something to rely on. Everyone who looks at you will perceive you differently, and most likely won’t be half as critical as you are of yourself. Any physical change you make, should be to aid your mental well-being, something you want to do, not something you feel like you have to do. I wear make-up, because I enjoy it and I honestly find it relaxing, but I don’t feel any less pretty not wearing it. I just feel normal. Like me. Which is why it’s so important that you learn to understand yourself as a person, not just a shell.
Study your personality in as much detail as you would otherwise look at your face for spots. Know your ins and outs, the things you love, the things you want to improve and familiarise yourself. They’re yours. And next time you go out wearing that crop top you doubted would suit you, think about yourself. Not your appearance. But you – your great sense of humour or your open-minded attitude. The satisfaction you feel with yourself will emanate from you like a confidence you’ve never experienced before.
Don’t get me wrong, if you want to go to the gym 5 times a week and tone up, you do that! But do it because you’ll feel good showing off your hard work or it’s your hour to get away from everything, not because you won’t go to the beach this summer without a “bikini body”.
Now, someone out there will have read this and thought “but there’s nothing good about my personality either”. I know this, because a few months ago, I would have thought the same. Learning to love yourself is a journey that everyone has to go on themselves, at their own pace, with their own ups and downs. But I do have a word of advice, something a friend told me recently which has really stuck with me: go out, and do something good.
Don’t think about whether you’ll be good at it, don’t even think about it too long. Just do something good. Be it buying a homeless man a meal, or baking muffins for a bake sale. Something that you can walk away from, knowing that deed benefitted someone besides you. And from that point forward, every time you doubt yourself, or think there’s nothing to have a positive attitude about, remember that thing. Remember the good you did and it’ll help remind you that you are, and always will be a valuable human, an amazing person, someone you can always be proud of.
There are days where I wake up, take one look at myself and feel so sad. My mood reflects in my appearance and I just feel worse and worse. So instead, I for example, remind myself that I’m vegan [oooo controversial] and that through that I’m doing so much good for the planet, which in turn makes me very happy. So yes on that day I might think my thighs are too big, or my eyes are too small, but that’s okay, because I know that I’m more than that, in fact I’m great, so I smile and carry on with my day, and I hope that after this, you lovely ladies and gentlemen do too.
Words by Maxene Sommer
Photos courtesy of Maxene Sommer