Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Danger of Praising Weight Loss Above All Else

I'm not sure if you've noticed this lately, but we live in a world that's pretty obsessed with weight loss. Scarily obsessed. In fact, if you were an alien visiting Earth for the first time, you would be really freakin' confused about why so many of the world's societies have made shrinking themselves their main preoccupation in life (assuming the planet you came from isn't also overrun with diet culture and rampant with unrealistic body ideals).

It really hasn't taken very long for the obsession to take over, considering 150 years ago intentional weight loss (or 'reducing') was quite rare. The weight most people today would consider to be excess, unhealthy, and unattractive used to be signs of wellness, wealth and beauty in abundance. These days even the slightest bit of natural chub is viewed as some kind of parasite - a dangerous disease to be burned off, sucked out, or starved into submission at any cost, rather than as the harmless, healthy flesh it is. It's really no surprise that the fear of fat has taken over, and dieting has become a full time job. There are millions, sorry, billions to be made from turning us against our own bodies, and making us believe that weight loss is the ultimate achievement in life is crucial in that business plan. All we have to do is look around us to see the proof...

"Woman loses 50 pounds and gets her life back!"

"She's thin again! [insert any female celebrity ever] battles the bulge and comes back better than ever!"

"Entire population dying from obesity! Losing weight is the only thing that will save us!"

And those headlines are probably all in the same magazine, on a shelf with hundreds more magazines just like it, in the aisle just across from the low fat meal replacement options, in a shop with giant billboards advertising diet plans outside it, down the road from a TV studio that films a show about who can lose the most weight each week while being watched by millions. The news about how 95% of diets don't work, how yo-yo dieting damages your mental and physical health, how it's possible to be metabolically fit at any size, and how countless eating disorders are caused by dieting never seem to make the headlines.

It's estimated that 45 MILLION people in the US go on diets every year, and 29 MILLION people in the UK do the same (in other words, more than half of the adult UK population is currently trying to lose weight). With that in mind, it makes sense that we see encouraging diets as harmless, and 'oh my god you look so skinny' as always being a compliment. The fact that our words could actually be doing serious damage doesn't occur to us, and why would it? Everything is telling us that dieting is wonderful, everyone wants weight loss, and skinny is ALWAYS synonymous with beautiful. We've got diet culture tunnel vision, and it's blinding us.

When I was falling headfirst into anorexia, the compliments came pouring in. Asking how I did it, wishing for the secret to my will power, congratulating me for fighting so valiantly in the weight loss wars. Nobody knew at the time that I was fighting to the death. But those comments sure helped keep me going. When I was 'recovered' (read: chubby), still sporadically starving myself on crash diets and battling with exercise addiction the compliments came again. So much dedication, even nearly dying didn't put her off working for the perfect body, well done for the 5lb loss this week! They should have known better by then, but they didn't. The problem is when you compliment someone on their weight loss, you have absolutely no idea where their motivation lies. You have no idea what toxic seeds you might be planting, or what dangerous notions will grow from them, and blossoming eating disorders are only one reason why we need to stop praising weight loss above all else.

You could be commending the shrinking waistline of someone who's body is deteriorating from disease. You could be pointing out a natural predisposition towards slenderness that someone has actually hated their whole life. You could be reinforcing someone's belief that they are more valuable, more attractive, more successful and important just because there's a little bit less of them than before (although let's be honest, you're pretty much always doing that when you compliment someone on their weight loss).

Let's say you meet a friend out for lunch, and one of the first things you comment on is how thin she's looking these days. At worst, you're fueling an obsession that's currently taking over her life, unbeknownst to you. At best, you're pointing her own focus back towards her body, instead of where it should be at the table with you. Maybe she didn't want to be worrying about her weight while she's with you, maybe she wanted to catch up with her friend, talk about her passions, get lost in the things that matter and set the world on fire. Now all she's thinking about is the size of her thighs. She's anxious about the food choices. She's wondering how everyone else is seeing her - is this a flattering angle? Does she look thin to everyone? She could probably be thinner though... By this point she's barely even there, she's too busy walking round the never ending body image maze in her mind.

The fact that powerful grown women can't even get through the day without being sucked into dietland is horrifying enough, but we are doing this to our children, too. 80% of 10 year old girls have been on diets, and the average age girls start dieting is now 8 years old. Young people are taking in all the same media messages we are, they're being brainwashed with the same weight biased propaganda and photoshopped lies, and they're even less equipped than we are to see through the bullshit. The only hope they have of escaping the weight loss wars is the way we talk to them, and around them, about bodies. It's heartbreaking to imagine adults with so much potential in life being completely consumed by food and weight and their bodies and losing who they might have been. It's even more heartbreaking to imagine that happening to 80% of 10 year old girls.

A 10 year old's brain should not be focused on how many calories there are in a snack or what the scales will say this week. They shouldn't feel like approval and love come from pounds lost and praise from a proud mother, projecting her own body image issues onto her daughter. Both of their minds should be free to focus on all of the wonderful things they are and could be. On their passions, their ideas, their talents, their dreams, their relationships, their goals beyond dropping dress sizes. Unless we make some serious changes to how we talk about weight loss and worth, those minds are going to stay lost. 

The next time you go to compliment someone on their weight loss or praise how thin they're looking, just think whether you might be causing more harm than good. Compliment them on something that actually matters instead - tell them how much you value their friendship, how thankful you are to have them around. Encourage each other to be badass, to be loud and unapologetic and to take up a fuck tonne of space with your words and minds and bodies, not to shrink down until there's nothing left. The world's obsession with dieting isn't going anywhere, it makes far too much money to be dismantled over something as (apparently) trivial as people's mental health - but you can still save each other. Change the conversation. Question what you've been taught. Maybe one day we'll replace our obsession with pounds and points and inches with an obsession over accepting ourselves as we are. No starvation necessary... We can dream.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Standing Up For Self Love in a Self Loathing World

For my 18th birthday my dad wrote me a letter. He told me that no matter where I go, what I do or who I become, the most important thing I could ever have is integrity. The strength to stand up for what I believe in, for what's right, even if there are a million other people standing up for what's wrong. Before body positivity, I didn't believe in very much (and I definitely didn't believe in myself), but these days I understand exactly what he meant.

When it comes to standing up for body positivity, I'm sure most bopo babes will tell you the same thing - sometimes it's damn overwhelming. Sometimes you'll go out and be hit by so much diet culture that you wonder how you'll ever make a dent in all the self hatred out there. Or you'll hear people reciting the same tired, inaccurate opinions about fat people, and you'll realise just how heart achingly deep that prejudice runs. Sometimes it's your own friends or family refusing to accept the thing that's finally healed you. Other days you feel like you'd rather move to an isolated gingerbread house in the woods with no wifi connection than face the trolls lurking in your notifications. 

It is really fucking hard to stand up for something that most of the world refuses to acknowledge, believe, or respect. Especially when you know with every fibre of your being that what you're standing for is right, and good, and necessary in the world. Some days it truly feels like we're part of a body love revolution, like things are really changing, other days it feels like women are falling deeper into body dissatisfaction than ever before. It's okay to have those days. Even the most badass bopo superheroes have days filled with doubt about how the hell they're going to make a difference. So this is a reminder that you're not alone in those moments, and that you've got this.

1. The Motherf*cking Media

The media is the most powerful lens we have to view the world (and ourselves) through, and with the messages they deliver to us, it's a miracle that any of us get out alive. Let's just think about a typical daily dosage of media and advertising that any woman might see:

7am: Wake up, make breakfast, read on the back on your cereal box that 'you could lose up to 2 dress sizes on the cereal diet!'. Have toast instead.

7:30am: Switch on the TV to catch the morning news. Within 10 minutes be bombarded with adverts for breast enhancement surgery, weight loss programmes, and more headlines about how obesity is killing us all (with the usual undertones that make people believe that fat bodies are less than human and fuel already widespread prejudice). News show comes back on, with a segment featuring the results of their bikini body promise competition! All female presenters appear slim, youthful, and perfectly polished, male presenters actually allowed to age visibly, have body fat and look like your Uncle Joe. Turn TV off.

8:30am: On the train to work. More adverts about bikini bodies and diet pills plastered on the tube.

12:30pm: Lunch. Try to get a sandwich from the shop which you end up measuring against all the low-cal, fat free diet versions while trying to work out why we need skinny water and whether ordinary water has been making you gain weight all this time. More adverts walking back to work, giant billboards bigger than your house with 'perfect' bodies reaching sky high.

12:35pm: Stop off at public bathroom and end up reading a poster for a new gym and their special 'tone up!' offer while sitting on the loo. Models used have same body type as the billboard giants.

3pm: Doing work type things on the computer, endless adverts online for waist trainers, detox teas, beach body blah blah blah. Just trying to research how to use Microsoft Excel.

5pm: Train home from work. More adverts. Try to distract yourself with women's magazine filled with articles about how you need a whole new body, a whole new relationship, and a whole new life. Interspersed with stylish, flawless ads for things you can't afford worn by models you can't match.

7pm: Ready to unwind with some TV. Notice how every single female character in this show is thin, beautiful, young, and white. Notice that most shows are exactly the same.

9pm: Log onto social media for break from all the photoshopped, unrealistic, impossible ideals. Fight your way through fitspo, thinspo, photoshopped, unrealistic, impossible ideals. More adverts. More diet culture.

Wake up the next day. Repeat.

HOW THE HELL ARE ANY OF US SUPPOSED TO FEEL ANYTHING OTHER THAN TERRIBLE ABOUT OURSELVES FACING THAT EVERYDAY?! AND HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO SHOW A COMPLETELY BRAINWASHED POPULATION THAT THEY DON'T HAVE TO BUY INTO IT?! The scariest part is that those are just the things that people have paid to make us see. What about all the moments that the media gives birth to from that? All the overheard conversations about how naughty someone was having dessert last night. All the diet talk and weight loss competition in the street, at work, at home. All the moments alone with our mirrors tearing ourselves to pieces because of how little we look like those images we've seen all day long (those images we've internalised as the only way to be beautiful, or happy). Seriously, how are we supposed to stand up against that?

Sure, you can curate body positive spaces on your social media and drown out a lot of the bullshit, but offline, in the real world, sometimes there's just no escaping it. So throw away the magazine. Turn off the TV. Get an ad blocker on your computer and report harmful Facebook suggestions. Eat the regular sandwich and refuse to rationalise or apologize for it. Vandalize the posters and write self love slogans instead. Write to companies calling them out on their ridiculous diet propaganda. Change seats on the train. Put your headphones on. Protect your own mental health, especially when your bopo resources feel depleted.

And if it wasn't hard enough to fight for what you believe in through all of that, there are always people in your life who refuse to see the problem, and who are more than willing to criticise what you see so clearly.

2. The Ones Who You Thought Would Support You

Recently I found out that one of my oldest friends said 'I don't really get Megan's whole body positivity thing' to another friend. This is someone who I've had multiple conversations with about it. Someone who's celebrated good bopo news with me. Someone who (worst of all), knew me when I was a hollow shell of myself battling anorexia, knew me when I was crash dieting, knew me for years while I hated myself... how could she not get it? Other friends have made comments about how body positivity just seems like excuse to be fat and unhealthy. Other friends still won't stop talking about their diets around me. Other friends have told me I'm going a bit too far. Other friends have never even mentioned body positivity to me, pretend they haven't noticed my Instagram, have never read a single blog post or shown any support for the thing that's saved my life. And that's only the tip of the iceburg.

I get messages all the time from people who's families refuse to accept them learning to love themselves. Who won't stop body shaming, food policing, belittling body positivity or even consider that their mindsets might be harmful. How do you cope when the people you thought cared for you the most, can't see how much they're hurting you? The only thing you can do is explain, as much as you have the patience for. Tell them how hard you're trying to heal yourself and how damaging what they're saying/doing is. Ask for their respect and understanding. Disengage with toxic conversations. Stand up for yourself. And if that doesn't work, you are allowed to walk away. Whether that's for good, or just until you've secured your defenses back in place. Easier said than done, I know. Just know that nobody has the right to take your self love from you. No matter how much they try to convince you that you're wrong, remember that there are people out there who know how right you are. And who will stand with you.

3. The Trolls

Even if you manage to claw your way through the diet culture, the poisonous media messages, the day to day reminders that you're not good enough, the disbelief and misunderstanding from those around you, and you build the confidence to stand up for self love online and inspire others, the backlash isn't over. I won't give trolls too much time here, because they don't deserve it. Just know that you are so much more than anything a stranger on the internet with a private account and profile picture of a car can say to you. The problem isn't you, it's them, and whatever insecurities they're dealing with that make them feel the need to try and bring you down. 

Block and delete. Always. Nine times out of ten engaging with a troll will only leave you feeling deflated, angry, upset, and disappointed in the world. Remember that all a troll wants is a negative reaction, they don't want an open minded discussion, they want to get to you. Don't let them. And the thing that's going to piss them off the most? Carry on. Keep standing up for what you believe in. And if you need to log out for the day, turn the phone off and ignore it all, you have permission to do that. Put. Your. Mental. Health. First.

For everyone out there who occasionally feels the bopo burnout, the fat acceptance failures, the self love lethargy, you're not alone. This is your reminder that what you're fighting for IS worthwhile, and that you ARE capable of carrying on the battle. And that most of all, it's okay if you need to take the armour off once in a while and hide away from the war zone. Again, it is really fucking hard to stand up for something that most of the world refuses to acknowledge, believe, or respect. You're allowed to feel that. But ultimately, I know you'll keep going. I need you to keep going. Even if we don't make a dent, we can still make a difference. We can still hold onto our integrity, and stand up for what we believe in. You are more powerful than you realise, and the world needs you (even if it doesn't know it yet).

This post is part of the Confidence Blog Carnival hosted by Victoria of (@bampowlife). Victoria asked a bunch of badass bopo babes to contribute to this project, so go check her out to see more blog posts all about confidence!