Friday, 13 January 2017

New Years Resolutions, Body Image & Diet Culture

(TW/CW : Food, Weight Loss, Eating Disorders)

Hello all and a very happy 2017! It's been a lot longer since I last posted than I ever intended it to be, but sometimes life just happens and that's perfectly okay. Life is good at the moment. I'm back though, that's the main thing, and I'm just bursting ideas for what I want to create and who I want to be as a writer and a blogger in 2017. Watch this space as I try to make those ideas a reality.

January is a funny old month, isn't it? It symbolises to many, a fresh start, a clean slate and an opportunity to set goals, big and small, for changes they wish to make in their lives and things they want to do, see and achieve over the next 12 months. The possibilities for self-improvement seem endless in January as the future stretches out in front of us, so it only stands to reason, I guess, why so many of us use this time of year to set New Years resolutions.

Every year, I feel slightly differently about the whole concept of New Years resolutions, usually depending on the year that's just concluded was and how I'm feeling about myself and my life. On one hand, I'm a huge advocate for self improvement and always aim to be working on myself in some capacity. While some may say that "If you want to change something, change it, why wait for the new year?", I'm someone who likes time frameworks so I guess the idea of New Years' Resolutions does appeal to me from that point of view.

We see the same old favourites every time January rolls around - stopping smoking, saving money, getting married/pregnant/a new job/a new car/a new home (delete where applicable) and possibly the most common and certainly the most marketed, losing weight. Well, losing weight, toning up, eating better, slimming down, getting in shape. However you want to word it, the premise is the same and while I fully support any grown adults decision to change their body how they see fit in a healthy way, I can't help but feel a little uneasy about the emphasis on vanity and the drive for a narrow ideal of beauty than health or well-being at this time of year.

Only last month, every retailer and brand were pushing indulgence, in every capacity. Eat more, drink in excess, wear the sparkliest dress, the highest heels, the most glamourous make-up. Spend, shop, consume, that's what's important. It's the season to treat yourself, go wild, you deserve the best. A stark contrast to January, when now we are told the polar opposite by the very same retailers and brands. Limit your eating, don't you dare let alcohol pass your lips, you better be spending every free moment exercising or at the very least feeling guilty for not exercising. Don't you dare indulge, you're lazy and ugly. Change everything about yourself, you slob. In my local Debenhams, the very same area of the store set aside for Christmas chocolates, shelves of boxed biscuits and food giftsets now houses workout clothing, Nutribullets and cook books. It's almost as though these brands are constantly telling us that we aren't good enough and the only way to redeem ourselves is to keep buying so they can compete for our money and profit from our insecurities. Diet and weight loss industries are in overdrive at this time of the year and I, for one, am finding the constant diet chat and the push to 'fix' ourselves via our physical appearance exhausting and dangerous.

I've always sat right on the line between 'straight sized' and 'plus size'. Which, for the record, are both terms I dislike. I've worn roughly a dress size 16/18 since my early teens and while I'm fortunate enough to be able to shop in most high street retailers and find something that fits me at a reasonable cost, I'm bigger than the target market for straight sized retailers and smaller than the target market of plus sized retailers therefore I'm often left feeling unsure. It's the same in the blogging world too. If I post a photo of something I'm wearing, I feel too big for the 'regular' fashion blogging community yet somehow like I'm cheating by trying to identify as plus size. I fully appreciate that in a lot of respects, I do benefit from thin privilege, but straddling that line between straight size and plus size for so long has left me feeling a little lost at times and has greatly influenced my relationship with my body, my self confidence and naturally, with food.

When I was a teenager, I was always the biggest one in any friendship group. In high school, one of my best friends was a girl who I'm sure at the time, I would have described as perfect looking. She was tall, she was slim, she has long thick hair and clear skin without an ounce of make-up on and while we were really close and she personally never did anything to make me feel in any way less beautiful or worthy than her, I always felt so ugly and like I was living in her shadows. I was the black sheep of our friendship group and we all knew it. As a child or teenager, I was never taught, by my peers, my parents, school or the media that my body type was common, desirable or even acceptable so naturally I was very insecure about it. At school, I refused to eat in the company of anyone else, even my own group of friends meaning that every day for about 2 years, I wouldn't eat anything at all all day long until dinner with my family in the evenings. I'd save the money that my parents gave me for lunch in the hopes that one day I'd be able to buy myself clothes in the same size as my friends. I never was able to. Even being around other's eating made me feel physically ill and panicky at times so I'd tell my friends that I'd wait for them outside the lunch room alone rather than have to endure the sounds and smells and sights of other people consuming food. I couldn't think of anything worse.

Later in my teenage years but still while I was at school, I joined Weight Watchers with my mum in a bid to regain some control over my food intake rather than having food control me. Not that my mum had any real idea about how I was struggling with my body or with food. While I lost a little less than 2 stone on it, the attitude towards food that Weight Watchers taught me was possibly the most damaging thing in my entire relationship with my body and with food. Our leader, Angela, was very petite and made sure we all knew about it how tiny she was. A lot of her comments were very fatphobic and it was clear from the start that she was only interested in helping already relatively slim people become even slimmer. Often she'd publicly humiliate people in front of the group for not losing enough that particular week or pass unhelpful comments about self-control or emotional eating. The way she'd talk about 'good' and 'bad' food rather than healthy or unhealthy and how clear it was that vanity should be, in her eyes, the sole purpose for weight loss, really messed with my relationship with food.

It would be irresponsible of me to say that I had an eating disorder because I never saw a doctor or was diagnosed with one, but my relationship with my body and food was very dangerous at that time and in a lot of ways, it still is as a result of those teenage years. 

As an adult, my relationship with my body is overall much better. I never did shed the masses of excess fat that my warped teenage brain imagined I ever had to begin with and my lunch money never did go on the clothes I longed for but over time, I became more and more okay with that. I still have go through times where I hate my body and wish I could change almost every part of it, but by and large, I am pretty confident that this is how I look. My relationship with food though, still leaves much to be desire.

I am a classic example of someone who has too close of a link between food and feelings. If I'm having a tough time, I'll either eat terribly unhealthily at all kinds of strange hours of the day and night or not at all, sometimes for a couple of days at a time. If I'm happy or I've achieved something, I'll reward myself, buy myself a treat. I still find it a challenge to eat in front of certain people or in certain environments and the very idea of knowing I'll have to eat has sometimes been enough to put me off going somewhere or doing something. I have certain associations and connotations of food that mean I can't eat them or if I do, I convince myself that people will make assumptions about me. Just one example is that I have a horrible fear of ham. No, I don't just not like ham, I really really hate the stuff and the very sight of it, never mind smell, touch or heaven forbid taste of it, makes me skin crawl and I've been reduced me to tears before because of it. Some friends find it funny, one of which has even taking to sending me Snapchats of ham whenever he's eating it. It might sound funny but it's really not, I fucking hate the stuff. Even writing this is making me feel sick. I'm not aware of any reason why this is, it just is. A couple of years ago, I visited the Head Office of the company I work for. The managers of every store in Britain were there, retail directors, designers, the works. After a 4:30am rise for an early morning light to London, we were all starving by lunchtime. I assumed we'd have a break to go and buy lunch, but instead there was a buffet lunch provided. The thought of this alone was enough to make me feel so anxious and uneasy and I was unable to bring myself to eat anything at all. I stood nervously sipping water that I'd brought with me but that was it. But then there was the worry that people might noticed that I hadn't eaten. I'm sure in reality, nobody cared but those thoughts played on my mind the whole rest of the day.

All too often, how I feel and how I eat are linked and rather than a pledge to change how I physically look or my size, weight or body in 2017, my New Year's Resolution is to work on my relationship with food. How I plan to do this? Well, your guess is as good as mine. I don't yet know if I'm honest, but it's something I really want to be more aware of and make conscious decisions about rather than eat (or not eat) out of comfort or anxiety. I'm not interested in weight loss, I'm not interested in being made to feel like I'm not allowed to be happy with my body and I'm really really not interested in FitBits or NutriBullets or spiralisers. Like, at all, but I love food and enjoying it with friends and trying new things and I think it's so important to maintain a relationship with it that is good for your mind and your mood as well as for your body.