When you reach a point in your life when you can say you’re happy, that you’re good with how things are, well that’s something I think. What happens though when you reach that goal and actually, you’re still not very happy?
I talk a lot about body image, and mental health, and being happy with who you are and being real and what not. It’s something that I am passionate about, and really believe in. But I wasn’t always like this. I wasn’t always able to say, with such conviction ‘Hey this is me. This is who I am, this is what I believe’. And some days, I still don’t believe it.
A while ago, I fell victim to the belief that I could, quite easily, look like the impossibly perfect fitness models that litter my social media feeds on the regular. I wanted to look like that. Specifically, I wanted to look like the incredibly sculpted, six-pack girls that adorn Instagram and the like and make us all feel slightly inferior each time we come across one of their posts. These girls were dedicated, and focused, and I believed that if I showed the same level of dedication and #beastmode mentality then I too would achieve the washboard abs that I so desired, and in turn, I would be happy.
I embarked on a rigorous regime of exercise and diet restriction. At first, nothing happened. Nothing physically anyway. But I was in control. Slowly, the changes came, I lost weight, I became more toned, you could see some definition happening. People were complimentary, which just reassured me that what I was doing was ok. I’d just had a baby, I was breastfeeding and I was in the best ‘shape’ of my life. It fed the monster that lurks inside.
When you feed monsters, they grow, and they grow. And as the weight came off and the bones became more prominent, the control tightened. I weighed my food, I ate nothing that was processed. I took little plastic pots full of luke-warm protein oats to PT sessions with me. I drank water, and only water.
I thought about food all the time. It was the only thing I focused on. How I looked in the mirror and what I was putting my body through was all consuming, I didn’t care about anything else. My periods stopped. I didn’t sleep, I was irritable. I was lonely, all the time. No-one else got it so therefore I didn’t talk about it.
It became more about being this way because this was the girl people thought I was. I was the super fit one, who managed to work out every day and eat clean and could squat heavier than all her friends.
On one of the lowest days, I went to bed on a surplus of 82 calories. Having burnt off everything else I had eaten that day.
“But you tell us that’s dangerous Sarah” said one of my friends.
“Yes but, I’m seeing how far I can push it” I said.
And still the alarm bells didn’t ring.
In the end, I got abs. And I still wasn’t happy. I didn’t wake up with a six-pack and have everything slot into place. And so I floundered, unsure why everything I had placed my faith in had failed.
I was sterilised around this time and a result of that has been unexpected weight gain, one of the side effects that can sometimes happen. My body quite literally forced me to accept that I was getting bigger whether I like it or not. I gained two stone. And no, I don’t have abs anymore. Am I sad about that? Honestly? Yes. A little bit. I do harbour dreams of getting them back, of regaining the physique of old because actually, my mental health isn’t perfect all the time. Some days I want to look like that because I believe I look inferior now, that it makes me lesser somehow. That being as I am now makes me less desirable somehow.
But here’s the thing; I wasn’t happy with abs either. In fact I was so insecure that you couldn’t have paid me any money in the world to get naked in front of another human. These days, I am much curvier, I need to wear a bra for example. But I still have moments where if I’m getting changed I mentally will my boyfriend out the room so he can’t see my ‘fat bits’. I was busy chattering away to him last week, going on at a million miles an hour about a hundred different things as I do and he says “God you’re beautiful with your hair down” and all I could think was “No I’m not, I’m too fat”.
Self image isn’t fixed by getting the body you want.
Because body image isn’t physical. It’s mental. It’s self acceptance. Manipulating your boy to do whatever you want will not make you happy, if you don’t already like yourself.
I had a hospital appointment this week that in a way has made me realise that I might have to accept that this, slightly heavier, less toned body that I have isn’t going anywhere. It was fleetingly sobering. But so was the six-pack. There was a moment where I thought shit I don’t want to be this size. And then I thought, well so what if I am.
I’m healthy. I eat basically what I want, some days I am very conscious about what I put into my body, other days I eat entire tubs of ice cream. I exercise, and I am still ‘fit’, in that if you asked me to run a half marathon right now then I would and would hopefully be ok. I have regular periods now, and have enough energy to not cry at the slightest thing. And, I do not spend every minute of my day thinking about food. My body is happy.
And my mind is happy. No longer fixated on having to be a certain way, I have come to the realisation that what I needed to make me happy I had the whole time. It was never going to be found in a kale smoothie or after 100 burpees. Don’t get me wrong I love those things, but I no longer need those things to be happy every day.
Self acceptance is one of the hardest things to achieve, because it forces us to take some responsibility for ourselves. We can’t blame the diet or the gym or anyone else. You’re not unhappy because you don’t have a six pack, and actually what if, getting one won’t make you happy either? Then it becomes about accountability of our own minds.
And it’s not easy. I am the first person to admit that some days I look in the mirror and I don’t like what I see. I wish I had smaller hips. I wish I had smaller thighs. I wish my arms were more toned. But on those days when I look in the mirror there stands before me a woman who is alive, who is healthy, who is so grateful for her kids and her fitness and her work/life balance and her complimentary boyfriend. Regardless of what weight I am. My hips might not be Instagram friendly but then if I had to choose between this and the life of old, then I would choose this. Every time.