Credit: Ciara McAlinden

Heavy Hearts

By Emily Cleal-Bramley

Redefining Weight and Self-Perception

As a former competitive swimmer, I spent a solid decade submerged in the pool, my days measured in laps and my nights in muscle soreness. From the age of 8 to 18, I dedicated myself to the sport with ferocity. And yet, despite the countless hours spent perfecting my strokes and honing my technique, there was one opponent I couldn’t seem to beat: my own perception of my body.

At 16-17, I found myself tipping the scales at a solid 14 stone. A weight that to the casual observer would have seemed perfectly ordinary for a growing young athlete in the prime of their physical prowess. For me, it was a source of endless scrutiny and self-doubt, fuelled by the relentless whispers of my well-meaning but misguided mother. In her eyes, I was a ticking time bomb of obesity. A walking embodiment of every worst-case scenario she had ever read about in the tabloids or on the internet, something she routinely reminded me of.

The irony of course was that I was anything but obese. With visible collarbones and a toned, lean body, I was by all objective measures the picture of health and athleticism. And yet, in the warped funhouse mirror of my own mind, I couldn’t see past the shadow of my mother’s words.

It’s a phenomenon psychologists refer to as body dysmorphia – a distorted perception of one’s own body that can lead to a lifetime of self-doubt and insecurity. For me, it was a battle waged on the front lines of a sport that I loved. I compared myself endlessly to the lithe, seemingly effortless bodies of my fellow teammates, who all looked like me.

Looking back now, I can see the absurdity of it all. I was a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, with the world at my fingertips and a body that was capable of incredible feats of strength and endurance. And yet, I couldn’t see any of it through the fog of my own insecurities.

A survey conducted by The Women and Equalities Committee in 2020 revealed the extent of negative body image perceptions among both adults and children. A striking 61% of adults and 66% of children reported feeling negative or very negative about their body image most of the time. Perhaps most concerning is the prevalence of anxiety and shame surrounding appearance, with over 70% of adults expressing these negative emotions. This overwhelming sense of discontent with one’s appearance is further underscored by the fact that less than 30% of people reported feeling proud about the way they look. 

In the age of social media, where perfectly curated feeds and flawless filters reign supreme, the pressure to conform to narrow beauty standards has never been more pervasive. Mainstream media continues to peddle an unattainable ideal of beauty that leaves many feeling inadequate and unworthy. The rising use of pharmaceutical interventions, such as the injectable drug Ozempic to drop weight quickly, has further fuelled the quest for rapid weight loss, alongside programmes like Weight Watchers that focus on achieving a specific weight or body size. Both are guilty of contributing to this toxic culture of comparison and self-doubt, perpetuating the belief that one’s worth is tied to their physical appearance.

Weight Watchers, a popular weight loss program, has gained significant traction among young people in recent years. While marketed as a tool for promoting health and well-being, the program’s emphasis on achieving specific weight loss goals can have detrimental effects on mental health, particularly in vulnerable populations. For many young people, the pressure to conform to societal beauty standards and attain a certain body size or shape can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Programs like Weight Watchers, with their focus on calorie counting and strict dietary restrictions, can exacerbate these issues, fuelling unhealthy attitudes towards food and body image. Moreover, the constant tracking of food intake and weight can contribute to the development of disordered eating behaviours. 

Furthermore, factors such as bone density, muscle mass, body composition, and overall physical fitness play crucial roles in determining health outcomes, yet these are often disregarded in traditional weight-centric approaches. For example, someone with a higher muscle mass may weigh more than someone with the same amount of body fat, but they could still be healthier and have a lower risk of chronic disease. Similarly, variations in bone density can affect weight measurements without necessarily indicating poor health. Weight watchers peddle a prescriptive, “one size fits all” regimen, not accounting for these variations.

In today’s image-obsessed culture, it’s all too common to encounter harmful language and attitudes surrounding body image. Fat-shaming and body-shaming have become pervasive issues, perpetuating damaging stereotypes and contributing to low self-esteem and mental health struggles. By fostering a culture of acceptance and respect for all bodies, we can empower individuals to love and appreciate themselves just as they are, free from the constraints of societal expectations.

It’s a constant struggle to separate fact from fiction in a world where Photoshop reigns supreme and “likes” dictate our self-worth. Amidst this sea of sameness lies a diverse tapestry of human bodies, each unique in its own right and deserving of celebration. 

There’s a glimmer of positivity shining through in the form of brands and campaigns that dare to challenge the status quo. Dove’s iconic “Real Beauty” campaign has left an indelible mark on the landscape of modern advertising, challenging conventional beauty standards with its message of inclusivity and self-acceptance. By featuring real women of all shapes, sizes, ages, and backgrounds in their advertisements, Dove shattered the myth of the ‘perfect’ body and celebrated the inherent beauty found in diversity. 

As young people navigate the complexities of adolescence and the pressures of social media, it’s crucial to prioritise mental well-being over arbitrary measures of physical appearance. Instead of promoting restrictive dieting practices, we should be encouraging young people to embrace self-acceptance and body positivity. We should celebrate the diversity of human bodies and promote holistic approaches to health that prioritise mental and emotional well-being.

Oscar Wilde famously remarked that: “To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.” If classic literature isn’t your cup of tea, perhaps wisdom from Beyoncé will resonate more: “Your self-worth is determined by you. You don’t have to depend on someone telling you who you are.” True self-love and confidence come from within, independent of external validation.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from my years spent navigating the murky waters of body image and self-esteem, it’s this: perception is not reality. And while it may take time – years even – to silence the voices of doubt and insecurity that echo in our minds, it is possible to emerge on the other side with a newfound sense of self-acceptance and confidence. So here’s to everyone who has gazed into the mirror and failed to recognize the extraordinary staring back at them. Please be kinder to yourselves.


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