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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Follow @glitterandlazers on Instagram

 

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.

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Strong is the new skinny

The prospect of not hearing about desirable thigh-gaps, bikini bodies and waifs is good news, no doubt. But the real progress is a) who’s driving this movement b) who moves up the ratings as an idol and c) what it means for our mental and physical health.

The 90s have my heart. Brit pop, trip hop, jungle, Adidas Gazelles, parkas, Courtney Love and Kate Moss. I emulated Heroin chic: smudged eyeliner, blood-red lips, grimy hair and short skirts. Only I really loved the college canteen’s chips with beans and cheese, and the local pub’s pound-a-pint night could only be cancelled out with cheese pasties.

Fast-forward to now, and Beyonce is up front with her thighs, booty and glossy Amazonian goddessness. This is A Good Thing for us women who choose food over hard drugs. It’s good for anyone who has a naturally athletic figure, who enjoys working out, who isn’t a pubescent white girl.

But where has this come from? As far as I remember, we were complaining about heroin-chic in 1997 while watching Trainspotting, shopping in Miss Selfridge and applying our Rimmel eye-liner. We wondered how it happened, how the curvy 50s figure had been usurped while our friends were pulling us across the floor of the fitting room in New Look by the leg hole of the hot-pants in which we’d got stuck (maybe that was just me).

Back then, Heroin chic was the new 1950s hourglass. And that ubiquitous phrasing favoured by lazy journalists everywhere sums up perfectly the driving force behind all fads and fashions before now. Blah is the new blah: the formula for the consumer market where one fad is replaced by another.

These trends, derived by whoever, pushed on (mainly) women by the world’s media, seep into our conciousness. I’m a savvy consumer: I like what I like. And yet I have four jumpsuits (they’re the new LBD), work the bronzer and highlighter (contouring, Rupaul), and have at least one Hemsley & Hemsley style cookbook (clean eating, not dieting). In other words, I’m as much of a consumer capitalist sucker as the next person.

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Contouring like Rupaul

And yet this strong woman movement seems to have emerged from somewhere else. I may believe this to be the case because at last, 20 years on, I’ve accepted that I’ll never look like Kate Moss, and decided to suck it up, and I got there before it started trending.

But I like to think that social media has allowed women to dictate how we want to look; a trend that has been started by real people and the market has answered our actual needs rather than creating them.

It may also be that, finally, health is taking the top line. That we’ve realised that being strong and fit is so, so much more desirable than looking like we’re injecting between our toes – and it’s better for our mental health, too.

Clearly we haven’t moved on enough to stop analysing the figures of women, like this excellent piece of journalism by the Mirror, but if the media inspires women to go out for a run rather than stop eating, then perhaps it’s progress. Maybe if people from ethnic minority backgrounds or with fuzzy gender boundaries become inspiring idols, then it’s progress. If we’ve, through the power of social media, picked our own idols, then it’s progress.

But the biggest bit of progress is just starting to creep into our collective conciousness. Not just that it’s ok to have big quadriceps that don’t fit into hot pants, but that exercise makes us feel better about ourselves on many levels.

When I started this blog, I wrote about the mindful, almost meditative state I enjoy when I’m swimming. But I could go further and say that I have never in my life felt so good, and so at ease with my body. Now! When there are a thousand baby-stretched, greying, random-pube sprouting reasons not to love my body, I am actually ok about how I look.

Back to Bey, and I do like to draw parallels between myself and Ms Knowles, and her video for her new Ivy Park activewear collection. Yes, it’s beautifully produced, and so is she, but it’s the fact that she talks not about she came to look so amazing, or what she weighs, or how many minutes it takes to run a mile, but the spiritual, emotional benefits of exercise. It’s the focus on how it makes you feel good, not what it does to your body.

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Beyonce launches her new Ivy Park range. Yes, it’s consumerism, but it’s spiritual, yeah?

The narrative is finally shifting, or so it feels, from how we look to how we feel; to our health, physical and mental. My weighing scale is currently buried under some decorating sheets, and long may it stay. While I cut through the water I feel stronger and more at peace than ever before. It doesn’t matter how old I am, what colour I am, even that I’m a woman, and to me, that’s a blissful state. Maybe at last, my heart can move on from the 90s.

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Just like Beyonce, see?

Do triathletes have the edge?

I’m feeling a bit grumpy about this. Having established that swimming gives me a horse-like appetite, I now read that multi-discipline athletes have the edge on pure swimmers. I’ve had a horrible hunch this might be the case since joining a tri-club (and not doing any running or cycling). But is it?

In an article titled How to Boost Your Speed Over the Long Haul, Zena Courtney is adamant that you can’t do this through swimming alone. Clearly, practising swimming and improving your stroke will help, but she says that you also need to get out of the water and go running or cycling. She says that by physically exerting the body in different ways, eg doing a sport that requires more leg-work, your cardiovascular endurance will improve.

She also points out that it will allow you to improve strength, stamina and CV fitness without getting fatigue or injury from practising just on discipline, which seems like a fair point. I’ve blogged before about how yoga helps swimming, but now I’m starting to feel I should get on my bike too.

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A The Human Race race!

And that’s a really important point. Swimming is so much a mind-game; especially open water swimming. Head down, concentrating on your stroke, your focus is very much within yourself, which is part of the reason I love it. But you also only have yourself to keep you going, to settle your breathing when it feels tight, to push you on. And that’s quite hard. Runners, by contrast can train with others, keeping each other motivated and making the distance and time pass more quickly.

Josh Miller is a strength and conditioning trainer. He believes that swimmers lack “strength and explosiveness”, and advocates boxing and resistance training. His point is that what you do on land should directly benefit what you do in the water. Seems obvious, but I guess it depends on where you feel your weaknesses lie and what kind of exercise you enjoy, because there isn’t infinite time to exercise, and you don’t want to neglect your swimming.

“Boxing is a great way to develop upper body strength while also engaging the core,” says swimming coach Josh Huger.

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So now I’m feeling that I perhaps don’t need to run and cycle, when I can do resistance training in the gym, yoga and perhaps try Boxfit, which sounds ace. I feel that running and cycling are too alike to swimming in that they’re pure cardio, endurance activities. But maybe it’s the similarities reap benefits as much as the differences.

Interestingly, while I can find loads of blogs and articles about swimming for cyclists and runners, I can find very little about running or cycling for swimmers. It appears that swimming is the most common weak discipline for triathletes. It seems that nobody is saying that you have to get on a bike or run to be a better swimmer.

This makes me feel better. I’m yet to discover a love for cycling: I find road biking equally tedious and terrifying; mountain biking looks fun, but I’m not sure I can be doing with the faff and expense of getting the right kit, transporting it, cleaning it, servicing it. And I actually can’t run. The hyper-mobility that does me a great service while swimming, impedes any attempts even to jog. My four year old can run further and faster than me.

But there can be no doubt that my physique and swimming ability would benefit from doing other sports. I quite like spinning for getting a sweat on, I love yoga and Pilates, and I’m growing to enjoy resistance training in the gym. And I can’t believe that any of that will be bad for my swimming efforts.

That leaves me to conclude that my fellow triclub members have the edge because they’re fitter than me, not specifically because they run and cycle. It’s clear that dry-land training is important for swimmers, and so long as it includes strengthening, flexibility and stamina, it’s best to choose exercises you enjoy, that make you feel good.