Note – this article contains sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. Please only read on if you feel comfortable doing so.
For as long as I can remember, the women around me have always been on some kind of diet. I have weighed myself every week. I have looked at friends and wondered what size clothes they wear, what it feels like to be slim. For as long as I can remember, my relationship with my body has been overwhelmingly complicated.
I have never been slim; I am very much what is referred to as ‘midsize’. My stomach isn’t flat and my legs jiggle, but I can find my size 10 or 12 in mainstream shops. Still, I find myself every day wishing that I was different, wishing I ate less, wishing I could wear the clothes I wanted, imagining myself with the body I want. I have caught myself thinking that I’d be liked more if I was skinnier, that if I was previous exes wouldn’t have broken up with me; thinking my life would be better if I could be smaller.
Recently, I have been able to have increasingly candid conversations about diet culture and the minefield that is being a young woman in an age of Love Island contestants, Instagram influencers with perfectly toned tummies, and alarming ‘what I eat in a day’ Tik Toks. We are bombarded from every angle with the message that we should be smaller, skinnier, fitter, have better skin and better hair, but also that we should want this for ourselves; that skinny is better.
My perceptions of weight, diet, and my own body have been dangerous at times. When I was 18, I moved to Madrid and developed an eating disorder. I felt so unhappy and isolated that my desire to change became overwhelming. I stopped eating. Meticulously counting the calories of a cup of tea on My Fitness Pal, going on long walks, weighing myself daily and congratulating myself as the numbers changed. I want to clarify that I am mostly recovered from these habits, and my weight was never life-threatening. I do not want to drown out or minimise more severe or prolonged experiences. When I returned, though, and saw friends, family, and neighbours, they remarked at how much weight I had lost and how ‘lovely’ I looked, confirming all the internalised fears and beliefs I had always had. How utterly soul-destroying is that? At the lowest I’ve ever felt, I was the most desirable.
I have spent a lot of time since deconstructing and subsequently rebuilding a relationship with my body. Recently, I have put on weight. I am also the happiest I have ever been. I turned 21 and ‘indulged’ (ate the food that I wanted and drank some prosecco). I have been cooking and baking more with the extra time I’ve had; this is where my body is supposed to be when I am taking care of myself. So why did it feel so bad when I noticed the scales changing?
Esme, 21: ‘Being ‘healthy’ has no value attached to it. It is nobody else’s business.’
At the age of 21 and with less than a year until I graduate, I am still learning. I’ve developed some anti-diet culture strategies along the way. For example: if I’m hungry, I need to eat. Not a cup of tea or water, or ‘maybe just bored,’ so I should let it pass. No, I should probably just eat. Feeling light-headed is not an achievement. Weight gain or loss is neither inherently good nor bad. Being ‘healthy’ has no value attached to it. It is nobody else’s business. My body does not need to look nice. If it enables me to do the things I enjoy and to feel happy, it is completely perfect. My body is not an object or accessory, its purpose is not its appearance.
I do think, though, that things are changing and adapting. I am seeing more and more influencers that don’t fit societal standards of perfection; whether this be due to weight, disability or whatever else our society has decided isn’t desirable. Clothing companies and magazines are diversifying their advertising and size range. In a world, however, where 91% of women report dissatisfaction with their bodies, there is clearly work to do. I have been so lucky in having loved ones that I can be honest with. Being vulnerable about our bodies is so, so hard to experience, but it is a conversation we need to start having if things are going to change. Should you need any support on this topic, Nightline and BEAT are fantastic charities that can aid you whenever you need it. Sheffield’s SU’s Student Advice Centre is also another fantastic place to go to for extra support – someone will always be there to listen.