The year I wrote my matric exams was the year I could easily fit into a size 9-10 pair of shorts from the children’s section of Mr Price. While it wasn’t something I considered an achievement by any standards, it wasn’t exactly worrying either — I’ve always been thin. I come from a family of thin people. But had I known then what I know now, I would have looked more deeply into why my then 18-year-old body suddenly fit into a child’s pair of shorts.
Many years later, and I’ve finally worked out the pattern to my sudden weight fluctuations. I drop weight like a hot potato whenever I’m going through periods of extreme stress. Matric examinations. University examinations. Deadlines. Global pandemic.
There is a direct correlation between my anxiety levels and thinness. In fact, you can correctly assess the state of my mental health by taking a glance at my appearance. If my usually tight-fitting clothes hang, eyes take on a hollowed-out no-sleep-for-days look, and collar bones protrude, it’s a sign that I need to refocus on my mental health and get the anxiety under control.
As much as I would love to curse at the anxiety and lament on all the pain (and unintended weight loss) it’s brought me, I can’t ignore the increased self-awareness it’s given me. I can’t ignore how it cast a floodlight on the need to learn more about my relationship with my own body.
Growing up I always thought I had a reasonably good body image. I owned my skinniness. I suppose it was easy to wear my skinniness proudly at the time — I was young, hadn’t yet experienced any noticeable weight fluctuations, and wasn’t fully conscious of family and societal expectations (or how addictive it is to gain that mark of approval).
And so, it took me by surprise when I’d feel wounded every time my descent into “way too skinny” thinness was met with, “Why are you not eating? You must eat!” “You need to eat!” “You lost so much weight!” “Your collar bones are showing.”
Having people — especially family — point out my weight loss whenever they saw me, made me feel deeply self-conscious about my body, about my skinniness. I knew their comments were born out of genuine concern for me, but in the emotional state I was in, I felt misunderstood. As if they thought I was deliberately withholding food from myself or being too blasé about my nutrition. Of course, I could have offered an explanation and told everyone how the anxiety often steals my appetite and makes me so nauseous, the very act of eating becomes a struggle. But I chose to say nothing and hoped I’d put on weight quickly.
Focusing on what I looked like through other people’s eyes (or what I thought I looked like through their eyes) affected how I saw myself. I linked my attractiveness to a weight that read, “slim but not too skinny,” and felt myself falling short whenever my stress levels shot through the roof.
What I was doing — essentially comparing my body to an idea of what I thought the perfect or ideal body should look like — is something a lot of people, especially women do. We’re so influenced (be it consciously or subconsciously) by the media, family, and society at large, that we often place expectations of what we “should” look like, on ourselves, in the process drawing endless comparisons that kill our self-esteem.
And as long as they are these comparisons, it becomes harder to accept and love yourself as you are now. The self-talk will always be along the lines of, “If only I had more curves like… I’d be attractive,” or “If only I was thinner like…. I’d be attractive.” Physical attractiveness then becomes a moving target you may get close to but never quite hit.
It’s quite troubling how we relinquish our power to outside forces, allowing everyone but ourselves to determine the extent of our (own) attractiveness. How we lose or gain weight, not solely in the interests of better health, but because we want to fall within the parameters of “appropriate body size” to gain that mark of approval.
I’ve always wondered why that mark of approval is so important. Is it because we’ve equated self-acceptance with acceptance from society, and believe we can’t have the former without the latter? Or is it a matter of it being easier to swim with the current rather than against it (even if it results in mental turmoil)?
Perhaps it’s a lot more complicated than that and is a little different for everyone — I don’t really know. What I do know is this: if we constantly focus on the parts of ourselves we don’t particularly like, instead of the parts we do like and consider attractive, we will not see past the dissatisfaction.
I get that it’s a tall order (and cliché) to say, “Learn to love and accept all of you,” especially when it’s not as simple as that and seems to be more of a life-long journey with bumps along the way rather than a quick fix. And it’s a lot more challenging for those that face condemnation, mockery, and unequal treatment because of their body size. But, if we all first waited for the world outside to accept all body shapes and sizes, before we begin to accept our own body shape and size, we’d be waiting a long time.
As individuals, we have a lot more power than we realize. That power lies in our thoughts and perceptions which we can change. That power lies in our individual and collective ability to use those thoughts and perceptions to bring about change.
If we don’t like the narrative society is telling us, we can strive to change it. Who knows, maybe our narrative — one built around inclusivity and acceptance — will become the popular narrative with time.
While we work on making that happen, we can choose to see how the body we have is the same magnificent body that got us to where we are now — and that is something to be grateful for.
All bodies are good bodies says Michelle Myeko. Read her opinion here
Tell us: Have you ever felt embarrassed of the way you look because of society’s expectations? How did you deal with this?