TW: Anorexia, Bulimia, Eating Disorders.
(side note, Laci Green expresses a lot of these views a lot better than I do on her YouTube channel, Sex+. A couple of really good videos can be found here and here)
'Tis the season for bikinis, and lately I've been thinking a lot about body image, societies relationship to body, and my own personal relationship to both food and my body.
Body image can mean a lot of things: the way your body looks, the way society views your body and the way your body looks to you. And although this might sound the same, these can often be vastly different. For example, a person may be 20 stone, feel beautiful and love their body. However, sadly society would perceive them as ugly and fat. Equally, a person may be 8 stone and hate their body, even though society would view them as having a perfect figure. These situations are specific to weight, but when you add proportions, age and gender into the mix, this becomes an even bigger mess of opinions and generalisations.
The way the human body is viewed has changed a lot over the course of history, particularly in regards to 'beauty' (ie, what we perceive to be the perfect body). I'm going to talk specifically about women in this post, not only because I am one so I understand society and its relationship to my body (as well as how my female friends and family feel about their body image), but also because what is considered beautiful in women is more exclusive (not only to each era but female perfect is an exclusive concept) and more widely discussed in the media (think tabloids, gossip mags and adverts etc).
So, let’s start from a sort of beginning. Being on the larger side used to be attractive and considered beautiful. If you look at any old painting of a women you'll see she is larger stomached and smaller busted than a pin up today would be. (You can see images photoshopped to more modern standards next to the originals here). There is a very simple reason for this: women who were larger were not only wealthier (they could afford fattening foods) but were also healthier (again, because they had a better, wider, fuller diet). It all came down to reproduction: you wanted the best chance that when you get a women pregnant she will give birth to a healthy child who will grow up in a well-off family.
Then something shifted in our culture. People became wealthier as a society, so they stopped looking to women whose bodies could support a family. Instead, the fashion industry became the go to for information of body type and its relationship to beauty. Since the end of the second world war, this image has fluctuated between two distinct types - the ironing board and the hourglass.
The ironing board refers to women who are tall, slim, with small chests, waists and hips, so their body essentially goes straight up and down (think Kiera Knightly).
The hourglass refers to women who are tall, slim, with larger chests and hips than waists (think Marilyn Monroe or Christina Hendricks).
You'll notice that both associate beauty with being tall and slim - this is because fashion designers produce stock sizes for their models and want to show their clothes off so they look the best. They believe their clothes look good on taller, slimmer people.
Anyway, so society fluctuated between women of these two sizes between 1920 (ish) and the late 1990s (for example, 20s flappers = ironing boards, 50s pin ups = hourglass, 80-90s androgyny = ironing boards). Now, there is a pretty decent mix of the two, often combining in a woman who had a fuller bust but a flat stomach and tiny waist (Rosie Huntington-Whitley, Jourdan Dunn or Miley Cyrus spring to mind).
So all this is going on in society, with women with these figures being placed in the spotlight, whilst women of other figures are ridiculed. This is known as fat shaming - a phrase which commonly refers to when larger women are discriminated because of their size, but I am also going to use it to describe the same effect on women who are thinner. The former type is much more common, and images of women with these figures (in particular the ironing board figure which is arguably more coveted in the fashion industry) can often end up being a trigger for mental illnesses and eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. Women are told that they need to look a certain way and can feel a lot of pressure to conform to these standards of beauty.
Needless to say, this is wrong and bad. Not only that, but these perceptions of beauty and many of the arguments that support them (specifically health arguments) are often false. The most important thing is that you love your body, no matter what shape or size. For the UK the average dress size is 14-16. However, women still feel the need to conform the images shown in fashion magazines depicting 'size 0' (UK size 4) models.
The fashion industry are taking baby steps to acknowledge their role in the perception of beauty in society (there is a fabulous article by a 'plus size model' here, in which she discusses the pressures of being a model and the semantics around the term 'plus size'). But they are only baby steps.
Now, most of this post has been about beauty generally. I'm going to try and articulate something I have been coming to terms with recently: my own perception of my body image and my relationship with food.
Overall, I quiet like my body. I'm about 5ft 5" and weigh somewhere in the region of 8.5 stone. On BMI charts I sit around the 19-20 marl, which is healthy for a girl my age, height and weight. This doesn't mean I'm 100% happy with the way I look though.
I am a victim of the 'flat stomach' desire. I want a flatter stomach and I know I can get one. I feel 10 times bigger than I was last summer (despite the fact that the guy I'm seeing says I haven't changed and my mum thinks I look the same) and I know I'm a lot less healthy. I've been eating more and exercising less, it's really as simple as that.
I used to be able to brush off feelings of unhealthiness, go on health kicks and feel better about myself. But this time, I've really sunk into a rut, thinking that everybody around me is so much thinner and prettier. I shouldn't aspire to be thinner. I know I'm healthy, and I know a lot of people want my body type. I also know I'm unhappy in my skin, so I want to change that. However, this feeling of general unhealthiness as for the first time highlighted to me my own relationship with food. Which is by no means as healthy as I'd like it to be. I categorize foods into good and bad. I reward myself with food, as well as deny myself it. I count calories obsessively.
Now I know this is ridiculous. I know that if I acted on many of my food feelings I would end up becoming seriously unhealthy, and part of me worries that it's only because I've got my mum feeding me that I eat proper sized portions at all (too bigger portions in my eyes, but I eat them because she gives them to me).
This has been a huge realisation for me. I've started to do more exercise and eat more regularly (ie, cutting out snacks and eating larger meals). So that feels better. I've also started to go for walks more regularly, to get myself up out of my computer seat and into the fresh air, which always makes me feel healthier anyway. I'm going to try not to worry about my tummy in my bikini on holiday, and sort out any issues I have afterwards.
So, mostly I'm feeling good. However, society and its relationship to the female body is still hugely flawed. I might do another post this week on ownership of the female body, because as I've said it's something I've been thinking a lot about recently.
If you suffer from any of the issues mentioned, and would like to talk about it, you can visit your local doctor, visit http://www.youth2youth.org.uk/common-problems/self-image/ or http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Anorexia-nervosa/Pages/Getting-help.aspx