Earlier this year I discovered the body positivity movement, and I think it's fair to say that it changed my life. Whilst I have never been overweight by more than half a stone, give or take, I went on my first diet at the age of eleven to fit in with my friends at school, whose packed lunches were made with Weight Watchers bread and who went to an aerobics class in the evenings to lose weight.
I found the world of diets and calorie counting to be grown up and glamorous. I made a scrapbook full of skinny models and diet tips from teen magazines, and bought exercise videos from charity shops. I don't remember losing any significant amounts of weight until my mid-teens, at which point I ended up visiting - and being talked down to by - a fairly unpleasant eating disorders specialist at the local mental health unit, (I found her so patronising that I never went back), but I spent most of my teenage years preoccupied wth weight, exercise and beauty.
This year, after the usual rounds of obsessive dieting and frantic gorging, I resolved that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life feeling this way. I don't want to have my entire life revolving around the scales, and I don't want to spend my entire existence hating myself and my body.
The times I remembered being the happiest weren't when I had spent hours doing my make-up or when I reached an even lower weight but when I let myself go and had fun with my friends, got so wrapped up in having a good time that I forgot what I looked like and forgot that I was supposed to be perfect, supposed to be always striving for beauty and thinness.
I began to wonder if being 'pretty' was worth being hungry, being grouchy from hunger and low self-esteem, being unable to relax or indulge and listening constantly to my own judgemental inner critic, the little voice that, unless action is taken to stop it, runs a constant, carping commentary on one's own appearance and that of every passing person unfortunate enough to fall under its gaze.
Stumbling across body positivity on the internet and starting to learn about it helped me begin to try to embrace myself, every day, no matter what, and has marked the start of a new chapter for me. I have started to listen to my body instead of suppressing or ignoring hunger pangs. I don't beat myself up for not being 'strong' enough to work out for hours on an empty stomach. I have stopped categorising foods as 'good' or 'bad' and I don't forbid myself anything that I really want to eat.
In fact, now that I can see how miserable my attitude towards my body - encouraged, let's not forget, by multi-million pound beauty, diet and advertising industries - was making me and how much better I feel from day to day just by being kinder towards myself, I often wish I could give my wonderful, successful, clever, talented friends a shake when they chastise themselves for wanting dessert or tell me for the umpteenth time that they are too fat or ugly. It's become 'normal' to hate yourself, and I hate to see my amazing friends sucked into that.
I still have bad days - an off-the-cuff remark at the pub can still see me sobbing over Next Top Model and binge-eating stollen, and sometimes I am fragile because it was easier to bury negative feelings or discomfort under calorie-counting and meal-planning than it is to confront them - but on good days I have more energy, am more relaxed and more inclined to get out of the house and have a good time.
I have learned that I'm not perfect, but that's OK. One day at a time I am learning how to love myself and my body, and if I can, you can too. <3
(Inspiring websites: Stop Hating Your Body, Operation Beautiful. For help and support with eating disorders: b-eat.)