Chasing a perfect reflection: my personal relationship with body image
'Think of the dress'.
An innocent phrase, only four words, and yet, there is a lot of meaning behind them.
It was a repeated mantra that came to my mind ever since my eighteenth birthday, specifically before the first debutante, or 'debs', ball, when it was a night of dancing, celebrating exam results and, of course, posing for photographs that will be framed for viewing forever.
Who doesn't want to look pristine and perfect on the night of their debs? It has become an unofficial rite of passage for Irish girls, who are continuing forward into adulthood and beyond.
It was a personal goal to reach, to be able to look like a princess on the night, to be able to fit into a unique turquoise silk gown with a silver beaded bodice specially bought in Dublin and brought back down to Cork by a mother and daughter in a fit of giddy excitement.
'Think of the dress'.
So I thought of the dress each time I went to the gym and did the weight-lifting, treadmill-walking and cross-trainer routines.
I thought of the dress each time I was tempted by a biscuit or a bar of chocolate.
I thought of the dress each time I looked in the mirror when I brushed my hair and tilted my head up that bit more so I did not have a double-chin.
It hung on the back of my door as a constant reminder, and indeed, I was thinking about it constantly, to be able to slip perfectly into it and have the zipper glide up my back without a single catch.
It was a goal kept firmly in mind to push through the exertion and the exercise for several weeks, up until the moment the appointed night arrived, when it fit like a dream, much to my relief.
Thinking back now, I wonder if the dress was a genuine cause for determination, a hill that I had to climb, or if I was stressed or upset at any time.
Perhaps I had the vitality of youth as a teenager, paired with the single-minded resilience of a girl who had something to achieve: to be beautiful on a special night.
It has been something that I have continued to unconsciously chase for much of my adult life, and it did not ever become something that was potentially toxic or dangerous to my physical health.
Never once did it occur to me that such an intense exercise regime and attitude to food would translate into something negative.
Never once did I ever contemplate that I had a bad body image. Wanting to be beautiful does not translate into a bad body image.
Or so I thought, until a slightly alarming wake-up call over four years later.
It was the year 2012 and I was spending an Erasmus exchange year abroad in Strasbourg, France, to study French and civil law legal system. It was an amazing opportunity for any person who studies a language in university, as it is the immersion in everyday living and being surrounded
by native speakers, to improve pronunciation and ultimately, to experience that culture first-hand.
It was my first time being away from home for such a long stretch of time, and in fact, the first extended period of cooking for myself regularly. While at home, my mum would provide me with delicious meals to 'feed my brains' while studying for the Leaving Certificate exams, and ultimately, end of year exams in university, so I was blessed with that great luxury.
Whether it was my penchant for simple meals or my lack of experience making complicated dishes, combined with a brief bout of homesickness and a low level of self-esteem, the daily routine of walking to and from university as well as not eating sugar-filled snacks, all led to me losing a lot of weight in the months leading up to Christmas, 2011.
My dress size shrank to a generous size 12, dropping two sizes over the whole year by the time I left Strasbourg to return home.
I have never invested in weighing scales, so I cannot recall what my actual weight was. The fit of clothes was the only point of reference to be had, as well as how my figure appeared when I looked in the mirror or when I snapped a quick selfie.
It was quite a transformation, but it worried my parents to see me lose so much weight after being away for an extended amount of time.
But I was happy, or quite content, at first: feeling my hipbones when I put my hands on my waist in a pose before a night out, having no fear of a double-chin and seeing my cheekbones that bit more inspired a sense of vanity, that I had managed to lose this weight all by myself without a gym, without a trainer, but under my own steam, dedication and discipline.
Having fostered this sense of making the grade, of achieving a high standard working hard with academic exams, my accomplishment was validated.
I looked great, so naturally, I should feel great. That's what it meant to be a slim person. I was supposed to be happy.
Yet it was on my return home that this weight change was looked at more closely, and it was with dismay that we noticed that my hair had lost some of its lustre and had become quite lank, given that I had not had a haircut for the whole year.
On top of that, my skin was pale, my energy levels were low and my nails were more prone to weakness and breakage.
While I had lost weight and reached a goal of a size 12, which may have been an unconscious goal and the 'ideal' size projected into my mind, the lack of proper vitamins and a balanced diet had made itself known in my hair, skin and nails.
I did not look well, despite being thinner and fitting into clothes and having a more slim silhouette.
But that was what I wanted, right? In hindsight, it was misguided, at the very least.
It was a sad day to admit that I had not been taking care of myself, that such a dieting practice snuck up on me and brought me to that point. It was a blessing to have a generous, understanding mother who did not chastise me, only encouraged me to take this as an important lesson and to be aware of what restricting food does.
So we cooked meals together, found recipes that I could recreate on my own and in doing so, came back to the size I was before I left for my Erasmus year, with more multivitamins and essential oils in my diet and less sugary snacks.
I was back on track in a sense, but it was not without its regrets.
Truthfully, this tale from my time spent abroad is an introduction to something that I feel the need to share, particularly during this stage of my life when my career is about to get underway, when the days of academic exams are behind me, and I have new goals to reach.
In doing so, it is often best to step outside of the comfort zone and to be authentic in telling my story, to show what tends to happen behind the camera when a selfie is taken, for example.
Something I would like to demonstrate is how my state of mind was being affected by my body image and how I felt about it as follows:-
In this photo, taken by a professional photographer on the day of my conferring from University College Cork in October 2013, you can see a young woman holding her parchment with a bright smile, wearing her favourite Pandora charm bracelet and looking forward to a bright future working as a solicitor one day.
My family are nearby, watching on with pride and happiness, as I took my steps across the UCC Quad with the rest of my conferring class, ready for the next stage of life.
Fast forward to two and a half years later, this is a selfie that I randomly snapped one day in my bedroom when my hair was freshly washed and my makeup fixed, attempting to emulate a model's pose with the hand leaning on one side of my head.
Yet this girl is experiencing constant imposter syndrome, a plague of self-doubt, and a deep, deep worry that she will not be able to find a training contract. She is feeling low and isolated from the legal profession.
When you look at those two photos, there is a difference between them that I will highlight right now: in the selfie, I am barely smiling and my eyes are not bright, whereas, in my conferring portrait, I am glowing, full of bright hope.
Yet those photos also have something in common. In both moments, during those two separate points of my life, I did not feel comfortable with how I looked.
Whether it was hiding behind a face of makeup or putting a cute filter over my selfies on Instagram to disguise my true features, I did not feel confident at all.
It was an uphill battle to feel beautiful, to be smaller, to look like the women who adorned fashion magazines and existed in fictional movies and television shows and even to compare with my female peers who were slimmer.
Lofty fitness goals, and guilt about eating 'too much' led me to not liking my body very much. I did not feel worthy of love or success. I felt average and invisible, my head buried in books and wearing baggy clothes to hide my arms and my middle.
Photographs that I did not take myself in that strategic fashion where I tilted my head a certain way and only from the top half of my body were scrutinised, and the conclusion would always be a negative one, regardless of whether my makeup and hair were in place or if my dress was a beautiful design or colour. My eyes would instantly be drawn to areas I was not happy with.
During those choices moments when posing for photographs at events, I could always recall holding myself in, of doing an imaginary plank so my figure could look somewhat appealing or ensuring that my arms were hovering out from my body so my upper arms could look even slightly more toned than what they actually were.
But eventually, things began to change around me, when I was able to move forward with my career and joined the EducoGym kickstart fitness programme to improve fitness and lose weight, which helped me gain a better understanding of how strong my body was, how it was not all about what dress size I was, but how I felt on the inside and how it was projected to the outside.
Something I have come to realise is that no matter how I physically appeared, whether overweight or not, what truly matters is how I feel on the inside, what my thoughts are and how I am speaking to myself.
There was no point in slimming down just to fit into a certain beauty standard when the intention I set at the very beginning was a negative one born out of self-loathing.
So it was time to make a change and find better ways to stay active, to nourish my body with important vitamins and nutrients, to improve my relationship with food and ultimately, not to dread doing exercise.
In this journey, this is what I have discovered: I would rather work on becoming more flexible through yoga practice, express joy through kinrgy dance and Zumba, improving my posture and living my ballet dreams through barre class and taking in the countryside through daily walks listening to an enjoyable podcast.
They are little steps towards enjoying exercise and being able to release endorphins and increase adrenaline, but the mindset shift has been important. Rather than seeing exercise as a reason to make myself slimmer, it is instead a chance to improve my fitness, to become stronger and find inner calm. It is a chance for self-discovery, self-care and ultimately, self-love.
Writing this post was not an easy task to do, but it was thanks to the encouragement of friends and a sense of personal responsibility that I felt this needed to be expressed.
To be able to be brave like hundreds of thousands of women before me who have shared their struggles is something that drives me to be vulnerable and honest, in the hopes that someone may come across this one day and feel less alone.
What I hope to make crystal clear and what I believe we have to realise, as women, young girls and ladies, no matter what industry in which we are employed, our current fitness level, our ethnicity or body type, that being a certain size does not equate to perfection in any shape or form, nor should being a certain size equate to being more or less beautiful.
It has been a tough but important lesson to come to terms with for me, having not had the best relationship with my weight, for fixating on 'problem' areas and not appreciating the features of my body that make me unique as a person.
But realising what makes me uniquely myself is all part of the recovery, of the willingness to learn and improve, of accepting the flaws and imperfections that make up a unique person.
My body shape is not something to be ashamed of or to be scrutinised. While I do still have moments where I fixate on areas that I am not happy with, it is not with the intention of calling myself unattractive or someone unworthy.
Finding my personal style, embracing my shape and knowing that I must be kinder to myself has and still continues to be a process of learning, of being better and choosing that kinder way.
For anyone who is struggling with body image issues and want to find refreshing perspectives and empowering mindsets, I will link some resources of body positivity below.
As always, please consult your GP if you feel that there are more serious health issues at play or if you require professional support.
Thank you for reading and see you next time.
Links and resources:-
I Weigh Community, founded by Jameela Jamil: https://iweighcommunity.com/
Ashley Graham, American model and body positivity ambassador: https://www.instagram.com/ashleygraham/
Kara Loewentheil, mindset coach and podcast host: https://www.instagram.com/karaloewentheil/