Fantastic guest post by Vanessa Pelz-Sharpe on her journey towards being more body confident
During my first year at university I made a poster and stuck it inside the door of my wardrobe. It was a list in lurid neon sharpie of all the things I liked about my body. The entries were somewhat bizarre: my small feet, collarbones, hair, the small of my back. Whenever I got dressed I looked at this paltry collection of forgotten body parts and tried to summon some courage. This dress would look ok, in fact it would look great as it showed off my fantastic collarbones, I whispered to myself before shimmying into it. Directly opposite the wardrobe was a mirror where, having shimmied into the dress, I would turn round and inspect myself. Hips too big, thighs too fat, boobs too small, face too… too everything. Turning back to the poster I’d read the list again and again till my housemate came to get me for our night out.
Directly opposite the wardrobe was a mirror where I would turn round and inspect myself. Hips too big, thighs too fat, boobs too small, face too… too everything
I am thinking of this list and that mirror as I run along the canal in the midday sunshine. My face is bright red, I have seen it reflected in the windows of every boat I pass, there are sweat patches creeping out from under my butt cheeks and out towards the hem of my shorts, and I am tired, goddamn tired. But I am wearing shorts. And not knee length capris which aren’t really shorts but stunted long johns, but short shorts. Shorts that barely cover those ample sweaty butt cheeks. I am wearing them in public and running around where people can and do shout comments aimed at my butt as though it could reply. The list seems ridiculous now, I can’t see what is so magical about my collarbones other than that they exist. My feet are still small and I am still rather vain about them but they are also covered in chipped nail polish and have freakishly tiny toes that have frightened people in the past. As I reach the bridge which signals the middle of my run, touch it’s grimey wall and turn around, I make a new list in my head. My awesome ass, my bouncy boobs, my excellent hair, my fantastically wonky teeth, possibly even the point where my waist begins to taper dramatically towards my hips, and those hips themselves every wide waggling inch of them. My bum is bouncing in time to the music and I start to think of the journey that got me from that list to here in the blazing sun and it is a long one.
Like most women I grew up changing for P.E under my school uniform using a complicated set of moves that would put even the most seasoned contortionist to shame.
Without ever showing anything above the knee I could take my bra off, change it for a sports one, and pull a t-shirt on while unbuttoning my shirt, lest an inch of my horrific flesh feel the icy cold stares of my peers. We constructed tents out of coats and towels, and queued for toilet stalls as we discussed the latest celebrity gossip. “Did you see Britney Spears’ stomach? Disgusting” Sliding into a pair of voluminous joggers I felt my own stomach. If Britney’s was disgusting what was mine? Would people faint at the sight of it? I tightened the drawstring as hard as possible in case they fell down during netball and I was charged with the murder of dozens of innocent girls.
The end of compulsory P.E lessons did not mean an end to my body hatred. I became a voracious consumer of celebrity gossip, fascinated by the circles of shame on photos of actresses’ wobbly bits, drawing my own when bored during lectures. My friends and I read every diet book we could find and shared our results. The shame I felt in being too ‘weak-willed’ to ever truly stick to a diet burned me. I carried around books that detailed the calories in everything and filled out a notebook conscientiously adding up the totals at the end of each day like an even sadder Bridget Jones. I fell in with a crowd of girls who were thin, beautiful, and always partying. We had free tickets to a gig every night, we drank champagne in backstage rooms with rock stars and still I was unhappy. I was the biggest girl at the party, the one no-one could lend dresses to, the one I was sure boys were flirting with out of pity or desperation. It was, as you can imagine, a waste of a wonderful time.
There was no one turning point in my life, no lightbulb moment where I suddenly realised that life had to change, instead it came drip by drip.
The first drop was when I stopped hanging out with my usual office lunch buddies. We had had a row about Octomom of all people and the next day I decided I didn’t want to eat with them, so as a group of lads who I drank with sometimes after work passed on their way to the park I squealed “Can I come too?” To their, and my, surprise it was the best fun we’d ever had. There were no discussions of new gym classes or cereal bars, instead we talked office gossip and music. The more I hung out with them chatting about things that had more substance than rice crackers the more I loathed those discussions. When friends brought up the latest fad diet I would sigh and ask if we could change the topic. I found myself reading my usual stack of rag mags with a frown and skipping the investigations of soap stars’ fridges in favour of crosswords and those crazy real life stories about people who’s dogs ate their children.
Having left the body fascists and dross journalism behind I did feel a void though. The need to look at beautiful dresses and read about lipstick shades ran strong in me so I took to the internet. Thrashing about on the internet I found blogs where women of all sizes were wearing bikinis and skin tight skirts with joyful abandon. I put them in my blog reader and every day I as I read the news and kept up with all my high brow blogs about food and books, there was a beautiful woman with her jiggly bits flying free and loving it. Sometimes it was weird, and sometimes I definitely didn’t agree with their choices (in fact I still don’t like black lipstick on anyone), but the drip drip of their confidence was wearing away my old view points.
As the mantra that every body is a beautiful body ran through my mind I found myself behaving differently.
Every summer I was the first to suggest a trip to the lido, on the dancefloor I was bumping and grinding with everyone else, and before dates I was pouting into the mirror enjoying my own reflection rather than tugging my dress nervously. Sashaying out with that new verve made people react differently. Dates lavished me with compliments, friends raved about my new style, people on the internet asked me for advice about how to feel good about themselves too! Did it stop the cat callers and the douchebags who told me that I should lose weight or put on something looser or longer? Hell no. However it did mean that it began to feel like water off a duck’s back. I started to pity these people and their sad judgemental attitudes. I remembered when I was that girl side eyeing a girl with her gut stretching out a skin tight dress and I remembered how it felt to be that girl: shitty.
Taking control of my body image was a way to take back the ownership of my body. It didn’t belong to the name callers, or the media, or the bitchy girls in the changing room, it belonged to me.
It wasn’t a lumpen piece of wood waiting to be whittled into a tiny piece of beauty. It was brilliant in it’s own right. And so I turned to exercise. Having always felt it was something out of reach, something only toned sweatless women did against dappled backdrops, I decided to give it a go. The first time I rode my bike I was so tired I had a nap once I reached my boyfriend’s house. The first time I ran I got home and lay on the hallway floor, and the first time I did aerial hoop my sister had to pull me out of an armchair as I couldn’t get out of it myself. I am not a born athlete. But each time I finished my dramatic cool down I felt a little spark in me flare. No-one had died seeing my bra as I hung upside down from the hoop. No cars had crashed when I ran across the road in leggings. And no-one had fainted as I accidentally cycled along a cars only tunnel under the Thames, though I came pretty close to doing so myself. So I got out and I did it again, and again, and again, until one day I got so excited about buying new running shorts that I got up an hour earlier than usual so I had time to test them out properly.
That morning I had begun my run wondering what was wrong with me, how I gone from that girl with the bizarre list inside her wardrobe, to this one who was sweating out of every pore, running in tiny shorts, revelling in the bomp bomp feeling of her butt jiggling. And I realised it was the total opposite: nothing was wrong with me, in fact everything was finally just right.
Vanessa Pelz-Sharpe is a writer and broadcaster. Born and bred in London, she has written for a number of independent magazines and newspapers, including The Guardian, Illustrated Ape, and Pen Pusher, and was Contributing Editor for literary magazine Full Moon Empty Sports Bag.
Title inspired by this “deeply uncool” song (though I think deeply cool). Thanks again Vanessa!