January is the month when the diet and beauty industries ratchet up to full throttle in a concerted effort to convince us that we need to change ourselves. It’s time to pay the price for indulging in the delights their colleagues in the food and drink industries plied us with over Christmas, so we must join that gym, drink that shake and transform ourselves into “better” versions of ourselves.
The fact that we’re lining their pockets is merely coincidental, I’m sure, but it isn’t in the diet and beauty industries’ interest to make us feel good about ourselves, because there are billions of euros to be made from women’s insecurities. I wonder if they’re beginning to sense a sea of change afoot though, because many of us are getting extremely bored of being told that we’re not good enough – we are – and we need to be changed – we don’t.
When I was younger, I took all of these diets and negative messages to heart, and genuinely thought my life would be amazing if I was thinner. I started a diet every January and my weight went up and down. but my life stayed exactly the same. It took many years for me to realise that obsessing over weight and dieting is pointless.
As a journalist and former music PR, I have conducted photoshoots with countless beautiful, talented and successful women. And what shocked me into sense around my own appearance was that even the most genetically-blessed women were obsessing over some minor physical flaw or other that I couldn’t even see.
So I was delighted when top model and food expert, Roz Purcell, did something recently that was actually genuinely refreshing. She was posting videos of herself working out on holiday in Bali at Christmas, and while normally I’d be eye-rolling and wishing she’d sit down and eat a selection box, one day she posted about the reality of the cellulite and stretch marks on her legs and bottom.
I was so surprised because we normally wouldn’t be aware that this vision of beauty and fitness has the same issues as the rest of us. Then she threw up a video showing the reality of how pancake flat her stomach is when she sucks it in for a photo, and then how it forms a tiny pot belly shape when she relaxes it.
And guess what? She may be a stunningly beautiful goddess by anyone’s standards, but even Roz Purcell doesn’t look like Roz Purcell without the tricks of the trade and she suffers with issues around confidence too. “It’s only in the past two years that I can confidently walk past someone in a bikini or shorts and not cringe inside thinking that they’re probably looking at all my cellulite and stretch marks,” she said.
I think that was a fabulous message to send to the many young women following her who may be agonising over perceived flaws or hating their bodies. Bravo Roz, because these are the kind of messages influencers need to be sending out, rather than shilling products that claim to have all sorts of magical properties to eliminate what they claim are our “problem” areas.
Roz is tapping into a kind of revolution that I see happening online that I’m really loving. The tide is turning against these images of perfection that constantly assail us, and we’re craving content – and people – that are natural and real. Just as the #fitfam and diet industry are launching their annual campaign to sign us up to expensive and futile weight-loss and body transformation programmes, some of the sounder voices on Instagram are calling out the bullshit.
Rebecca Flynn (aka @flynnfluencer ) has long been an advocate for body positivity, and having done battle online all week on the subject of fatphobia, the inspirational mum-of-two published a fabulous photo in her underwear to reinforce the message that fat bodies deserve respect, love and kindness. “Reminder that you don’t have to pursue weight loss (but if you do it’s so understandable given the culture we live in), that you are a not a bad person if your body is bigger or ageing or myriad other reasons it might not fit society’s unbelievably limited view of what a body “should” look like,” she said. “You don’t owe anyone your health, you can eat whatever you like, and you are so much more than a “before” photo and all the noise that’s out there at the moment telling you to shrink yourself.”
When it comes to myself, I’m aware that being my size might be the stuff of nightmares for anyone whose self-esteem is based on their weight or appearance, but it honestly doesn’t bother me. I’ve come to learn that it’s far more important to feel mentally well and at peace with yourself, and fully believe that not being unhappy over my body has a direct correlation to how well I feel. This body serves me well and rarely lets me down, so I wouldn’t insult it by disliking it. And before you start predicting my imminent heart attack, my good health has been medically confirmed, so you needn’t come at me with that one.
Our society doesn’t want to endorse that view though because we’re constantly fed the notion that the only acceptable body is a slim one. Or you can replace “slim” with “lean and strong”, which is another tyranny designed to have us spending all our money on gym memberships and protein shakes. The reality is that whether we’re fat or slim or somewhere in between, everyone has a wonderful body if it’s one that does its job well.
Yet every time I am asked on TV or radio to discuss an issue around weight – with the exception of the Elaine show on Virgin Media One – it always descends into me having to defend a tired old obesity = unhealthy narrative. Although the last time I was on with Ivan Yates and Matt Cooper discussing the Tess Holliday Cosmo cover, I was surprised and delighted when Dr Ciara Kelly said that that “health is the stick that is used to beat people who are fat and fat-shame them.”
She also said that she thinks the some of the very slim models who have featured on the cover of fashion magazines “are unhealthy, they are stick thin, they are anorexic, their periods have stopped, they’ve rendered themselves infertile, they have osteoporosis”.
That’s not trying to shame very slim people, by the way, but just a reminder that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
By her own admission, popular Instagrammer Sarah Gorry (@sarsiebell) is very aware of her privilege as a small-bodied person. However, she recently posted a pic of herself when she was size 4, at a time when she was suffering with postnatal depression and her mum had been diagnosed with dementia aged 60.
“In this pic my life was beginning to crumble,” she says. “It was the beginning of my disordered eating. Around this time, I started to vomit multiple times a day. I ate very little. I smoked a lot. But why would anyone care about my health when I was skinny, right? I’m a totally different person today. I’m happy and content and although I miss my mam dreadfully, some days I eat for her. Knowing she would love that privilege to be able to enjoy a cream cake again. Life is too f*****g short. Stop ruining your own happiness for the sake of a flat stomach.”
Sarah has become a huge advocate for women’s rights and body positivity, and says that when she started to feed her hunger, her body changed, as did her happiness levels. “Here’s to all of us who swapped starvation for bread rolls and belly rolls,” she said, posting her picture as part of Rebecca Flynn’s #selfesteemsaturday movement.
It was a timely post as Instagram and advertising spreads are awash with transformational “before” and “after” photos. This annoys many of us, because for lots of people, the “before” photos actually depict bodies that are smaller than we are now. “Transformation pics imply “good” and “bad” bodies, which is a horrible way to approach the wonders that are our physical selves,” says the amazing Gill Roddie (@sciencesnapstories). “They perpetuate toxic diet culture and weight loss at any cost.”
Gill recently posted an old photo of herself after she had lost weight following what she called “eight weeks of horribly disordered eating, six gym sessions per week, daily cardio, no life and no friends.” “I was celebrating body dysmorphia and an eating disorder,” she says. “I was literally the opposite of healthy and I regained 15 kilos within six months.”
As a scientist, Gill has a very analytical approach and always talks huge sense, so when she says that research since 1959 shows that up to 97 per cent of people who lose weight regain it (and often more) within five years, I’m listening. Gill agrees that saying that obesity = unhealthy is misinformed and pejorative, and says that someone’s size provides us with literally no information about their health, personality and intelligence.
I say amen to that, and let’s all eat the cake this month and tell the shake-sellers and gym- peddlers to back off. Nobody is saying that you are wrong for wanting to lose weight or get fitter, if that will genuinely make you feel better. But do it because you choose to and not because certain industries have a vested interest in convincing you that you simply must "improve" yourself.
All bodies are wonderful, no matter what shape or size they are, despite the fact that we’ve been conditioned to believe that we must fit into a very narrow view of what women should look like. It’s nonsense because we’re perfect exactly as we are and that’s the “transformational” message we actually need to spread this month.