Body image, weight, and BMI.

So I’m currently, at the age of 42 and bar the injury (see last TWO blog posts if you want to read at length about a grown woman moaning about her leg. Selling it there, aren’t I? link and link), probably the healthiest I’ve been in my entire life. I have two kids, have run a full marathon, am signed up for another, already plotting a third (marathons, not kids), and I can usually churn out a half-marathon distance once a week and not think of it as that much of a big deal any more. I’m now a healthy size 12 on the bottom half, 14 on the top (what are you gonna do? Boobs), when I spent most of my 30s as a size 18. I do not judge my self-worth on my clothes size, but I generally feel pretty much OK about myself. I finally feel alright in a swimming costume. I look at my marathon medal and feel extremely proud.

HOWEVER. There’s this little voice that says, ‘Yeah, but BMI says you’re STILL overweight and you always will be. According to the BMI you need to lose a stone to get to the TOP of the healthy category, fatty. You need to be thinner. You need to weigh less.’ That little voice needs to fuck off, frankly. I’m NEVER going to weigh below 10 stone (or if I’m really honest, below 11 and a half) or be a size 10 – I’ve got big shoulders, a broad frame, and I’m fairly muscular (it’s well hidden, OK? But it’s there!). And you know what? I wouldn’t actually look good if I was 10 stone and/or a size 10. I’d be scrawny and drawn and I just know it would all come off my boobs, which frankly have suffered enough from breastfeeding two little biters. But there is this pervading DRIVE to be thinner, to weigh a certain amount, even if I’m not healthier, or even look better, and even though no one knows or cares what you actually weigh (except obvs you all do know now, because I more or less just told you).

My husband certainly doesn’t care. I can genuinely say he does not seem to fluctuate in his view of me whether I’m 3 stone heavier or lighter. Or maybe he just hides it well, because he read my last post about how I’m tempted to hit people who say the wrong thing with a kettlebell. He does get a ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look about him if I ask his opinion on anything to do with my appearance, like he’s got to the final of Mastermind and has been asked a fiendishly impossible question on physics or something, rather than “Which of these tops looks better?”.

I had a really interesting conversation with a friend recently, who is an amazing athlete, about how she’d put on a little bit of weight since being off running with an injury, and we both said she looks better for it. She really does, she’s a gorgeous woman. But even though she can look in the mirror and KNOW she looks better and feels healthier and even swims better when she is not her absolute thinnest, there is that pressure to BE THIN.

It’s as if BEING THIN is the ultimate female goal. Not being healthy. Not being strong and fit. How fucked up is that? What the hell are we modelling for our kids, especially our daughters? And yes, before anyone gets all ‘but what about the MEN?’, I’m sure they have body image issues too, but I’m talking about my own experience here, and I happen to be a woman. When I was my absolute thinnest, I had been living in a tent in the middle of Holland for four months. I did not get thin through a healthy exercise routine and a balanced diet. And that’s all I’m going to say about that time in my life because my mum reads this. I suppose there was a LOT of dancing in squat raves and clubs in Amsterdam, which is a kind of exercise. But I definitely wasn’t strong and healthy. I didn’t look good; I looked like shit. Mum gasped when she saw me when I got back to England, minus my tent and all my stuff... and it wasn’t a gasp that said, ‘Wow you look great!’ In all honestly it was probably partly a gasp of ‘Where the hell is all your/my stuff? Some of that was off of the sixties, I may have to yell at you but you look so ill I’m just going to give you a hug…’ BUT - I WAS THIN, and my weight was the lowest it’s ever been in my adult life. And through all the later years of punishing myself through Weight Watchers and Slimming World that was the weight I was aiming for, which is actually completely unattainable, and not even that healthy.

That’s my issue with diet clubs. I’m not going to go all Liam from rebelfit here – I’m really not gunning for Weight Watchers or Slimming World, as actually SW really did help me to get part of the way with my initial weight loss, but honestly my main beef with it is that it’s NOT SUSTAINABLE. It doesn’t work long term. I know so many people who are ‘going back to Slimming World BECAUSE IT WORKED LAST TIME’ and isn’t that the clue? It worked LAST TIME, but you put it all back on again. So there you are paying them your money again. Also, for me, as someone who needs and enjoys exercise, it could only take me so far and for me personally, I don’t think it was mentally healthy. I’m someone who can have a tendency to binge-eat when I’m stressed/bored/unhappy, and even after years of therapy for my psychotherapy training I still don’t know why I have had such an unhealthy attitude towards food or my body image. But Slimming World certainly did not address this, it just made me binge-eat different things, and polarise foods as ‘SYNS’ or ‘FREE’ (i.e. GOOD or BAD). Someone with a tendency to binge-eat does not need to be told that they can eat unlimited pasta. Plus my skin went to absolute shit, and I’m pretty sure that’s because I wasn’t eating any healthy fats! And we NEED fat to function as human beings! Fat is not BAD, carbs are not BAD, even sugar and the occasional MASSIVE slab of chocolate fudge cake is not BAD, and it is not that which makes us fat, and making us feel guilty about enjoying good food is NOT going to make us get thin and stay thin, should we even want to.

The only way I really lost weight in a healthy way, was, ironically, when weighing less and being thin for the sake of it stopped being the ultimate goal, and I will elaborate on this later. At Slimming World there’s this weird paradox between being encouraged to eat more vegetables and fruit and lean protein, which is great, but as I’ve mentioned also being encouraged to really see foods as good and bad (Syns? Yeah, sins. You ain’t fooling no one, SW), and to eat unlimited SHITE that has no nutritional value whatsoever. Like Mugshots and Mullerlights, because they are ‘free’. My lightbulb moment was when my 7 year old asked for a Mullerlight, and I thought, “No way am I letting her put that chemical shitstorm in her body”. SO WHY THE HELL AM I PUTTING IT IN MINE, several times a day, just because SW tells me it’s ‘FREE’? And seriously do NOT get me started on the abomination that is ScanBran... That is NOT food. That is cardboard. I do actually like Quark, though. Shh, don’t tell anyone.

More recently I met a friend of a friend at a kids’ party, who had been in my SW group, and she asked me about my running, so I told her, at great length, because, frankly I will bore the knickers off anyone who asks me, ad nauseum… And then she said, oh I wish I could exercise, but muscle weighs more than fat, doesn’t it, and it would show up on the scales in my weigh-in so I don’t. WHAT. THE. FUCK? So she literally wasn’t exercising because she was scared it would make her weigh more. GNNNNN? As an American teenager would probably no longer say, ‘I just can’t even...’ Because aside from that whole premise being total bollocks, the absolute and only goal, the thing you judge your entire self-worth on, is what those scales say once a week. Not even losing body fat, or LOOKING BETTER, measuring yourself with a tape measure or whatever – she was LITERALLY judging her entire self-worth on that one number on the scales once a week. Where is the logic? How did it come to THAT? And if that’s too anecdotal friend-of-a-friend shizzle, another Slimming World contact did question whether I should be running up to 20 miles on the day before a weigh-in because my muscles would be holding on to water and I would weigh more, or some such bollocks – which is also an anecdote but that one actually happened to me.

So yes, it has taken me all of my 42 years to start to come to terms with the body I’ve got. I’m definitely not completely there now. I have good days and bad days. But now I mostly love my body, in all its imperfection. I’m not saying I’m perfect, I’m just saying that this is the body I’ve got and I try to love it and what it can do. I’m really fucking lucky to have this body because I have all my limbs and all of my organs (except my gallbladder, but nobody needs that really, and now I can eat cake again) and I’m strong and fit and healthy. This change has come about DIRECTLY from running. Admittedly it’s partly because I lost some weight, but that’s ALMOST incidental in the journey to coming to terms with the body I’ve got, not the idealised version that we’re supposed to, and I did, always want. When I started running more seriously, when I started training for my first half marathon, and definitely for the full marathon, it became more about what I wanted my body to be able to do. And yes, I did want to lose some of the weight to look better, but mostly because I knew if I didn’t I wouldn’t have a hope of getting any more PBs and carrying a couple of extra stone around a marathon wouldn’t be impossible but it would make it a lot harder.

I started wanting to fuel my body better and to educate myself about the affect different foods would have on my training. I think I enjoy food even MORE now that I’m more educated about it. And I recognise when my attitude is getting dodgy around it. Like whilst I was injured and not running, the drive to binge-eat chocolate was really, really strong. And sometimes I do still do it, but nowhere near as much as I used to before. A lot of this healthier attitude is through working with Tony – details of his habits-based nutrition approach can be found HERE . Something HUGE I’ve taken from that is that I finally stop seeing food as good and bad or ‘SYN-full’. There is no such thing as naughty food. A naughty food-related incident would be feeding a Snickers to someone you knew had a nut allergy. But the Snickers itself is not to blame for the attempted murder, the Snickers itself is not naughty.

In my first ever blog post (link) I wrote about how one of my proudest moments was when Evie said how sporty and strong I was, and how that made me feel about a million times better than her saying I was slim or even beautiful. Because it was about who I am and what my body represents to her, rather than some enforced idea of what women ‘should’ look like, and this constant media policing of our bodies. To her I’m just strong and sporty. She also knows what carbs are and that you need protein to help your muscles grow. I’ve never actually said this to her, but she takes it ALL in, like a little 7 year old sponge. She would also take it in if I looked in the mirror and said, ‘UGH I look so fat and disgusting too’, so I try really, really hard not to do that. Sometimes I think it, but I really try not to ever vocalise it in front of her. I want to be her role model, I want her to want to be fit and healthy and to enjoy cake and enjoy vegetables (I REALLY want her to stop complaining about my bloody cooking, and suddenly deciding that she doesn’t like something she declared delicious YESTERDAY, but that’s another issue. I was vegetarian for 27 years and I don’t like onions, so I can’t really talk about being fussy) and not see food as good or bad. My wish for her is that she loves her body and is happy, and preferably grows up without issues around food. But being a girl can be a bit shit, and we’re bombarded with the message that we are never EVER good enough. If anyone out there has the answer please let me know! For now I’ll just try to keep myself mentally and physically healthy and model that for her. I should probably stop swearing so much too, but I try not to do that out loud. Like most parents I go into the kitchen, shut the door and do a silent scream of ‘FOR FUCK’S SAKE’ every now and again. And on that irrelevant note I’ll end it there.

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Sarah - 31st July 2017 Reply

Another great blog Emma! I so agree with you. So much writing about food these days is negative, and so much food is sold for what’s NOT in it, which when you think about it is bizarre. For me the main aim has been to stop thinking about weight and to think more about why I am eating. Basically food is for nutrition, to help build, fuel and repair our wonderful bodies, and to keep them working well. So all food (by which I mean actual FOOD not highly processed and reorganised chemical dross) is good, for different purposes. Even sugar has its place – for quick energy, for a morale boost and mood enhancer. If I eat too much of it when I don’t need it I feel rubbish (I try to remind myself) but I don’t need to feel guilty about that, just a bit daft. You have a great body that can do wonderful things. Me too!

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