Body image, social constructs, and other things that keep me up at night

Health and Wellbeing, Personal / Sunday, February 24th, 2019

Warning: this blog is a complete brain dump of all the intense thoughts that come into my mind about body image, social constructs and mental health. I come to no conclusion nor do I feel I have the right to give any advice on these topics, but I hope that it at least helps some people think twice about the way they see themselves and why they feel the urge to look a certain way.

Insomnia thoughts

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about social constructs – particularly around female body image. The older I get, the more my mind seems to go into overdrive about certain topics and question “why”?

It’s about to get deep – enter into the mind of overthinking Kate when she can’t get to sleep at night…

“Why” do we work? We spend so much time every day going to jobs to make this thing we call ‘money’ which was made up by humans and only actually has ‘value’ because we all collectively believe that it does. As a result we now depend on something made up in our minds to be able to live comfortable lives. Check out Sapiens to completely blow your mind about human existence.

“Why” does the colour of our skin determine privilege or discrimination? I have recently become more curious about the topic of racism. I’ve been exploring and understanding why – because of the colour of my skin – I benefit from white privilege. I’ve been researching more into the history of British colonisation, and reading about why ‘reverse-racism’ is not a thing (check out the book ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ if you’d like some more insights).

I could go on and on with these “why” questions, but there’s a risk you might think that I’ve been smoking far too much weed.

What I’m getting at is that we as humans are sort of ‘programmed’ to think in a certain way, depending on how we’ve been brought up, who we hang around with, and the media we’re exposed to every day. We can’t help it – and we often don’t notice or even know it, because it’s too complex to even think about (and when you do start thinking about it, you dig yourself into a crazy black hole and end up Googling shit all night, wondering what life is and questioning whether you’re actually part of some sort of simulation).

Anyway, I digress… the most recent “why” that has been revolving in my head, and the topic of this brain dump / blog is:

“Why” do I want my body to look a certain way?

Social ideals of body image

I’ve spent my entire life wanting to change my body. When I was very young, I always wanted to be skinny – something I never naturally was. I spent my childhood watching the very undiverse TV series FRIENDS and wondering why I wasn’t as slim as basically every one of its female characters. I yearned to have long skinny legs just like the models on the TV. Even now in my adult life, I aspire to have a more toned but lean physique, quite obviously influenced by instagram, seeing people with these physiques everywhere I scroll.

‘Strong not skinny’ is a new trend. At least it’s a better and less damaging trend than the whole ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ thing that was prevalent in the 90s / noughties, but it’s still a social ‘ideal’ that has more recently been constructed – which I, and many others, aspire to achieve. We can’t help it – we are exposed to it wherever we look – magazines, TV shows, social media, advertisements.

Mental health and disordered habits

Up until the age of around 24, my weight fluctuated from ‘overweight’ for my height (stated by doctors – although I would argue my weight was never a health risk), to nearer the ‘underweight’ level of the scale – more often the former. Quite honestly, having more body fat made me feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I was very unhappy with myself when I looked in the mirror and I didn’t fit into what I thought was the ‘ideal’ body type.

Although physically I wasn’t really at any risk, my mental perception of myself and the way I acted as a result was definitely unhealthy. I developed disordered eating habits, and starved myself in an attempt to lose weight. I’d then give up and binge eat. This nasty cycle of bad habits very much impacted my mental health and I was really in an awful place.

Are ‘weight loss journeys’ damaging?

Learning to eat in a more healthy and balanced way, and controlling my binge eating (I still have issues with this, but it’s much better than it once was) has had a huge impact on my mental wellbeing. Weight loss has also made me feel much more confident and happier in myself. That’s why I’ve always seen losing weight as a positive thing and a way in which I’ve improved my mental health.

I often blog about my attempts to change my body composition and recently documented my journey on instagram when I lost a large amount of fat for a photoshoot. At the time I saw this as quite a positive thing – working hard towards a goal and helping other people learn about how to make changes without being too restrictive. It never really crossed my mind that the fact I’m aspiring to be leaner could actually be damaging for other people. They might see my posts and think ‘Do I need to look like this too?’, or that my ‘before’ photos should be seen as unattractive because I wanted to change myself.

Since doing my photoshoot I’ve had a lot of girls DM me and ask how to get abs. My immediate response is always something along the lines of “Firstly, you don’t need abs”, and “I’ve been in a calorie deficit for months to get into the condition in my shoot photos, and I have gained a lot of weight back since”.

On one hand I’m proud to post my shoot photos because I worked hard to get into that condition, but on the other, I worry if I’m having a negative impact because it’s really unnecessary to be that lean (and pretty much impossible to maintain all year round).

Bodies come in different shapes and sizes and there isn’t one look that we should aspire to have – but many of us (not all) do fall victim to wanting to fit in the category that’s popular on instagram (which is often unattainable due to genetics or unsustainable due to the human love for delicious calorific foods).

There’s no such thing as ‘perfection’ – but we can’t stop seeking it

Humans always want more. We are instinctively never satisfied with what we’ve got. We get pay rises and somehow manage to find things to spend our money on that we didn’t need before, and then yearn for more money to fill new voids.

It’s the same with body image. I thought that being super lean would make me happy. But even when I was at the lowest body fat percentage I had ever been, I was still picking myself apart. I now look back at what I looked like during my photoshoot and see that I was being ridiculous – but hindsight is a wonderful thing. We need to accept that it’s human nature to not always be happy with what we’ve got, but to try to appreciate it as much as we can. No one is ever truly ‘fulfilled’ in life.

Abs aren’t the be all and end all

I don’t really know if there’s anything that can be done to stop people from following social ideals; it’s very hard to change a thought process that has been engrained since birth. What I do know is that we can at least try to be thankful for what we have. We can be thankful that our bodies function healthily, and focus less on the aesthetics. We can be kinder to ourselves and point out the things about our bodies we like. We can try to find versions of ourselves that we are happy with (most of the time) and not compare ourselves to anyone else. Be your own goals (I’ve coined it BOYG) and don’t aspire to look like anyone else, but the best version of yourself.

I want to use social media in a positive way: to educate people on nutrition so they don’t fall for all the diet fads I did, empower people to change their habits for the better, and make them feel happier with their bodies. However I also want people to realise that being lean isn’t necessarily going to make them happy.

You don’t need to be super lean to be healthy. You don’t need to be lean to be attractive. If a person has abs all year round, there’s a high chance they’re living a pretty boring life or just don’t enjoy food.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to change the way you look – but if and when you are feeling so down about your appearance that it negatively impacts your mental health, just try to put things into perspective and remember that body image ideals are literally made up. As long as you’re healthy, you don’t need to lose weight, despite what social media might portray.

We’re all just insignificant tiny specs on a spinning ball which is a very small part of a universe that is so large we can’t even fathom it.

Maybe we are in a simulation…

* Googles flat earth conspiracy theories*

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