When I was 11, a boy at school that I secretly liked called me fat. Although I was upset, this was not the first time I had heard this word caste in my direction. You see, this was my occasional nickname at home. “Fatty”. My brothers, as boys do, enjoyed teasing me with it. Because, as I was convinced, it was true.
In some ways, that nickname has haunted me into my adult life. Sometimes so much so that I start to believe it; when I’m having a bad day or see a beautiful girl on the street. She must have it right. She must love her body, herself, and just all around love life and all that it is.
But then I tell myself ‘no’. This is not the truth or how it should be. This is just what the world wants me – wants women – to believe. That they, and their bodies, are not good enough. That no matter what they look like, they can always be better.
When I was just 13, I lost 5 kilos for my school social. My friends, thin as most of them were, ooed and ahhed. It was my biggest life achievement to date. I felt proud. As an incentive, I had a note on my mirror in my bedroom that I had put there saying YOU ARE FAT. This was meant to motivate me further in my weight-loss venture.
At 15, I’d taken up the recreational habit of starving myself. Never to the extreme, but enough to pass out one day assumedly because I had a lack of blood sugar. I remember it being during my preparation of my once-a-day skinny banana shake (did you know skinny milk makes you skinny?).
At 17, I lost around 13 kilos for my school ball (getting over that ‘perfect 10’ was important to me). I looked great. I also pretty much ate the entire dessert display at the ball dinner (presumably due to my famishment). That’s success! 😉
I have had dreams where I have gone back to little me, little Catherine, and told her how wonderful she is. “Don’t fret, my dear, you’re beautiful”, older Catherine says. But of course, blinded by self-judgement, this was a voice I never heard. Later, teenage me would look into the mirror and try to look into the future and see what 20, 25, 30 year old Catherine would look like (it’s hard to see beyond that when you’re 14). I hoped desperately that I was beautiful, slim, perfect. All the guys would want me, and then it would all be better.
On one of our first dates, my husband-then-boyfriend asked me casually (and totally well-meaningly) while we were at the beach in our bathers, “How much do you weigh?” I was horrified. Poor him, he was just explaining how he struggles to gain weight (yes, the opposite problem – the lottery of the gene pool hey?) and so he needs to take protein powder and go to the gym to “get buff”.
See, what I hadn’t really learnt by this point is that I thought it was only me that struggled with ‘image’. Or at least, only women that didn’t look like women in the magazines. But now (hopefully with some perspective), I’m going to go out on a limb and say the majority of people in our society struggle with body image in one way or another. And the mixed messages we get about embracing our imperfections whilst perfectionism is shoved down our throats through every medium possible can only exacerbate our confusion and inertia. We are led to think that beauty and attractiveness and being the perfect weight is an objective, perfect, achievable state, yet we never know when we actually get there. Case in point: no matter what size, shape, hair colour, look of our face, gender, sex we are – or how much weight we lose – most of us struggle and most of us can feel inadequate. On the scales or in the street or in the gym or at work or anywhere. So really, I’m no unicorn.
My family has always had issues with “weight”, as we whisper. In fact, it’s the cornerstone of achievement to lose it and the epitome of failure to gain it. There was a fear of carbs in our house, only for the women of course, as they were ‘evil’. There was skinny milk, and there were never lollies (which, naturally, I gorged on at the school canteen when Mum wasn’t there). There was cheering with every kilo female’s dropped.
Life is sometimes a constant battle to ignore and suppress this kind of negative teaching. Yet sometimes I do really well. I have days, weeks and even months when I don’t really think about it. I live my life. I enjoy food and exercise and I’m happy. I have times when I genuinely believe that I’m sexy and beautiful, where I learn to embrace all of me.
But then something prompts it. I see that “perfect” girl again, I see a photo of myself at the beach, I read about the latest ‘how to get super skinny quick’ fad, or I hear something someone says with highly raised eyebrows, “did you hear that she gained…?” And then BAM – I’m stopping carbs, quitting sugar, exercising a little obsessively, silently pretending I’m better than that woman who is a little bigger than me.
So what do I – do we – do about this? And even more so – how do I step outside of my comfort zone through this? I could get naked in public (wowza!), but to be honest it’s not the nakedness per se that scares me that much. (And this is probably not that fun for my extremely supportive husband!) It’s showing and telling people that I – and my body – will always be, to the ‘world’, imperfect. And to me, that number on the scales represents that.
So that is why I avoid it. That thing during a medical where you have to weigh yourself after a big lunch and wearing your sports shoes so you’ll weigh more than you would naked before food or a shower in the morning? Horrifying. See, imperfection is a lot easier to hide when I’m wearing nice, flattering clothes and pretty makeup and of course, am no where near a set of scales. Anyone can look and sound next to perfect with the right equipment.
So here goes. To you, I reveal myself. I’m Catherine, I weigh 64 kilos , and although I am smaller than the ‘average’ Australian woman, I am a hell of a lot bigger than any of the models you see in most magazines. My bottom half giggles. I have grabbable thighs, pimple scars on my cheeks, eczema on my arms and toenails that are naturally clear. But I’m healthy, and I earnestly try to be happy.
So why is simply telling you this my getting #steppedout event? Because this is something that I don’t even tell my husband, my mother, my doctor (if I can avoid it) and even myself. This is me learning to embrace me. And that is exactly it, we all need to find our own way in this – in the path away from perfection-seeking and towards unconditional self-acceptance. So I encourage you, no matter what your journey is, your body is, your situation is – embrace, accept and love. Do this, and you will find more beauty in yourself than you may ever have thought possible.