I’ve been saying that I want to get a gym membership since I moved out of home. At first, I kept putting it off because I was just dirt poor and couldn’t afford it. For the first two years of uni I lived near a good walking track, and within walking-distance of the university, so I consoled myself in the fact that I was keeping active enough without spending the extra money. Then I moved in third year, and it wasn’t a practical walking distance to uni anymore. I started catching the bus and sitting still. On top of that, I was getting towards the end of my undergraduate degree, which had me glued to my desk chair to study for longer periods of time. I started working a lot to keep up with rent and bills, and overall I didn’t feel like I even had time to go for a casual walk. The kilos started piling on, the stretchmarks made their impressions on my skin, and I started to feel incredibly self-conscious about my body.
At the start of 2016, I realised I’d put on around 30 kilos. Honestly, it made me feel really shit. I’ve always agreed with the talk about body positivity and self-love, but when it came to looking at my own body in a mirror, I felt disgusted. My mother is severely overweight, but when I was little that didn’t matter to me. I thought she was beautiful, even if she was bigger than other kids’ mums. But she had a bad attitude towards her size 26 outfits, and every time she asked, ‘Do I look okay?’ and my sister and I would tell her she looked fine, she wouldn’t believe us, and would say things like, ‘I’m so fat and ugly,’ or ‘I don’t look good in anything’. After this went on for a few years, her attitude made us start to believe it, and she began projecting these insecurities onto us as we got older. She would hound us about our own eating habits, sporting activities, and weight. While I was in high school, I was involved in martial arts, Girl Guides, swimming club, and a netball team, which I started dropping out of closer to VCE when I needed to focus on my studies. As soon as I stopped being as active Mum started policing everything I did even more; every time I put something in my mouth, every time I took a break from studying without doing something active to counter all that sitting, every time she just didn’t feel like I was doing enough, she was there, ready to tell me what she thought I was doing wrong. As a teenager, I became self-conscious of a problem I didn’t even have because of my mother’s constant surveillance and criticism.
When I started putting weight on at uni, she told me that my arse was getting big. I was mad for a number of reasons. First, because I didn’t feel like she had the right to criticise my pants going from a size 12 to a size 14–16 when she had been a size 26 for as long as I could remember. Secondly, because she expected me to do something about it even though she never made an ongoing effort to change her own body. And finally, because at uni, I was being exposed more and more to the idea of accepting the bodies we have, of anti-body shaming and self-love, especially for women. So although I didn’t want to listen to my mother criticising my body, I had an evaluation dilemma: no, I didn’t want to be ashamed of my body and I didn’t feel like I should be criticised by others for it, but at the same time, I wanted to be healthy, and putting on a lot of weight from sitting down all day wasn’t a great indication.
I started looking at other women’s bodies and comparing them to mine. Women with long, slender legs and thigh-gaps, perky bums and skinny arms. Their bellies were flat and they all looked like supermodels. They could fit into the dresses that hug your figure, which I could hardly look at myself wearing in the change-room mirrors without cringing at the way they clung to my tummy. I realised I couldn’t fit into one of my favourite dresses without this problem, and I stopped wearing it. As much as I enjoyed good food, I found myself hating everything I put in my mouth, wanting to bring it back up so that it wouldn’t cause my body any more problems. I started watching what I ate. I started making time to go for walks, and watching Pilates videos in my room at home. And it made my body feel better to do some of these things, but when I didn’t see results within a couple of months, when I still couldn’t fit into my jeans, I really started to hate myself.
At the start of my fourth year of uni, I was in a safe enough financial position to get a gym membership, and at first I told myself that I was going to. But I realised while I was thinking about this, that the way I was thinking about my body was not healthy, and that the thoughts I was having about my own body-image were not thoughts I wanted to have with me when I started going to the gym. I realised that I needed to change the way I was thinking about my body, before I tried to change my body itself. For months, I trained myself not to compare the size of my waist or legs to that of other women. I started trying to develop healthy eating habits in a general sense, instead of trying to diet. I stopped myself from focusing so much on losing weight and being a certain size, and started thinking more about how healthy and strong my body was. And although the number on the scales hadn’t changed much, I started thinking more positively about the body I have.
At the start of Trimester 2, I joined a gym. It was tentative, and I was even more hesitant to have the sit-down with a personal trainer to get a program sorted out. But I’m glad I did, because he seemed to sense the lingering discomfort and doubts I was having about going through with the membership commitment. While we were talking, I mentioned that I’d put on a lot of weight the previous year, and that it would be nice if I could lose some. Instead of giving me some insane workout, he gave me something basic to start building up my strength, and told me not to worry about my weight and not to get obsessed with the number on the scales or what size clothes I could fit in to. It was more important for me to aim to make myself healthier than to focus so much on getting skinny, and between losing fat and gaining muscle, the number on the scale might not change so much anyway. That sort of encouragement made me feel a lot better about what I was doing, and I got the membership and started using it whenever I had time.
It is so ingrained in our culture to expect the perfect woman to be slim with a nice bum and big boobs, a flawless complexion and minimal body hair. I praise the movement against these norms. Instead of pushing ourselves towards the socially constructed image of the ideal woman, we should focus on validating all people in the bodies they own, and to teach ourselves and each other that we are worth more than our outward appearances. Everyone has the right to be proud of their body. Now that I’ve changed the way I think about my body, I’m not afraid of making an effort to go to the gym and be active and healthy in other aspects of my life. Even though I can’t always see the results, I know them from the way my body feels. I’m still sitting at a size 14-16, and maybe I always will, but my body feels healthier and happier, and so do I.
Words by Rebecca K.