Body positivity

Can you love your body and be obese? Well, of course you can. As the body positivity movement gains momentum, this is why you should jump aboard, whatever your size.

There’s a fabulous body positive movement going on. It’s taking Instagram by storm, and it’s kicking into touch those dangerous pre-conceived, factory-generated conceptions of who’s beautiful.

But behind the photos of strong, courageous women (and it is mainly women) there’s a persistent murmur saying ‘but it’s not healthy to be fat’. Find @bodyposipanda’s recent post of an obese woman in a bikini in the foyer of a Vegas hotel, scroll down and read the comments, including, and along the lines of, “How can you love your body when you let it get in that state?”

I’ve been cogitating this for a while. Until quite recently, the two issues of body positivity and physical health were inexorably entwined for me, too. But, what I’ve grown to realise is that while they’re linked, they’re two completely separate issues.

For a start, fat doesn’t equal stupid. People who are overweight know they’re at greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer; they know that obesity-related diseases put a huge strain on our health services; they know which foods are ‘bad’ and which are ‘good’.

We then have two awful, exploitative industries with which to contend – the fashion and beauty industry, and the dieting industry. The former sells us a digitally manipulated, unobtainable ideal body, the latter entices us to reach that unobtainable ideal by using its means. Both these industries have one objective: to make money.

Because aspiration sells – make it infinitely desirable, put it just beyond our reach, and we’ll part with any amount of money to have it. Insane, but pretty bloody clever that it makes us spend thousands on buying our own bodies.

And I’ve been there. It started back in the nineties when I was a lithe, slim teen, and heroin-chic was in. I read that models injected between their toes to hide the track marks, but I still wanted to nail the look. Deep down, I probably knew that I didn’t have the bone-structure and that those half-starved girls were miserable, but still, I trotted off to Weight Watchers. I wasn’t overweight.

Of course, Weight Watchers should have said: ‘you’re a fabulous size 10. Drink a bit less, exercise a bit more and learn to love your body.’ But they didn’t; they took my cash. In 2001, I drank spirulina and ate practically nothing. In 2003, it was the GI diet. 2004  took me back to Weight Watchers. In 2008, it was Slimming World, and again in 2013. I’ve done the Body Coach diet, the 5:2, the no-carb, Beach Body, and others.

Funny thing is I can tell you roughly how much I weighed at each of these moments, but I can’t tell you whether or not I was healthy. I’ve fainted through hunger, I’ve thrown up through bingeing, and I’ve done goodness-knows-what damage to my metabolism. But was I healthy at any point? I really don’t know; it wasn’t relevant to me.

The breakthrough in my journey to body positivity has been a shift in my self-perception. Instead of thinking about what I look like, I’ve concentrated on what my body can do. I’ve swum through freezing water. I’ve swum a marathon. I’ve given birth to three babies.

This confidence, this positivity has been a game-changer. I no longer feel like I need to apologise for my body, to make excuses for not being a size ten, to fork out on ridiculous diets that are destined for failure from the beginning. Instead, I have celebrated my body, and in doing so, begun to nourish it better and push my physical capabilities.

I’m lucky. I found an activity and a community that accepts all sizes and shapes. Through it, I’ve been able to gain body confidence and mental health, and better physical health and fitness has followed.

And I’ve come to realise that being ashamed of your body is one of the biggest barriers to becoming healthy.

If you’ve never had an issue with food, the many complicated reasons why people become fat and fail to lose weight can be extremely hard to get your head around. You think, ‘if I were overweight, I’d just eat less and do more exercise.’ But it really isn’t that simple.

Again, fat people aren’t stupid; they know that calorie deficit is the way to lose weight. But feelings of shame, embarrassment and intimidation don’t allow many people to push through. Nothing is more off-putting to joining a gym or exercise class than thinking that fit, thin people will judge you.

But if we celebrate all bodies, if we stop fat-shaming, then those people who hide theirs under baggy clothes and are too afraid to go to the gym will have the confidence to start making the small changes that will benefit their health and wellbeing.

Good mental health leads to good physical health. Positivity, pride, self-love, supportiveness – these are the soft skills with which we can battle obesity. Soft skills, not knowledge. Body positivity is about fostering good mental health.



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Back to our bikini-clad glamour-puss in her Vegas foyer. Look at her picture, and before you judge, hear her words:

“I find it ironic that I’ve taken photos in swimsuits all over the world and the one place I was told to cover up was Las Vegas. Sure, thin girls in thongs and pasties are A-OK but a plus girl in a full coverage suit trying to take an epic editorial shot – now that’s too much… I’m learning as I push myself to do more editorial type concepts, the push back is greater. But that’s why I push. It’s more than a girl in the city of sin in a bikini, it’s a statement. We will be seen. We’re not hiding anymore. And we’re going to wear whatever we want, wherever we want. Change is coming; the question is, are you going to stand in the way or help us push through?”

You see, this isn’t an issue of health, it’s an issue of image. It’s about judgement, preconception, acceptance and taking control of how we feel about our bodies. It’s about beating an archaic, oppressive system that’s there to make us spend money.

You don’t have to be healthy to be body positive. You can be obese, disabled, overweight, old, young, thin, athletic, whatever. But people who are positive about their bodies are happier and that makes them healthier, physically and mentally.


Feminism is for men too

International women’s day, and among the social media stories of inspiring, strong women came the plaintive utterances of a few men: “why isn’t there any International Men’s Day?”

For a start, a simple Google search would have answered this question: there is. It’s on November 16th this year. But also, International Women’s Day is not about man-bashing. Just because man is the only other option to woman, it doesn’t a playground game of one-upmanship (or upwomanship) make.

The same can be said of feminism. Men often seem to feel threatened or displaced by feminism, confusing sticking up for women with the putting down of men. Feminists, even among other women, have an image of man-hating, pubic hirsute drinkers of their own menstrual blood. Geri Halliwell, ironically herself a victim of the pressures put on women by an unbalanced society to tragic proportions, once proclaimed that feminism had ‘done its job’.

But it hasn’t done its job. And though the rise of feminism has caused something of a crisis of masculinity as gender roles, even genders, have become blurred, it is triumph for men too, releasing them from restrictive expectations. Just as women can now choose careers, men can choose to stay at home with their children, marry other men, cry at the sad bit in Dumbo and wear skinny jeans.

I go back to my grandparents, who I blogged about here. My dear grandpa died on International Women’s day. The date isn’t without significance. My grandpa was the epitome of the 1950s head of the household: quiet, dignified, well-read, wise, respected. He fought in the war, and suffered huge injuries, including the loss of a leg. He was hero, a rock, a patriarch.

To mention what he wasn’t isn’t to disrespect his memory because he was what society expected from his generation (plus I adored him): not emotionally available, involved, or hands-on with childcare. My granny, as I have said, was a work horse. She was all of those things; and what that entailed in real life is a bigger picture than words can paint.

Now, just as I have had more choice than my granny, my husband has had more choice than my grandpa. He shares household chores, childcare, and an equal relationship with me. For one adverse to washing-up, this may not feel like progress, but when I watch him kick a ball about with our son, or plait our daughter’s hair, or listen to her torture her clarinet, I know that his relationship with his children is progress beyond words. He said that he’d be happy if any of our children were gay. A sentence that would’ve been unthinkable for my grandpa’s generation, and a true indication of how comfortable he feels about them.


My husband with our boys.

As though better relationships with your children weren’t enough, men have also benefited from freer, better sex; reproductive control; equal relationships; protection from hate and sexual crimes; sexual freedom; more choice at work… the list goes on. True feminism is about gender parity, and that is good for all human kind.

Someone needs to tell the boys. I feel like I have a one-woman mission to make sure my two boys grow up as feminists. I have to confess that when I first looked into the eyes of my eldest, I felt raising a boy was the easier option. But I’ve changed my mind, and aside from teaching him how to bake (he does a mean lemon-drizzle cake), I’ve realised that I need to teach him how to understand that porn doesn’t represent true sex, that girls don’t aspire to look like Barbie, that it’s fine to cry if someone hurts your feelings.

It’s a hard message to teach. You just have to look around the playground to see that gender stereotypes are hard-wired. Still. After all this time and all this talking. The problem is that men talk to men, and a flaw in feminism is that too often us women focus on one another.

Geri Halliwell is wrong on so many levels. Her ginger spice body one minute stacked on Buffalo trainers with a crotch-skimming Union Jack dress, the next minute painfully thin on a beach, has been transformed because what? Because she feels the pressure to sell herself on her sexuality and looks rather than talent. Ok, you could argue that she lacks talent, but she certainly lacks insight and wisdom when she says that feminism has ‘done its job’.

Until there is true parity between the sexes, feminism has a long way to go. Until men stop being jealous of women and girls being in the limelight, and until women like Halliwell stop undermining feminism, there’s still a lot of talking to be done.

Us mothers can make a start by raising our boys in a way our grannies couldn’t raise our fathers and uncles. We can remember our grandfathers with love, and show our sons how much better equality has, and can continue to make the world better for all humanity. I like this blog on raising sons as feminists.

My last word goes to International Women’s Day. It’s about acknowledging, celebrating and respecting women while recognising how far society must come before gender parity truly exists. It’s not about saying women are better than men, it’s about equality.

From the other side of an ocean

This one’s for my granny, really. I feel pretty sure she would have been an open water swimmer, such was her love of sea swimming. But she was the wrong side of an ocean of feminism, born before women swam against the tide of patriarchy… I could continue to extend this metaphor, but you get the picture.

My granny is a true matriarch. Right now, with 85 years on the clock, she is nursing her husband through his final weeks on this earth. Their exchanges are tender and touching, and we wonder what she will be without him. But at the same time, we’re watching an amazing, strong woman working like a horse to care for others, as she has always done, and she seems like someone who could never be adrift.

At one point in her life, she was caring for three children under the age of seven, and her ailing father, travelling by train from Hampshire to Dover to look after him, putting her feelings of exhaustion down to worry and grief, and missing the signs of her fourth pregnancy.

As a grandmother, she was always cleaning, cooking and playing with us. She’s the only person I know to have had a replacement shoulder from all that ironing. She’s the only person I know who irons underwear.

My own experience is from another place. In between her becoming a mother in 1951, and me in 2006, came the feminist movement. Women of my generation blog about the fact that motherhood is a hard grind, then leave the laundry to fester to go for a swim.

We get lambasted for it, too. Not by our menfolk, parents or grandparents, but ironically by other mothers of our generation who say that we should be grateful for our children, and not whinge about motherhood, rather bask in the sunshine of its eternal glory. Articles like this one lament a current ‘fashion’ to akin motherhood to martyrdom.

I love an irreverent moan, and feel that the success of bloggers like The Unmumsy Mum is a success for all maternal-kind. In my mind, motherhood is akin to martyrdom, as it always has been. My grandmother was a martyr: a fulfilling career and hobbies weren’t really on her radar. She martyred herself to a pile of ironing.

Sometimes I think finding motherhood tough might be a bit wussy compared to my granny’s generation; I can’t imagine not having a washing machine. But our battle ground is the same: expectation. What we actually expect of women may have shifted beyond recognition in the last 85 years, but women’s behaviour and choices are still dictated by societal expectations; in that sense, the feminist movement hasn’t yet done its work.

In the 50s, women were largely expected to marry, stay at home, have children and raise them. It was an age of respectability and conformity. This meant that women had little choice when it came to education, work and personal liberty. Expressing dissatisfaction in your marriage or with your children was a sign of ill mental health.

Now, successful women are expected to be educated, have good jobs, have equal, loving relationships, bright children, amazing homes and looks that belie their true age. In the sense that we make more choices, we have liberty by the bucket load. And yet we’re as oppressed by a media wall of aspiration and judgement as our grandmothers were by 1950s rules of decency.

I’m not saying we have it harder, just that things haven’t moved on as much as we’d like to think. Choose career, and you get judged for leaving it late to have children. Choose children, and you lose out in your career. Get fat in pregnancy and get teased. Get thin, and get accused of using a surrogate like Beyonce Knowles.

Now, as in my grandmother’s day, it’s women who judge the hardest. This culture of expectation pitches women against each other, and that hasn’t changed either. If in the 1950s you’d expressed despair at the demeaning job of wiping endless shitty bottoms, you may have been the subject of gossip at the vicar’s wife’s tea party; now you’d face a bitter rebuke in the pages of The Guardian like this bit of misdirected vitriol by Bibi Lynch.

Now, as in my grandmother’s day, the practical and emotional ties of motherhood trump any amount of choice. Right now, my youngest is sitting on my lap, and I can tell by resting my cheek on his forehead and because his breath doesn’t smell very nice that he’s not very well. No matter what wonderful choices I had in my education, career and clothes, I am in exactly the same spot as my granny was all those years ago as primary care-giver.

And now, as in my grandmother’s day, women have true strength. If we stop judging each other, comparing ourselves, or squinting into the mirror for wrinkles, we’d see small, modest stories of unerring feminine strength, like my 85 year-old granny washing her husband’s feet to make him more comfortable.

I do feel thankful that I’m a woman in a time where I can leave the laundry (two days on the landing damp in a basket) and go swimming. My granny grew up in Dover and loved swimming in the sea; I wish she hadn’t had to abandon it. I don’t think she’d be up for open water swimming now, but she’ll always be with me as I swim.


My granny and her daughters (the one on the right is my mum) were all Guides in the late 1960s.