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.

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Dog beach

This is proper cheating. One of my favourite winter beaches is on the other side of the world, where technically speaking, it’s summer. As in sizzling, 35 degree heat, summer. I’d actually like to just nip there just now, but Perth, Australia is a bloody long haul. Worth it, though; there’s a lot to love about Dog Beach.

My cousin put it best when she said “dog beach is a happy place”. It really is. Of all the beaches in Perth: long, soft golden-sanded expanses, pretty much deserted, Dog Beach is the busiest. That’s not busy by UK standards: it’s empty compared to Fistral in Newquay on a hot day, but on a balmy evening, there are plenty of people scattered on the sand. And dogs.

That’s another thing we loved: the way Dog Beach typifies an Aussie say-what-you-see approach to naming things. Dog beach is called dog beach because it’s a beach and you can take your dog there. Just as galahs are called ‘pink and greys’ because they’re pink and grey, and Shark Bay is a bay where sharks can be found.

Sharks were the only sharp-toothed, potentially deadly downside to Perth beaches. Probably because I’m a pom, I was terrified that there’d be several great whites lurking just beyond the breakers ready to snack on one of my children. I’d eat them if I were a shark. My cousin and sister’s Perth-born husbands were both very philosophical about the shark threat, and logically I knew that an attack was very unlikely, but still, we stayed in the shallows.

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Looking out for Jaws.

Our trip to Perth was incredible. We were there for Christmas following the birth of my nephew, my sister’s first baby. She’d been living there for a couple of years with her husband, and our cousin was living a few streets away with the man who’s now her husband and their three dogs. In fact, this beach is the place where he later proposed.

They took us to Dog Beach one evening. The Aussies tend to visit the beach early in the morning or in the evening, otherwise it’s too hot. There’s something wonderful about being able to bathe in the sea and golden, evening sun. The atmosphere is one of peace, contentment and relaxation that you don’t really get in the UK. I guess it’s the knowledge that these endless summer evenings are yours. It’s a lovely way to live.

Dog Beach is just north of Hillary’s, a harbour development with shops and restaurants that I’ll write about another time, and south of Horse Beach (guess what happens there!). It’s about a kilometre of white sand, lapped by clear water. It’s quite exposed to the wind, so the waves can get to a decent size, though when we went it was pretty tranquil.

We played with the children and dogs in the surf, the dogs swimming quite far out to fetch sticks the way dogs do. I watched for sharks, mostly, while my cousin watched their dear old, deaf (and now sadly departed) dog from wandering off with the wrong people.

The air and water temperature is quite warm enough in December to sit in the breakers, which is also an unusual experience for a British person. This was lucky, really, because as much as I’d have loved to have swum properly, the Jaws theme-tune was playing on repeat in my head.

Still, it was undoubtedly one of the happiest, most golden places I’ve ever been. A place where for the time you’re there, everything is right with the world. A place where human and canine joy abounds.

In memory of Rover and Kaiser