Body Image: Growing up in the 21st Century
By Niamh Brook
Body Image. The dreaded conversation. I'm so glad to see that slowly but surely we are discussing and opening up about how not everything we see both online and in the media is always what it seems. I do, however, feel like there aren't that many personal discussions on body image and how to come out of the other side, so here's mine. Grab a cuppa and get ready for a bumpy ride.My issues surrounding my body image started at around 10 years old. For context, I looked like this:
Also, please note the addition of bucked teeth and a severe lazy eye (which I still have to this day) which are not featured in this picture. When I look back at this picture obviously I cringe, as we all do when we look at old photos. But when I find myself looking back at this photo, I'm not horrified- I actually think I look quite sweet. The girl in the picture however, would definitely not agree.
Children all over the world, both male and female, are exposed at a young age to an image of perfection. Especially growing up in the early 2000’s, picture perfect celebrities were plastered all over screens. Be it Hannah Montana or Captain America, children are exposed to ideals, that for many, are not achievable. So it’s no wonder that so many children grow up with issues about their bodies before they have even developed! My body issues however, did not (really) stem from celebrities, mine came from the more personal, dance lessons.
I took dancing from the age of about 6-11. I wasn’t necessarily good at dancing but I loved it all the same. The majority of my friends at dancing were very, very slim. I had never even noticed when I was younger, I was too busy counting pennies at the tuck shop and listening to Hannah Montana. It wasn’t until I reached 9 or 10 that the realisation hit me. I was not the same as my friends. My puppy fat, lazy eye, bucked teeth and frizzy hair did not blend well with the look of my fellow dancers. I stood out like a sore thumb.
The self conscious tendencies began at this point, noticing how the other girls looked and constantly comparing myself. It reached its boiling point in the summer of 2010, the transitional summer between primary and secondary school. I was going to a secondary where I didn’t know anyone, not a single soul and naturally I was as terrified as I was excited. A chubby, hyperactive, Doctor Who fan who had her fair share of bullying at her time at primary. I convinced myself over that summer that all of the “cool girls” would look just like the girls at dancing. Slim.
Naturally, I made friends at secondary school and to my memory no one commented on my weight nor my appearance, ever. Even with all this, I still refused to eat anything I deemed ‘piggy’: cake, crisps and chocolate, I would eat as little as possible to try and slim down. Obviously this didn't work, I was 11 and all it took was a bit of a growth spurt and puberty to arrive for all my lumps and bumps to fall into their places.
But even after all the pieces fit, I still lived with a “chubby” mentality. Most teenagers love a McDonald’s with their mates or Domino’s on the weekend. I would do anything to try and stop myself from having them, terrified of gaining weight. I didn't feel comfortable in my skin throughout most of school, if it wasn't my weight I hated, it was my nose... if it wasn’t my nose, it was my eczema. There was always something I didn't like about myself.
This mindset stayed with me all the way through sixth form. I was in control of what I ate, I was lazy and subsequently my sixth form’s poor lunch choices meant I gained weight in my first year. Not a lot (about a stone) but for me, it felt like the end of the world. It is natural and human to gain weight, especially at that age, you are becoming an adult and your body begins to mature. I had somewhat of an identity crisis at sixth form... what clothes I liked, music and overall who I was, I just wasn't sure.
By the time I got to uni, I had finally got to grips with my body and was still working on myself, I wasn’t 100% but I was beginning to feel pretty comfortable in my skin. Now, when most people start uni they put on weight, I on the other hand, lost nearly a stone and half because of my poor diet and laziness in my student kitchen. It was a horrifically unhealthy way to do so, but it was the first time in my life I felt thin.
I was obsessed with my new weight as I finally felt I looked like the girls from dancing all those years ago. It was not a healthy outlook, I shouldn’t have obsessed over being thin. I should have loved myself thin or not, not worried about gaining a pound here or there. I should also clarify for my fellow eczema sufferers, that this poor diet caused perhaps the biggest flare ups I’ve ever had. I can say with 100% confidence that being thin is not worth the pain I had during this time.
At the time of writing this piece I am in my final year of uni and my weight has been up and down the entire time. Even so, at least once a month I find myself slipping back to the dark days, looking in the mirror and seeing something I do not like. A crooked nose from a trampoline trick gone wrong, a jaw that could be sharper, thighs that could be smaller etc. It has taken me over 10 years to come to terms with myself and how I look, and whilst I am now more confident in myself then I could have ever imagined, I still fall back to the old, stupid outlook of yesteryear.
I think this acceptance has stemmed from multiple different avenues. I’m old enough now to realise that I do not need to look a certain way to be accepted by others or seen as ‘cool’. I have been in a relationship for 4 years and subsequently had 4 years worth of validation, sympathy and compliments about all of me, not just my body. I have also taken time to sit down and work about the good things about myself and spend less time focusing on the negative. This can be anything, personality, looks, anything that you love about yourself can really help to change your mindset.
It has taken me 21 years, but I finally like the way I am (most of the time). I wear the clothes I want, don’t lose sleep over a few extra pounds and let myself eat chocolate whenever I want! I’m so fortunate to be a healthy weight for my height and my age. I’m in good health, besides the occasional eczema flare up and I have a great boyfriend, family and friends who all love me (even my shitty jokes).