Eall January, same old battle cry: this is going to be the year I get skinny. Last January I did a one week juice cleanse and the year before that I fasted for three days. It wasn’t quite zero by mouth, but almost. At the time, I told myself I was interested in science (the zeal with which fasting evangelists assure you that a few days without food can reset your microbiome or prevent cell aging is compelling enough to make you ignore the health warnings). But what I really wanted was to lose weight fast, at least one dress size.
I made it to 81 hours. I nearly passed out with hunger, ignoring the advice to slowly reintroduce food (soups and juices for solids) by eating a cheese sandwich, which I promptly threw up. Happy New Year to me.
But in January I made peace with myself – and I am determined to live in my body as it exists today. no diets, do not fast, sandwiches with cheese whenever I want. It won’t be easy at a time when body fascism is considered common sense. A an estimated 26 million Britons will pledge to lose weight for the new year. As psychoanalyst Dr. Susie Orbach tells me, “It makes it very, very hard to feel good about your body when the attack on you is so intense.” But I’m going to risk it.
My body is average by most people’s standards—a fact that I apply like a balm when my thoughts get too irritable. Enjoying one’s “average” may not sound like much in a world of declarative self-love, but after a lifetime of physical shame, this is hard-won relaxation.
I realized that a toxic attitude towards my body had developed over time. Just as rocks washing downstream will snag on the branch of a fallen branch, the thought that my body was not acceptable, built up step by step, pebble by pebble, until one day all other thoughts were stopped by it.
One of the earliest diets I remember was when I was 12, when I decided I would only eat canned peaches. I can’t quite remember where my concept of fat and thin came from then – I just remember feeling like I was taking up a lot of space, in a particularly grotesque way, with soft, dimpled thighs and a huge, unacceptable round stomach. Even now I rarely look at pictures of myself from that time. But when I come across one, I see a perfectly normal looking child.
As a teenager, when I arrived various factors (including the discovery of junk food) turned shame into disgust. This was the early 00s, the era of objectification as empowerment, when most of the girls at my school dreamed of being glamor models. The culture has been dominated by boy magazines and weight loss TV shows, both deeply committed to controlling the female body.
In fashion, the trend for ‘heroin chic’ – lithe, narrow hips – would soon be supplanted by size zero, as seen on Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie, all of whom were dressed by superstylist Rachel Zoe; they were catnip for women’s magazines. It was a look so ubiquitous that even as a 13-year-old living in a Yorkshire mining village, I had to engage. Like most women of my generation, I internalized that particular body type as the ideal and became determined that I would help my own body by any means necessary.
In my twenties, this encompassed such a wide variety of diets — South Beach, Atkins, 5:2, a paid subscription to a food-tracking app — that I’d be hard pressed to name them all. And all the while, hyper-aware of my size, no matter what that size actually was, I lived with that same sense of shame, a feeling I experienced physically, like a tension in my chest. (It can’t help that I was walking around with my stomach sucked in, so I rarely inhaled full.)
Nothing has happened to take away this feeling. I have yet to have a revelation about my body like the ones we read about from mothers (“it grew a life!”) or those who survive serious illness. But after the fasting incident two years ago, I started to wonder why I was still so obsessed with getting thin.
I followed “body positive” accounts on social media (the brilliant Jessamyn Stanley and Megan Jayne Crabbe among them) – but found their brand of self-love too difficult to practice on myself. I admired their attitude, but the fact was that I didn’t love my body and found that my critical inner voice could not be corrected by force.
Then I came up with the idea of body neutrality, where your body isn’t something you love or hate; you just accept it. It’s a theory that speaks to much of what Orbach has been writing about since the 1970s. “You have to ask yourself, who would I be if I wasn’t focused on my body all the time? What stands in the way of this preoccupation and what could I achieve without it?” she says.
And so I gently began to question the effort I’d put into my obsession over the years. It wasn’t so much the healthy diet, calorie counting apps, or hours at the gym that I hated; it was the brain space that body shame occupied. From the moment I woke up to the moment I closed my eyes at night, the idea that my body was wrong echoed through my mind like the vibrations of a beating gong. Self-loathing covered every decision I made, from the obvious – what I ate and wore; how I practiced – to the oblique. For example, I felt like I shouldn’t be applying for certain jobs (and these were regular office jobs rather than fashion magazines) because my body didn’t allow me to fit in.
In her 2010 book bodies, Orbach points out that “eating problems and physical complaints are now a normal part of everyday life”. Especially women, but also increasingly men, accept displeasure (or worse) as their basic emotion when it comes to their body. in 2019, the Mental Health Foundation found that nearly a fifth (19%) of British adults were disgusted by their bodies, while more than a third were anxious or depressed because of their body image.
The mundane nature of bodily dissatisfaction leads some people to dismiss its seriousness, but as Orbach writes, it now forms[s] a hidden public health emergency, which crops up obliquely in the statistics on self-harm, obesity and anorexia — the most visible and obvious signs of wider physical discomfort.” Because I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, I can not pretending to understand the pain of feeling so deeply estranged from your body, but I do understand “restlessness”.
The basics of body neutrality include being thankful for what your body can do: its power to carry you from A to B; his ability to keep you alive. You try to avoid conversations about food, weight, and how your body looks (or should look). You wear clothes that feel good and in which you can move freely and cheerfully. And you choose to participate in activities you enjoy, rather than activities that promise to “transform” your body. It’s harder than it sounds. Personally, I try not to think about it – a small act of defiance in a world that constantly tells us that our bodies need to be refined, reworked, adapted or transformed.
Obviously, 30 years of discomfort cannot be undone in a few months. This chimera of emotions that arise when I think about how I look, or the size of my clothes, cannot be killed by logic alone. But I keep trying; to accept that I, a very average woman, am absolutely fine the way I am.