Today, I had a mission. That mission was “Go to town, purchase two pairs of black leggings.”
As a teenager, fitting rooms were an intensely stressful experience for me. Things that were not confidence-boosters include: unforgiving bright lights, mirrors angled so you can see your whole butt at once and things that won’t button or zip even though they claim to be in your size. I rarely buy clothes these days, but historically I often gave up around the fitting room stage of the experience, purely because I felt so miserable about my body.
As well as my urgently-needed leggings, I picked up a few tops and also found an incredibly rare pair of jeans – 28-inch leg and 30-inch waist is like the Holy Grail when you have roughly the same proportions as a hobbit – that were 50% off. So I had no real choice but to try that shit on.
And in the fitting room, I stripped down to my underwear and took a good long look at myself.
The first thing that occurred to me is that my body visually has not changed that much over the past year. My thighs are more toned, but they are still what can only be described as ample. (They certainly wear through the inner seam of leggings at a frankly alarming rate, hence necessitating my shopping trip.) My butt is higher and tighter, but it is still jiggly. My belly is still a belly, it is certainly not in any way flat or toned. I also have cellulite on my backside now!
The second thing that occurred to me was that I felt absolutely great about myself. I have no idea where this wave of happy confidence came from, but I actually stood there grinning at myself in my underwear, wobbly bits and all.
Over the past few months, I’ve been following a lot of body positive blogs, avoiding diet culture like the plague and focusing on being healthy for its own sake rather than chasing an unattainable ideal body. I guess this was my first moment of feeling a tangible surge of contentment as a direct result of trying to change my attitude to my own body. Intellectually knowing that female beauty is a social construct is entirely different from truly believing it. Telling yourself that skinny is an arbitrary standard of beauty is not the same as holding that truth in your gut.
It was only when I started to actively avoid comparing and contrasting myself to taller, skinnier, fitter women that I realised how pervasive that one particular narrative of beauty has become. It is EVERYWHERE. It is a bombardment. It takes a significant mental effort to walk down a street literally plastered with images of stick-thin women with giant eyes and full lips and tell yourself, “These images are not relevant to me, these images are not the only way to be beautiful, this version of beauty does not detract from my own.”
By exposing myself to images, stories and individuals (Christina Hendricks. Lots and lots of Christina Hendricks) who run counter to the dominant cultural narrative of beauty, I reaffirmed my intellectual convictions. My own subconscious narrative of myself as an ugly inferior unlovable woman slowly but surely began to change. I began to not only know, but really feel that I shouldn’t have to apologise for my body.
In the fitting room, I had a moment of real body love. Not I’m-definitely-skinnier-than-before love or I-look-pretty-good-if-I-suck-in-my-stomach love, but genuine in-this-moment-I-look-great-and-I-feel-happy-and-proud-of-my body love. I tried on my clothes and, honestly, I didn’t really care if you could see the curve of my stomach under the top, because it was comfortable and I liked the colour. Or that my hips sat out a little over the waistband of the jeans, because the leg length was perfect and they made my butt look big and round and great. “Flattering” just means “masks your body in such a way that you look more like a skinny person.” So fuck that.
When I went to pay for my items, rows of pictures of super-skinny models pouted at me from behind the counter, fur waistcoats and ruffled skirts emphasizing their delicate arms and flat stomachs. I bet their leggings never wear out at the inner thigh, I thought. Because maybe this stuff, all this arbitrary insecurity, never really goes away. But it was only for a moment and more than anything, I was excited to go home and start breaking in my new jeans.
The teenager who was repulsed by her own belly is gone for good. The twenty-something year-old who generally respects and enjoys her body (but sometimes has flashes of insecurity) is a definite improvement. Maybe this is the ceiling for body confidence. But I’m glad I’m here and I’m glad it’s genuine. I’m glad I don’t think of exercise as penance for eating a doughnut. I’m glad I eat what I like in general moderation, rather than obsessively counting calories and crashing up and down on diets. I’m glad I got here with positive reinforcement rather than punishing myself into a different shape. I’m glad I am in control of how I feel about my body, rather than my body controlling how I feel about me.
I realised that I needed to learn to love my body as it is right now, just as much as I would love if I was 10 pounds lighter or 10 pounds heavier. If your motivation to eat healthy and exercise is self-loathing, you will never ever be happy, because you will never shake the internal narrative of My Body Is Not Good Enough, no matter how much weight you lose.
My point, I guess, to any girl who struggles with her body image (so, you know, all girls ever) is that it’s true what they say about loving yourself. What they don’t tell you is it’s difficult to get into the mental space in a real way. It’s hard work; in many ways, harder than diet and exercise because society won’t pat you on the back for it. And like diet and exercise, it’s easy to slip up. You can’t just do it for a few months and then stop. It’s about forming habits and changing patterns, it’s not a switch you can flick. It’s about surrounding yourself with the positive, talking yourself out of slumps and filtering out what you know to be bullshit every single day. And then, you too can get to a place where you will giggle manically at your reflection in a fitting room mirror, because you’ve got short legs and a round belly and thick arms and thighs that have annihilated whole civilizations of leggings; and your body – despite everything you’ve ever been told – looks wonderful.
This post originally ran on my old blog, deathofthenewgods.tumblr.com, and has been backdated to reflect this.