The musings of a final year medical student

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Body image

Body image is something that has been the epicentre of most of my thoughts since I was about eight. At that age I was bullied on a daily basis for being ugly and having 'Bugs Bunny' teeth. Despite having loads of confidence on stage and public speaking, I have felt crippled only up until recently by my negative thoughts about my appearance. Now that I look back on those years, I am very confused as to why I ever felt that way.

Although eating disorders can often not be related to body image, but a need for control, they are rife in our society. According to BEAT, there are 725,000 people in the UK who currently have an eating disorder. And even if your negative thoughts do not drive you to extreme weight loss, that's not to say it isn't an extremely harrowing way to live. Even if you never binge and purge, exercise excessively or starve yourself, having that consistently low opinion of your appearance can drain away so much happiness. 

Personally, being attractive in my head meant that people would like you and boys would fancy you. In addition, I used to read fashion magazines constantly, where airbrushing is used in every photo. Even the advertising we don't choose to see but are bombarded with, such as on billboards or bus stops, show a monotony of slim white women. I think that through the media and the bullying I endured, somehow it got stuck in my head that I had to be thin and pretty to be accepted. And I looked so different to Gisele, Kate Moss etc. in my copies of Vogue, so I knew for sure that I wasn't thin or pretty. I couldn't be, because I didn't look anything like them!
Unrealistic expectations much? I bet even Angie has stretch marks

Now at age 19 the penny has finally dropped. It's bollocks. The friends I made at 11 are still my friends now, even though I have weighed between 7 stone and 11 stone during the time that they've known me; even though I have had horrendous acne at times, going from AA boobs to DD, a UK dress size 8 to now a size 12, even though I've had braces for nearly 4 years and had double jaw surgery. They don't care, and they shouldn't! I am the kind of person who just wants to get on with everyone, and if someone is rude to me or doesn't like me it really gets me down. I hate friction and I wish everyone could just get along. So, when there have been times that people haven't wanted to get to know me, I always thought it was because I was fat and ugly. Bollocks again! You can't be mates with everyone, and if they do care about what you look like then really you've dodged a bullet by not being friends with them. 

More importantly, style and physique only say so much about a person. You can't tell if someone is clever, kind, altruistic or generous based on whether they are a size 8 or a size 18. I didn't get into medical school because I was a certain size, I worked hard and I was confident in my interviews - nothing was going to stop me from achieving my goals. 

Then there's boys. It took me so long to realise that not all boys fancied only girls who looked like pornstars with GG breasts, long extensions, fake tan and size six frames. When I look back on some of the boys I've fancied in the past, looks has had very little to do with it! You feel attracted to their personality and common interests, and then somehow that makes them look like the hottest person you've ever met. I read a quote somewhere that described how when you fancy someone their personality becomes their physical body, and suddenly that person becomes the most attractive person ever. SO TRUE! And even if someone looks like your ideal person, that will never be enough to make you fall in love with them. Looks will never be enough. I've spoken to male friends about their crushes and felt so confused as to how they could find the person they fancied attractive; I just couldn't see it! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

So, if you can still make amazing friends and find a great partner regardless of looks, why are we so fixated on it? I suppose it's because it's the easiest way to make a snap judgement about someone, and some people believe that we're hardwired to think that way from an evolutionary point of view. I can sort of believe that. Clothing can be tribal, you will notice how most friendship groups have similar styles. 

Really, I think to tackle body image the media and society as a whole need to make drastic changes. Advertisers and all journalism publications need to stop airbrushing and increase the diversity of their models. You shouldn't be able to sell people dodgy diet pills in Boots, Superdrug and online. Magazines need to stop championing every new diet that comes out, or how to get in shape for your 'Summer body'. Painfully thin actors and actresses need to take account of the fact that they don't want their fans to aspire to look like them. Hollywood needs to diversify the actors in their films and stop telling them to lose weight. If we were made to see people of all shapes and sizes praised and celebrated on TV, film and magazines then we wouldn't aspire to look only one certain way. We would be able to see ourselves in the adverts. We would see stretch marks and spots on celebrities and realise they are still  charming and beautiful regardless. We also need to talk about it more. I felt so awful when I saw my first stretch marks, and only now have I realised that almost every friend I have (including men) have them too! Ditto cellulite. My Mum is naturally very petite and I was always convinced that I was meant to be the same as her. Now I realise that I couldn't be a size 8 if I tried; you can't make hip bones narrower or boobs smaller. If I weighed the same as her I would have a BMI of 18.3 and be classed as underweight, because I'm 6 inches taller than her. If I'd sat down with my mum and told her all this years ago it would have probably saved me so much heartache. 

To me, the most important things we should concentrate on when we think about ourselves are confidence, kindness and self-respect. If you smile and talk to people and say thoughtful things, you naturally make people around you happier. People are so often more attracted to confidence than appearance. When someone smiles at you and maintains eye contact as you chat, you feel good. You can't help but like someone who is warm and friendly. You don't need to diet or buy expensive clothes to be a nice person. If you are a good person, people will see that. And if someone treats you like shit, know that you deserve better. Their words say nothing about yourself, but a hell of a lot about their own insecurities. 

One of my favourite quotes is by Maya Angelou: 
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Friends now and then; regardless of size or shape. 
If you have an eating disorder, please use the website BEAT for advice. Tell someone close to you and see your GP, and I wish you the best of luck. You will get through this. 


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