I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with my body, which is to say, I suppose, an ambivalent relationship with myself. It started young (doesn’t it always?) My parents didn’t seem to have any hang ups about their bodies, especially my dad; he was if anything, what I would call ‘body confident’: unafraid to strut his stuff and never bothered about what other people thought. My mum was always slim, partly through constitution and genetics, but also through poor health. She might not have dressed to the part, but she’s had toned arms and a slim figure for most of her life.
School was where my issues began, when I found out I was ‘different’ because of my disability. My handmade on prescription shoes, my odd gait, marked me out from the start. I’d always been fairly confident at home. School gave me cause to doubt myself and more specifically my body. My legs and feet weren’t ‘right’; I had the ‘family’ podgy knees and thighs wider than my hips. A classic pear shape with additional oddities. I hadn’t realised before then that any of this mattered, but it did. What you wore and how you looked seemed to be more important for getting friends – and keeping them – than most other things. As a result, I tended to hang out with boys, which was fine in infant school, but started to become problematic as a final year junior, when I knew I was going to an all-girls school.
Predictably, I was bullied. I’d been bullied at junior school because of how my mum looked (googley eyes – a result of an over-active thyroid) and what I wore, but this was a new level. Being followed by third years after school, jeered by contemporaries. How I looked and what I wore seemed to translate into the sort of person I was – deeply unpopular. As an increasingly quiet and under confident child, this was a rocky start to secondary school. I never confided in anyone about the bullying. It was never taken seriously at school and at home there were all sorts of issues which meant it would inevitably be my fault people were picking on me. It wasn’t worth the battle.
I count myself fortunate that I joined the Girls Brigade when I was younger. We all disliked wearing uniform, but it gave us a level field. It also gave me some life-long friends, for which I will be eternally grateful. We focused on doing stuff, being active and creative. We achieved things together and as individuals. The focus was never on how we looked, whether we were fat or thin, or what colour our skin might be. As positive an experience as that was, it was never quite enough to rebuff the other messages.
I’ve never had a particular problem with my weight and have remained a similar size and shape throughout much of my life, probably thanks to a mixture of genetics, a healthy diet and being active. I dread to think of how people who were overweight might have suffered at the hands of the school bullies. I was vaguely aware of some of it – a group of girls who were second generation immigrants who often took abuse, and a girl who was older than me who was probably on the Autistic Spectrum – and threw my lot in with those ‘different’ people, although I never really challenged any of what, I now see, was abuse.
The negative thoughts become ingrained over time. It impacts everything. We are, after all, our bodies. Trying to separate body from personality is not necessarily helpful. It might seem kind to say I am not my disability, but actually, in many ways, I am. It should not define what I can achieve, but I can’t hack it off and ignore it. I carry it in my body. It shapes me.
I spent a lot of time hating my disability and hating my body because of my experiences. Hating myself. I would always mention my ‘thunder thighs and podgy knees, my shapeless legs, so I got in the insult before other people could. Negative language reinforces negative thoughts, as any psychologist will tell you.
It took a long time for me to understand the impact of my self-loathing and it’s taking me forever to address it. These days, however, I am at least unworried what other people think. As an open water swimmer, I happily tramp down to the sea in my costume or tri-suit. In fact, quite recently, my husband and I took part in a photo shoot for Visit Scotland in our swimwear. My younger self would have been horrified, but my older self is making peace with her wobbly bits. The meno-pot was a bit of a shock for someone whose always had a flat stomach and my thighs are definitely flabbier than they were in my forties, but so what? I’m more and more grateful for what my body can do, rather than how it appears. By the time my mum was 60 she was increasingly disabled and has been using a wheelchair for over a decade. Despite my disability and foot surgery, I can walk, climb mountains, swim, do yoga and a host of other activities. There are still lots of things I want to have a go at too and my body is going to allow me to do that. My podgy knees, dodgy feet and solid legs are going to be my facilitator not my foe.
I know this is an area a lot of people struggle with, especially women, although I know men are affected too. There are lots of people to blame, including the fashion and diet industries and the popular press, but we are too often complicit in the conspiracy as parents, as people. We make comments about people based on how they look, we judge. We use language about our bodies – our own and other people’s – which is negative. Let’s embrace what our bodies can do for us. They allow us to live this life with very little maintenance and not too much thought. They take us on adventures and are the tangible ‘self’ which allows us to interact with our fellow humans and the rest of the physical world.
I know this is an in-depth subject which I’ve barely scratched the surface of and it might raise the spectre of those who are trapped in their non-compliant bodies, people whose bodies can do very little, sometimes barely functioning. I would never, ever, belittle such people and acknowledge their value, almost despite their bodies. I’ve worked with lots of people with physical disability over the years, many of whom overcome massive hurdles simply to live the sort of life we take for granted day-to-day. I think that’s a much bigger subject.
For today, let’s celebrate what our bodies can do – what we can do as a direct result of our physical forms – let’s own our squidgy bits and our wrinkled bits and all the other attributes of our bodies which we see as negative by societys’ standards. Appreciate what your body can do for you, from painting to writing to climbing mountains and running marathons. Give it a bit of TLC and try using language that’s more positive. You owe it to yourself and the rest of us.