I'm tired. So tired of the 'ideal' body images of both men and women that still bombard us on every platform. And what I am most tired of is that body size, shape and type is still a discussion. Who ever decided that women had to be thin and men had to have a six-pack? And who on earth decided that every woman should contour her face in an effort to lose any individuality? It is so boring that thigh gaps, lack of height, soft bodies, big bums, no boobs, round boobs, abs, dad bods and many other body characteristics are an issue. We are all different to each other and unique to ourselves. And that is OK. In fact more than OK. Our main concern should be internal health, not external appearance.
For a long time during my childhood and teens I struggled with my dance teachers repeatedly calling me a 'big girl' in front of the other dancers. At the time I was 5'3" and about nine stone. A perfectly healthy weight for my height. However, at that impressionable age it instilled in me an unnecessary self-consciousness about my round bum and strong legs. I began watching what I ate at a very early age, dabbled with Slim-Fast, read books like Joan Collins' Beauty Book that encouraged diets such as eating nothing but hard-boiled eggs for three days, and even had a brief encounter with self-induced vomiting after every meal. Thankfully that last one was very short lived but it did nothing to help my developing self-esteem and body image.
At the time the role models were supermodels. Women about seven inches taller than me and probably a stone less than me. A body type I would never be able to accomplish. Then, in 1996 when I was 15 the Spice Girls hit and began to transform the way I viewed myself. They celebrated variety and comfort in one's own body. Sadly though, my favourite one, Geri withdrew and re-emerged about three stone lighter which was confusing and disappointing. But then two other women made the big time and completely changed my impression of beauty. J-Lo and Beyonce. Here were women I could really relate to. Curvy, strong and completely happy with it.
By this point I was a student nurse and had started learning far more about weight than any magazine could teach me. If you have read my book or previous blogs you'll know that I have spent much of my life caring for the elderly. I have made many observations of my patients throughout my career but there are some that I have noticed consistently. One is that the elderly I have nursed always seem younger, stronger and more agile when they have flesh on their bones. I know this sounds obvious. If you're a waif, by the time you reach 90 you have no muscle tone left and need far more assistance than women like Birdie and Flossie who I have previously written about. Women who were both small in height but strong. Perfectly mobile, despite being in their mid to late nineties and, according to old photos, hadn't spent a lifetime trying to weigh as little as possible. From what I could ascertain they enjoyed an active life, drank wine (Flossie's fridge always had at least 3 bottles in it even when she was 98 years old!) and ate from all food groups but, and this is one of my strongest convictions, did it all in moderation.
I recently watched the Netflix show Down to Earth starring Zac Efron and Darin Olien. The episode I found most fascinating was the one filmed in Sardinia where it is very common for locals to live past 100. They explored the Blue Zone Diet and it challenged everything Zac had been taught for many years by fitness trainers about a high protein diet. Watching Zac's joy at eating pasta (that he'd made with a Sardinian family) for the first time in a long time was a touching moment. They met a man who, despite being over 100 years old, was active enough to go for three walks a day unaccompanied and who visited his local bar for a glass of wine daily. This sweet man had previously lost his wife and despite missing her deeply still wanted to continue living. He enjoyed simple pleasures and said he'd live 'another 100 years' if he could. The episode confirmed three things that I have seen in so many patients over the years. Firstly, an optimistic and appreciative demeanour is essential for good health, secondly, it is good and one of life's joys to enjoy all sorts of food and drink (but the key is moderation! I can't stress that enough) and lastly, that true health is about more than the here and now. It is so important to consider how you'll fare in years to come.
I have previously written about the health condition I developed at 32 and have now lived with for seven years - Chronic Eosinophilic Pneumonia. I am treated with Prednisolone and a Symbicort inhaler, both a type of steroid. I am only too aware of the potential side effects of these drugs, particularly the Prednisolone, and even though I'm on the lowest dose I've ever been on I know that I have to do everything in my power to combat them. One of the side effects is the risk of reduced bone density so I make sure I include strength yoga in my daily life. I've always done yoga and still can't live without the more Yin style to relax but know I need to keep my bones strong so exercising using my body weight is excellent. But it means I'm not the 'ideal' body shape. My legs are muscular, my bum is round and my arms are bulkier than they used to be. I'm heavier now and don't fit into the size eight jeans I had when I was 20. But I am strong. And I can breathe. My aim now is to stay as strong and well as I can for as long as I can. I want to get old and look after myself like Birdie and Flossie did for so much of their lives. When I first became ill one of the most visible symptoms was weight loss. I weighed about eight stone and I received so many comments about how 'at least I'd lost weight'. Why was this perceived as a good thing?! I'd never felt so terrible in my life and had zero energy. I'm now two stone heavier and feel the best I've felt in seven years.
Of course I understand that some people are naturally very slim. What I'm saying is don't strive to be seven stone if that's not what you are. It makes me so mad that thin is the only female body type that is predominantly celebrated by the media. I remember reading a quote from Kate Moss that said 'Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels'. That type of message is so damaging. And thinness doesn't automatically guarantee good health. I have had patients who are seven stone but have very high cholesterol and are significantly hypertensive. Of course I'm not saying we should throw caution to the wind and eat McDonalds everyday, that would benefit nobody but Ronald, but a life of deprivation won't lead to happiness or good health later on. We need to celebrate beauty in the wonderful variety of people we see. Let's enjoy all that life brings, be healthy and most of all be ourselves.