by Emma Tattersall
Since I can remember I have been trying to lose weight. I have blurry memories of trying to squeeze into a primary school uniform that was not designed for 9 year old girls whose periods had arrived along with B cup breasts. Then in senior school I remember the less than subtle lady who worked in the uniform shop sighing as she took my measurements for my custom made school skirt - measurements which far exceeded the standard range of sizes. Pictures of me and my little sister on holiday in Brittany show me awkwardly on the beach hunched over a sandcastle wearing an oversized t-shirt as my slender sis cartwheels around in pink polka dot bikini. And my recent PCOS diagnosis made me more committed than ever to try and alter my weight in an attempt to try and suppress some of those symptoms.
I've done Weight Watchers, Slimming World, The Dukan Diet, The Paleo Diet, Cauliflower soup diets (much to the dismay of my uni housemates), Veganism, vegetarianism, intermittent fasting, Powdered meals, the Special K diet - all of which helped the number on the scales shuffle down but didn't really do anything for my confidence or my relationship with my body. The feeling of not being good enough or not looking like I should was the overarching flavour I could taste as I chomped on pale slices of wafer thin ham or slurped my third of bowl of reheated cabbage sludge in a Tupperware container - not matter what weight. I certainly wasn't feeling "healthier".
Exercise is undoubtedly more effective for me, the endorphins helping to keep moods boosted and effects seemingly more visible and more tangible. The punishment feeling was replaced with an outrageous amount of righteousness as I smashed through 10k races, half marathons and finally made my way through the Paris marathon (although I can't pretend I enjoyed that, see image below). But the down side here was the lycra and the looks. Each time I managed to get myself out the front door for a run I found myself not only having to navigate bin bags and wonky pavements, but honking horns, lewd comments and repulsed faces. Not to mention having to perfect the act of pulling up my leggings and knickers in one swift movement as they rolled themselves down every three or four paces. My overarching memory of the Paris marathon wasn't my incredible friends whooping and cheering me along, but instead the two women who stood, fags in hand, commenting on how fat and unattractive I was as I trudged past them at the half way mark. The volume on my headphones was unfortunately unable to drown that out.
And like the dieting, the peaks of enthusiasm, commitment and will power to stick to a routine does sometimes slip away in favour of longer lie ins and nights on the sofa with a pot of hummus. But despite these low moments, I lead a healthy and active lifestyle and always have.
When the Nike mannequin appeared in the shops last week I found myself wandering up Oxford street for a look. Standing in front of her I didn't think she looked gargantuan, or obese, or any of the other hideous language used in the Tanya Gold article for the Telegraph. They aren't words that I have ever before associated with myself and actually, the figure in front of me was not dissimilar to the one I squeeze and squish into my clothes every day. Maybe with a bit more of an oval tummy, less rolls and a hell of a lot more confidence in lycra. And much to the delight I am sure of whichever marketing genius at Nike created her, I found myself perusing the collections and looking around the store because I felt like maybe, just maybe, I might find the magic pair of leggings that come with dungaree like straps, incapable of rolling down (you read it here first).
But as I got my daily dose of dopamine from social media that evening, I found myself curling deeper into the sofa and much further away from my running trainers which sit worn and battered, waiting to be take out like a dutiful dog at the front door. As I scrolled and scrolled I was confronted with all the words I had imagined hearing with each eye roll, honk or stare at the gym. "I'm sick of this whole feminist "bodypositive" movement, where ugliness is treated like beauty and beauty like ugliness. These "bodypositive" feminists hate fit and beautiful women, because they are jealous" wrote one user on LinkedIn, "fat is never healthy, so I hope those unhealthy people get inspired to do more sport....elsewise it will look like a sausage in a too tight dress...sports dresses are tight mostly...." Even on eloquent and informed pieces in some of the safer spaces of the instaweb like the @iweigh feed, there were thousands of horrid, hateful and shaming comments. One thing's for sure - that kind of language isn't going to get me out there and exercising.
I have never been actively bullied for my appearance, I am physically fit and able and have always been in good health - I am in many ways incredibly lucky and privileged. But that doesn't mean that this isn't something that I don't worry about or struggle with every single day. Despite all my extroversion and confidence, I often find myself standing and staring at my reflection in the mirror wondering about just how long this journey. Will I be able to match my outward appearance with the healthy lifestyle I want to lead? But this change and this challenge is mine, and mine alone.
And after a week of moping and kicking my trainers further and further down the shoe queue, our resident Wellness Chief slid into my WhatsApp. "Can I convince you to be inspired through soul-cycle on Thursday morning pre-work?" I quite literally groaned - me in lycra on a bike trying to keep pace with a room of athletic and energetic New York-esque models all whooping and cheering - non merci, nein danke, no gracias. I started typing out weak excuses about work travel and building renovations and then I stopped and replied "Yes you can if you promise to hold my hand". A little voice in my head started screaming in panic and presenting a convincing case and endless reasons for why I should pull out. And in all honesty, that voice dominated the internal monologue until about 6:23 this morning when I finally had to leave the house.
As I walked from Oxford Circus my Fitbit heart rate was already thumping in fat burn mode - pure nerves and cortisol pumping around my body. As I shuffled towards the door, Arti came running out and hugged me "I am so glad you came!". "I am not" I thought.
After a swift iPad sign in I was handed a pair of shoes and shown where to dump my stuff (stored trendily in a canvas bag from Booths supermarket inscribed with "Wuthering Bites" - note to self don't take this to exercise classes) and headed down into the lower ground level. A genuinely friendly helper showed me to my bike, helped me get my "cleets" (not clit, as I heard the first time) locked onto the bike and made sure my elbow to saddle ratio was just right. I barely had time to glare at my own reflection before the lights dimmed and our instructor "Josh A" belted "It's 7:15am, are you ready?"
Evidently, I was not. What ensued was one of the most exhilarating exercise experiences of my life. For 45 minutes we (about 30 of us maybe?) stood, sat and balanced on spinning bikes to the most incredible sound track of soul lifting music. There was no judgement, no snarling, no amusement - in this unbelievably dark, suffocatingly hot and deafeningly loud London basement we all followed instructions and kept to the beat. When after about 17 mins I looked up nervously around me I was met with smiles and encouragement from the group of people around me and I relaxed and for the first time in a really long time. I let myself get into it, enjoy it and not worry about what my top was doing or how wobbly my thighs looked.
I'm embarrassed to say during one particular sprint to Beyoncé I even burst into tears - not in pain, but because a rush of emotion flew over me. And guess what, I've agreed to go again next week as well despite my groaning bank account shedding a tear at the cost.
So what I am trying to get to in this monologue of a blog post, is that being fit and being healthy, being confident and being happy do not have one body type. They are not confined to one dress size or to one scale. We need to provide more options, we need a more inclusive image of health.
None of us are perfect, none of us are advocating for unhealthy but I think we are all trying our best. Whether that's to juggle commitments, manage the demands of every day, be kinder to ourselves or simply to find the time to break a sweat or take a moment - we are all trying, and it's a long and slow journey. But what we could all do with is a bit more support, not another dose of criticism or another voice chiming in with the one inside our head. So whenever we can, however unnatural it seems in this cold and harsh city, let's all try a bit harder to share a smile of encouragement to that girl plodding the pavements yanking up her knickers under her leggings or that girl bent over her handle bars, singing and crying simultaneously to Beyoncé.