I’m 36 now and in a much better place with my body but it’s taken me a while to get here. Much of my teenage years and 20s were spent feeling anxious about my shape and size. My breasts weren’t big enough. I had milk bottle thighs – chunky at the top with scrawny calves, and thick, frizzy hair (still the case but I’ve learned to love my curls). I used Oil of Ulay religiously to keep my skin smooth but it didn’t occur to me that frying on a beach for two weeks every summer was bad for my health.
At university I lost a lot of weight (much to my delight) because I was cycling everywhere and heavily into clubbing so had many a lost weekend in London. I was also holding down two jobs to support myself and the weight fell off. I was soon down to a size 10 and determined to keep it that way. Once you’ve dropped a couple of dress sizes the impetus is there to maintain it. My weight fell to 7 ½ stone, much to my parents’ horror.
When I left university I struggled to regain weight. I’m 5 ft 7 so healthiest at 9-10 stone. I don’t think an eating disorder disappears – you just learn how to manage it. I have a better relationship with food now and love to cook. I care about what I put in my body so the food I eat now is better quality. I don’t diet any more but I do exercise regularly and that won’t stop. I like to feel good and I’m happy being the size I am now.
The catalyst for me was being pregnant and having my daughter. After years of irregular periods and not being sure if I was fertile I fell pregnant and it was a delight. I ate well during my pregnancy and enjoyed my swollen belly. I swam daily and I’ve never felt better or sexier. Giving birth gave me a new respect for my body and how powerful it is. I’m aware of my hang-ups about food and my body and I don’t want to pass these things on to my daughter.
I wonder where the seed for anorexia came from and think it’s several things. I am a perfectionist and wanted to feel in control of one area of my life. At the time my parents’ relationship was rocky and alcoholism was a big issue in our family. Magazines and media had a big impact on me. I used to look at pictures of models and wonder how they managed to look so good. I wasn’t aware of the concept of airbrushing at this time and it’s hard not to be self-critical when you are surrounded by images of perfection and gorgeousness.
I remember a family member making a throwaway comment about how I should ‘be careful or I’d get fat’. I was 16 at the time and impressionable so really took this to heart. To think that a man saw me as fat and unattractive was devastating. He had a string of model girlfriends and I didn’t feel I matched up to any of them. I think this experience strengthened my inner resolve to take control and do something about my body.
The Endangered Species
Writer and psychotherapist Susie Orbach has organised an international summit to address these issues and challenge the culture that teaches women to hate their bodies. The aim is to engage people from politics, corporate life, and the media and fashion industries to see if we can work together to change the aspects of ‘commercialised’ beauty that are harming our bodies.
Orbach has called it Endangered Species because she thinks that the woman who is truly happy in her skin is a rarity these days. “Over the past 30 years the workings of the diet, pharmaceutical, food, cosmetic surgery and style industries have made us view the body we live in as a body which must be perfect. The goal of perfectibility has turned generations of women against their own bodies. The young woman who can feel free to explore her interests without being preoccupied by how her body appears or focus on what procedure she should have in the future to change it is becoming an ‘endangered species’”, she says.
She thinks that we’ve taken on the notion that we need to look a certain way to get on in life. Being beautiful and fashionable are key to success and girls are encouraged to present themselves as glamour pusses. A recent survey by Girlguiding UK found that body image awareness starts as early as 6-7 and the most popular role model is Cheryl Cole. How can we foster independence of thought and self-acceptance in young girls so that they are happy with their appearance and don’t feel under pressure to conform to an ideal that we are subjected to daily via billboards, films, magazines, and catwalks?
Events for the summit are taking place around the world this month as part of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (March 8th). The main London event takes place today at the Southbank Centre. There will be a podcast and live streaming so check out the website if you want to find out more.
I think it’s timely given last month’s London Fashion Week and Samantha Cameron’s widely publicized reaction at how gaunt the Erdem models were. It has raised the issue of size zero models again, and as Orbach says, it’s time for a change so let’s embrace it.