Do Children Worry About Their Bodies? A Timeline of My Body Confidence Journey, Then And Now
With the recent release of Lammily, the “normal” doll, whose proportions are far more lifelike than her predecessor Barbie, there has been a lot of chatter online about whether or not she is relevant. There are those who say Lammily isn’t needed, because children don’t have to deal with body confidence issues — they don’t worry about the portrayal of bodies in the mainstream media; it just doesn't affect them. While the Lammily idea has its flaws (she still only comes in one color; her weight is more representative of women, but certainly not of all women), I still feel she could be a stepping stone to a whole line of Barbies of all races, shapes, and sizes. The idea certainly has potential. Though of course, if someone did create a fat doll you can guarantee they would be accused of “glorifying obesity” (yawn).
I am 27 years old, and my feelings about my body have changed drastically over the years. I have loved my body, then hated it, then loved it again. This includes during my childhood, and I know that I am not alone. There are huge numbers of children who suffer with eating disorders, body dysmorphia, or both. No one can tell me that these kids “don’t have to worry about that stuff” because honestly, such an attitude is a dangerous one to take. More than anyone, children need to learn at a young age that their bodies do not need to fit a mould — that they are worthy of love, respect, and compassion regardless of their shape, size, or general appearance. In my experience, children are not taught such things. Rather, boys are supposed to grow up to be big and strong — to be manly — whilst girls are taught that they must be petite, but with a very specific ratio of curves. They should be feminine; they should be smaller than men; they should be "pretty."
I am a fat woman, but I was not a fat child. Nonetheless, that does not mean that I didn’t worry about my body or how I looked. Far from it. So let's start at the beginning, in something of a timeline of body image and body confidence.
I was born nine weeks premature, weighing 3.5 pounds, and being very weak. This was 1987, and although medical science has come a long way since then, my odds of survival were slim at the time. My lungs had both collapsed, and I couldn’t breathe for myself. But thanks to the care of some incredible nurses and doctors, I survived. From Day One, my body was a difficult one to live in, but it was also stronger than it seemed. I'm very thankful that I remember nothing from those first few arduous months.
Few of us have many memories of ourselves before the five-year-old mark (I don’t, anyway). But around that time, things begin to come into focus. During my early childhood, my parents mutually agreed to divorce and my dad moved out — leaving my mom, my little sister, and me at home. We still saw him regularly, of course, but it was obviously not the same as it had once been. It was around this age that I first remember my mother dieting. She had been fat throughout my life, though I don’t recall whether or not I was particularly aware of (or bothered by) it. But what I do recall is it bothering her. This is when I first learned that being fat was A. Very. Bad. Thing.
At eight years old, my father was tragically killed in an accident whilst on a business trip in Switzerland. He was only 34 years old, and left behind two young daughters who weren’t quite emotionally mature enough to truly understand the magnitude of what was happening to them. My mom remarried the following summer, and my sister and I were bridesmaids. I didn’t have very many friends at this time. Being somewhat awkward and particularly precocious, I found it difficult to relate to children my own age and preferred the company of adults. Sometime this year, I learned that I was short (or at least shorter than other girls my age). Part of this was down to the fact that the other girls were allowed to wear shoes with a slight heel to school, but my mom had given me a categorical NO in this department. So I felt short and dumpy with my a bloated tummy and bad posture (not unlike Olive in Little Miss Sunshine). My new stepfather’s mother would scold my sister and me about our bad posture, telling us to “suck it in” because “no one wants to see all that belly."
The first signs of my breasts beginning to develop appeared when I was 10 years old. Before my eleventh birthday, I was wearing wired bras. At my school, changing for PE class meant doing it in the classroom, at your desk, boys and girls together. I felt incredibly self-conscious about my boobs coming in and mastered the art of putting on a tank top without removing my school sweater quite quickly. I was the only girl in my class (and even in my year) who was wearing a “proper” bra, and I was miserable. My darling younger sister found this very amusing and bribed a friend of hers to chase me around the playground at lunchtimes, chanting “BRA WEARER! BRA WEARER” at the top of his voice. This sounds kind of funny now, 17 years later, but at the time I was horrified. And I was so angry with my body for not behaving itself and developing so quickly.
Here in the U.K., you move up from primary school to secondary school (or high school) at the age of 11. The oldest children in the school will usually be 16, unless there is a sixth form, in which case they will be 18. At 11 years old, I felt the shortest I have ever felt. The 16-year-old kids were enormous, whereas I was insignificant, and incredibly intimidated. My mom still picked out my clothes for me, so whilst other girls my age were wearing bootcut trousers with heeled shoes and fitted blouses, I wore a shin-length skirt, flat shoes, and a boxy shirt. I was not allowed to wear any makeup or nail polish either. And all of this made me something of a social pariah. Though I had the curvier body, I felt like a child surrounded by women who were far more “worldly” than I. And at 11 years old, I began to pull my hair out.
By age 13, I was allowed to wear clothes of my choosing (I still couldn't wear very high heels, but up to an inch was acceptable). Of course, I chose a pair of bootcut trousers, a fitted blouse and a pair of ankle boots with a low heel. And when I arrived at school that Monday in my new outfit, the reaction I got from my classmates was overwhelmingly positive (to my 13-year-old brain at least). They all said how great I looked; how much better it all was. One girl stopped in her tracks when she saw me and exclaimed, "OH MY GOD! Sarah Martindale is wearing something fashionable!" By now my breasts had become even more developed and I wore a size 34C. I began to receive attention from boys, which I was pleased with. But on shopping trips with friends, we would try on the same outfits and I would wish for a figure like theirs — more slender, less curvy. They were all a size 4 or 6 at the most, but although my waist was as narrow as theirs, my hips and bust meant I had to wear an 8. The silly thing is, they probably wished for my curves.
Just before my fourteenth birthday, we moved to a new and much smaller town, where fashion and beauty rules were completely different to where we had come from. This culture shock was intense and I had to relearn what my classmates would expect of me in terms of how I looked. It turned out that I was deemed a "chav," although I didn’t yet know the word. And that meant that I was limited to socializing with a specific group of people in school: the ones who dressed the way I did. Coming from a far larger town, I was now the “worldly” one, which was exciting and strange for me. And where the girls in my former school had all been very similar in terms of their body shapes, the girls in this one were all different. There were incredibly petite girls with narrow hips and small busts, but very tall girls with chunky thighs and broad shoulders. I fit in somewhere in the middle, which made a pleasant change. But I would still only compare myself to the smaller ones, wishing for their little bodies that would allow boys to pick them up and carry them around if they wanted to.
By the time I was 16 years old, I was a size 10. I felt enormous. My shoulders seemed broad; my bust was still growing; my hips were getting wider by the minute. It never once occurred to me that my body was acceptable to anyone, and I would stand in front of the mirror trying to suck in my stomach as hard as I could, watching it retract back past the front of my ribcage. I would lie in bed trying to feel my hipbones, my collar bones, my ribs. I wanted to know why I didn’t have back dimples. My godmother had told me a few years earlier that if you could hold a pencil underneath your breasts that meant they were saggy. I was horrified when I failed the pencil test. I could have held my entire pencil case under there.
At 16, I also had my first serious boyfriend, and decided I was going to lose my virginity to him. On the day, I undressed myself, and as I did so, I sheepishly asked him not to look at my body because, “I don’t like it." The idiot responded, “Okay, I won’t look." I thought that once I lost my virginity, I would feel somehow sexier, more like a woman. Sadly, that was not the case — all I felt was sore and somewhat disappointed with the whole experience. Muse’s song "Our Time Is Running Out" played throughout. And shortly after that, I started my first diet.
At 17, I started dating a new boy; let’s call him Dick. Dick was tall and very thin and in contrast to my size 12 body, he was rakish. I felt like an elephant next to him. The only relief was that he was taller, because that meant he would always have to look down at me, and from that perspective he'd be getting a constant “MySpace angle" of my face and bod. But Dick was not a nice boy. He abused me physically and emotionally, lied to me constantly, stole from me several times, and was unfaithful throughout our relationship. He would go out and buy piles of junk food, and then after we had eaten it, he would make me feel bad for being “overweight and greedy." He sexually abused me on a daily basis, although I didn’t know it at the time (since I thought that rape was something that happened when a man jumped out from a bush and grabbed you). I didn’t know that someone I loved could do it to me. I hated every part of my body and would apologize to Dick because I had gained weight during our 10-month relationship and had gone up a dress size. His response? “It’s okay, you can go on a diet.”
AGE 19 – 25
I spent these six years on various diets, joining gyms, trying to be thin and never quite getting there. There was a lot of self-loathing, a lot of judgement and a lot of fear toward mirrors. I hated how I looked in everything I wore. My body confidence at this point was zero, and I gained a lot of weight (which is funny considering it was the period when I most actively tried to lose weight) and by 25 I wore a size 16.
AGE 25 – TODAY
At 25, I heard about the body confidence movement, size acceptance, plus-size bloggers, and fatshion. These things changed my life completely. I learned that it was okay to be fat and to (gasp!) not be on a diet. That I could be fat and (BIGGER GASP!) eat food I liked in quantities that made me full. That I could be fat and not hate my body; that it was something I could learn to love and accept exactly as it was, with no strings attached — no caveats and no conditions. My body and I could be a team instead of on opposing sides. And this really was something I had to learn as the notions were such radical ideas to my fat-hating brain. Today, my body is something I am proud of: It does everything I require of it and more — it never lets me down. I have saggy boobs, wobbly thighs, a big belly, and I can’t feel my ribs, and all of that is okay because this is my body and it is perfect just as it is.
Images: Sarah Martindale; Giphy