“I want to talk about something that has been on my mind for the past fifty years… and if you are a woman, chances are it’s been on yours since pretty much you were old enough to have memories too… body image…
It is something that is either celebrated or haunts many women, regardless of age, ethnicity, social status… and it’s not just women; many men are also affected by body image issues.
According to the Butterfly Foundation, the national charity for all Australians impacted by eating disorders and body image issues, and for the families, friends, and communities who support them.
Our body image is formed by the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs we have about our bodies and how we look. This includes our shape, size, weight, gender identity, and the way our body functions for us.
We may feel many different things about our body and appearance: sometimes satisfied/positive, sometimes dissatisfied/negative, sometimes a bit of both, or even neutral. Either way, our body image can influence how we engage with the world.
Tell me how many of you have looked back at old photos of yourself and thought, “OMG, I thought I looked so hideous or overweight back then,” but now with fresh eyes, you realise you were anything but fat, ugly, all the negative things you told yourself back then… And I know not everyone has that inner mean girl, like I do, so I guess I’m speaking to those of you who, regardless of how much weight you’ve lost, or what size your clothes are, or how fit you are, or how healthy you feel, your inner voice is still telling you negative things… And the trouble with that voice is that we often believe it… we think that is who we are instead of realising it is just something we are thinking… and we have the power to change what we are thinking… But that is for a whole other blog.
In this blog, I want to share with you what I have learnt about body image, from my family, from the media, and from my peers… I’ve struggled with body image my entire life. I’ve blown out many times, I’ve shrunk down a few sizes too small, I’ve tried fad diets, I’ve exercised too hard, I’ve felt all the feelings: guilt, shame, euphoria, exhaustion, and ultimately the never-ending cycle of never feeling quite good enough, despite my size, big or small.
I blame Barbie… not really, but for generations of women since 1959, Barbie has been the epitome of an ideal woman. The long limbs, the hourglass figure, the tiny waist, there was no hope for mortal women after her invention.
Let me go through the decades, very briefly, don’t worry, but I want to share the messages I was told or received about body image, and it’s no wonder there is such a prevalence of disordered eating worldwide. Stats I found online said 70 million people worldwide live with disordered eating, but that’s not what I want to talk about here; I want to look at body image and what I’ve been told about it over the past 50 years. Geez, I sound so old.
The ’70s, for me, was the diet era. Diet pills, extreme diets, even though I was really young, I do remember my mother was always on a diet of some sort: soup, water, grapefruit, air – you name it, she was always on it. Consumed by it, actually. I remember riding the wave of her emotions; when she was losing weight, she was happy, euphoric, when she was in a binge phase, moody, irritable, depressed almost. Dieting was how you dealt with your body image.
In the ’80s, it was all about aerobics – Jane Fonda videos were all the rage, and walking with handheld weights. It was all about burning the calories, not moving your body. I remember waking up and my mum was doing the grapevine, and going to bed to my mum pulsating her leg lifts with a host of weird bands and contraptions. The fad diets were replaced by the exercise gimmicks.
As for the ’90s, well, this was when I was most affected by body image. This is where my unhealthy body image grew wings. It was the waif era – supermodels not getting out of bed for less than $1 million dollars – and famous stories getting around about the models eating tissues to maintain that heroin chic look. They donned the covers of all the magazines, airbrushed beauties, the epitome of what women should be aspiring to look like. The result was disordered eating mayhem. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and exercise abuse. I have many family and friends who experienced all of the above; for me personally, this showed up as an addiction to exercise. If I didn’t train two or even three times a day, I felt guilty, lazy, horrible. I’d beat myself up, say horrible things, and every day was consumed with how, when, and what I was going to do for exercise. I loved sport, and sport was always a social thing for me, but I gave up many of my sports as I didn’t feel like it was making me skinnier; I wasn’t working as hard as I was running, swimming, or gymming on my own… It was an addiction, and it consumed me… Can anyone else relate?
During 2000, the millennium, it was the decade of motherhood for me and dealing with pregnant body image. I developed a newfound appreciation for what our bodies go through and what we are designed for with childbirth, and I mostly enjoyed letting myself be pregnant without body shame. Post-pregnancy, though, my exercise regime went to new heights: triathlon, marathons, cross-fit. Pushing my body to the extreme, but it left me exhausted, depleted, irritable, and snappy with my partner and kids. The worst was the constant battle to keep going even when my body was telling me I needed to slow down and rest. I’d be guilt-ridden if I didn’t fit in at least two training sessions a day, and this was when I had three kids under three. It is crazy when I think back on it; I was so exhausted. I’d put a mid-day movie on for my kids, lock up the house, and I’d fall asleep and get them to wake me when it finished.
That brings me to where I am now on this journey, and for me, it’s been a huge mindset shift. So, this is for anyone who is still on that negative body image journey. Feeling the guilt, shame, not good enough, the inner turmoil that’s making you miserable, judgmental, and fearful – and don’t get me wrong, my mind tries to take me back there. Even this week at the gym, I looked around at all the twenty-something gorgeous women, and I felt my extra roll over the top of my Lorna Janes, my menopausal boobs that are two bra sizes bigger than normal, but instead of beating myself up, I thanked my body for being strong, powerful, and carrying me through each day. It’s birthed and nourished four children; it might not be what Instagram, society, or the fashion industry tells me is perfect, but it’s good enough, and for me, that’s enough. I’m enough.
Ultimately it’s because I’m healthy. It’s no longer about what size I am, how much I starve myself, or how much I exercise; it’s about my health journey. How healthy is my mind, body, and soul? Because without those, I’m not happy, I’m not able to hang out with my kids, I’m not showing up as the leader, friend, mother, daughter, sister I want to be… Without my health, I’m simply existing; I’m not living.
So let me share some of the game-changers on my health journey. Yes, I still exercise, but it’s not to flog myself into exhaustion; it’s to move my body. I try to move my body every day, whether that is a walk, yoga stretches, the gym, or pilates. I have a goal to move my body every day, and I listen to what my body needs; sometimes it’s a sweaty workout, other days it’s a slow walk in the park.
I try to eat healthily, but not starve or deprive myself. If I feel like wine, I’m going to have it; if I feel like chocolate or ice cream, you bet I’m going to enjoy every last bite. Will I do that every day? No, because that is not healthy; it is about the balance here still.
I try to meditate and journal. I know these aren’t for everyone, but for me, my head is so busy, and the inner mean girl is loud. By giving myself space to clear the noise, it helps give me clarity and regulates my emotions. It’s also been a great way to unlock some of the trauma and triggers I’ve avoided dealing with over the years through other unhealthy habits like over-exercising and drinking. It also is the key to reducing stress and anxiety for me personally.
I try to connect with people regularly, whether that is my family, my friends, my own coaches, and mentors. This makes me feel like I’m part of a tribe, and more often than not, by connecting with others regularly, you realise that what you are going through is not unique; you’re not strange or weird, and others are exactly the same or similar.
But the biggest one for me is allowing myself self-care. Spoiling myself with a massage, a soak in the bath, a shopping spree, or a weekend getaway. For years, I felt guilty doing anything for myself; it felt selfish. Ultimately, though, by not giving myself the self-care, I got resentful, bitter, and judgy… I always got my value from helping others, but let me tell you, my heart scare changed everything for me. Because ultimately, without your health, you don’t have anything; I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true; I’ve witnessed what poor health does to you firsthand.
I bet if you had a chance to ask 100 people on their death beds what is your biggest regret… I doubt any of them will tell you they never got to be a size 6. I guarantee it would be not looking after their health. My mother spent decades trying to be skinny, smoked a packet of 50 cigarettes a day for 30 years because that kept the weight off, and she finally did get skinny when she had bowel cancer, and then a stroke. And now she’s confined to a wheelchair and in a nursing home, largely because that body image in her head was unattainable. It’s not about your body, size, shape, weight, structure; it’s about your health, and the sooner we collectively accept, promote, and share this message, the less our future generations will have to struggle with body image. If this blog post resonates with you, or you feel like someone in your world needs to hear this… please share this with them.”