Once upon a time there was a woman who was content with her body, never went on a diet, and lived happily ever after, the end. Does that sound like a familiar story to you? No, me neither.
I have always been thin. Thin enough, at least. Sometimes tentatively straddling the line between slim and chunky. But always thin. And then I was really, really skinny for a time. In 2018 I stopped drinking alcohol. Weight fell off me as though I’d developed a speed addiction overnight. And then I went vegan and my figurative speed habit turned to meth. Even then I had fat days. I would still look in the mirror and find myself criticising a tummy I thought was protruding too far. Scrutinising cellulite that dappled my thighs like the plains of the Sahara. Everyone complimented me on my twenty-six-inch waist, and I went home glowing from a day where I’d been referred to as ‘the skinny one’. I felt overwhelmingly lucky that with no effort at all, I’d lost so much weight, that I seemed to be staying so small. How easy, I gloated to myself, feeling as though I’d won the lottery.
But for years and years before my skinny year I’d fought a tremendous and wearying fight against my body. One that ate away at my confidence and bit chunks of my mental health away before spitting them back out, gnarled and useless. Once upon a time my entire life revolved around food. My love/hate relationship with food was my treasured obsession and I would restrict myself so much that I’d end up binging on entire chocolate cakes and huge bags of sweets. I’d feel hopeless, teary, and immensely depressed, tangled in a web of wrappers and crumbs. Exercise became a dark acquaintance whom I hated but would force upon myself in an attempt to eradicate calories. After one particular fight with a cake, I caught a glimpse of the toilet, sat innocently against shiny green tiles, and considered sticking two chocolate-stained fingers down my throat before making the decision to starve myself instead. ‘You don’t want to become embroiled in an eating disorder,’ I told myself.
I’m tired of what the beauty industry and diet culture is doing to the young women of today, so I interviewed seven young women about their bodies. When asked whether they’d ever suffered with an eating disorder only one answered with a definitive ‘no’. Two were an absolute ‘yes’. Another told me she’d gone through bulimic phases and each and every one of them admitted they’d starved themselves at one time or another. One had experienced an addiction to diet pills, another suffered with body dysmorphia. The four who said neither yes nor no, admitted to disordered eating of some kind. I realised that these four were the Millennials of the group, the older four. They seemed hesitant to say they hadn’t had an eating disorder and couldn’t bring themselves to say they had. The two from Generation Z answered with a definitive ‘no’. How interesting, I thought, staring into the mirror and wondering whether I’d ever look thin enough. I swear we’re a generation of narcissists.
A survey carried out in 2011 by Glamour magazine suggested that 97% of women would be cruel to their bodies that day. Reading the responses from the younger women, I was excited to discover that number might have shifted. Their answers suggested a healthier relationship with their bodies. After years of tumultuous hell with how I look I finally made peace with my body in my mid-twenties. I wonder whether this push for change and acceptance has influenced the younger generation. The shift in what is acceptable seems to have come at such a crucial age for them. To be told you can look how you want during such formative years must have done wonders for their self-confidence. I wonder how different the world was for them growing up to how it was for my generation growing up. The gap in age is small but the difference seems seismic. Often social media is described as being an inherently bad thing for one’s body image, but I wonder whether actually it has had a significantly positive impact on the bodies of young women. Without social media the body positive movement would have been limited. Has the younger generation had a big impact on my own generation? Finally making peace with my body a few years ago I’m sure would not have happened without the body positive movement and resistance to conform from Generation Z.
According to an article from Forbes in 2017, members of Generation Z feel under no obligation to look or be perfect. Due to knowledge of body positivity from a young age they are said to be accepting of all different shapes and sizes. Could this be the first generation in which it is acceptable to be one’s authentic self? Emily Gordon-Smith told Vogue in 2019 that Gen Z are a generation “who uses social media in a totally different way and rejects this kind of sexual objectification as a way to be popular” when describing Instagram and the way in which Gen Z-ers use the social media site. According to Vogue there has been a shift in the kind of role models young women are glorifying now. Skinny Victoria’s Secret models are no longer where the eyes of admiration land. At least not there alone. Although I was only a little girl in the nineties, I remember the likes of Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell’s slight frames. I had a picture of Cheryl Cole pinned to my mirror when I was about eighteen, around 2009. She was the ideal body type at the time and who I aspired to look like. She was unrealistically small. The kind of svelte that could only be achieved through a celebrity salary that literally pays one to attend the gym twice a day and eat salmon and avocado for every meal. How refreshing that Instagram is now punctuated with pictures of natural bodies in their underwear with perfectly healthy protruding bellies, stretch marks, and dappled thighs that stick to one another. Even the kind of role models we look to have changed. Although the body types in the media still have a long way to go in terms of realism, at least role models with more substantial figures, such as Kylie Jenner and Jesy Nelson (Little Mix), do now exist. Yes, their figures are still enviable but at least they are no longer thin enough to fall through the floorboards. Due to celebrities such as Adele and Megan Trainer in the spotlight, we can believe that women are allowed to achieve things, whatever their size, however they look.
Around 2016 I stopped project managing everything I ate. I found yoga; a practise I enjoy for the way it makes me feel mentally. I never use it to keep in shape, only to stretch away those cobwebs and release the tension from my body. I walked everywhere and worked hard at my job, so naturally I stayed slim. But I never restricted my eating. And that was when I was content with my body. It was when I stopped obsessing and just let my body be the wonderful moving machine it is. I ordered full fat cokes in restaurants and ate cake for dessert, but always cooked from scratch at home and ate a lot of fruits and vegetables because I enjoyed healthy food. Since then, I have battled many ups and downs with my body and my diet, but I recognise now that the things my brain whispered insidiously to me weren’t true. I know my unhealthy thought patterns and I no longer restrict or punish myself. At the age of twenty my relationship with my body was problematic at best. To hear the answers of two women in their early twenties being so aware of these issues fills me with hope for the future generations of young women.