Internalizing Body Image Issues

When I was 14, I gave up playing hockey and was quickly given a hula hoop so that I could “stay in shape” and avoid gaining weight. Throughout my teenage years, I have been told by numerous people to “pull in” my stomach. When I was 17, a male classmate asked me directly whether or not I had had a boob job. (I hadn’t, but that’s beside the point.)

In my 19 years of living, I can honestly say that I have never internalized any body image issues. But I now realize that these comments had the potential to seriously harm my body image and self-esteem. Young women and girls are subjected to comments like these on regular basis from childhood.

Now when people comment on my weight – and it’s mostly other women who do so – I feel annoyed. I have never been what is considered overweight, nor have I have ever been what is considered overly skinny.

Why do we focus so much attention on how much someone’s body weighs? Why don’t we tell someone that they look good or healthy instead of commenting on their body size?

Similarly, when people stare at my body I feel uncomfortable. I enjoy wearing shorts in the summer, but since attending university, I’ve noticed a number of men staring at my thighs when I wear them. It is truly bothering sometimes.

I am sure many other women and girls have stories similar to mine. And it leads me to my question: who do we look good for?

If your daily diet is not a threat to your health, why should you change it because of what other people say? If you feel good in that dress you want to wear, then wear it. Unfortunately, we live in an age of impressing and comparing but I urge you to try to resist it.

I feel lucky that I have always been a person who is not easily influenced by anything. I know that not everyone feels the same way, so I write this to whoever needs to read it:

The weight of being a woman is heavy enough already. If you are healthy and breathing, be grateful for that. Your inner beauty should weigh on your mind more than your physical appearance does. Like your body, it will always be a work in progress and will never be ‘perfect’, but that’s ok.

Taking Care of my Gynecological Health Is a Feminist Act

Embarrassing. Gross. Painful. Uncomfortable.

These are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of all the things I’ve heard and read throughout my life about the experience of going to the gynecologist.

Since I’ve started taking charge of my own gynecological health, I’ve been thinking more about what these words. What do they mean in broader context of the female experience, the female body, and feminism in general?

My experience with feminism comes through academic and scholarly research, and through conversations with women from around the world about feminist issues. Through both, I’ve come to learn how important it is for women to be able to own their bodies.

The culture and religion around me have always told me that my body is bad, sinful and dangerous, and that I should somehow separate myself from it.

This message has had a particularly negative consequence in my life in relation to an anxiety disorder that began in childhood. Anxiety makes me feel out of control – and particularly out of control of how my body is reacting.

I’ve also been told by religion and culture that I should separate my body and my mind from my soul. Through my work in therapy and research however, I’ve been learning that I don’t have to separate these parts of me. They all work together to make me the person I really am. I cannot fully inhabit myself or fully be in the world if my mind, body and soul are disconnected.

And so, I’ve been learning how to inhabit my own body. Most importantly, I’ve been learning how to care for it – including for my gynecological health.

Uterus, cervix, vagina and vulva are not dirty or embarrassing words.

They are part of my body and of who I am, and to care for my overall health and well-being I must take care of them.

During my latest Pap test (also called a Pap smear or smear test), I experienced quite a lot of discomfort and even pain. (Most people don’t experience pain during these tests. However, there are some reasons why pain might occur, so it’s vital to be open and honest with your health provider.)

I spoke up as soon as I began to feel pain. I said it loud and clear and my provider heard me. She kindly apologized for the discomfort and pain I was experiencing and moved slowly while walking me through the whole process. She kept checking in on me – “How are you doing now? Are you hanging in there?” – and I kept speaking up whenever something hurt or became uncomfortable. In just a few minutes, the exam was over. The relief of knowing I had done something so important for my health was worth the temporary pain and discomfort.

At the end of the appointment, I felt proud of myself and empowered because I spoke up instead of keeping quiet when things didn’t feel right in my body.

Saying “That hurts!” was not just a good way for my provider to better care for me, but also for me to take some control of my body in a situation where I didn’t have full control of it.

Despite the discomfort, I felt connected with all parts of myself during the experience of my gynecological exam. Because of my anxiety, I had been doing a lot of grounding and breathing exercises to prepare. I made sure I was fully engaged in the conversation with my provider, listening to her advice and tips and answering her questions honestly and openly.

By taking time out of my day to focus entirely on myself and my body, I felt like I was finally validating my body’s existence and needs in all its complexities. The female reproductive system is a marvellously complex world of its own. I was speaking up against the voices that have told me that my body is dirty and shameful, and saying loud and clear, “No! My body is good and an essential part of me that deserves care and love.”

Taking control and care of my body are concepts that are becoming increasingly vital to how I live my life.

I wholeheartedly believe that doing so – even through something as routine as attending a gynecological exam – is a feminist act.

Why Everyone’s Talking About Jameela Jamil & I Weigh

You may have heard Jameela Jamil’s name recently. Maybe you’re already one of the 145,000 followers of @i_weigh, her Instagram post turned social media movement currently sweeping the internet.

In Britain, where the actress, tv presenter, radio presenter, activist and writer is from, she’s been on screens, in magazines, on podcasts and on the radio talking about why and how she wants to change the conversation around how we, as people, define our worth. And it seems that maybe, just maybe, what she’s doing might be working. Things might actually be changing.

It all started in response to a post on her Instagram feed. Jamil saw an image of the Kardashian family, each of whom had their weight in kilograms written over their body. The caption invited followers to comment on the Kardashians’ weight and compare to their own. Scrolling through the thousands of comments underneath from despairing, self-hating young women, Jamil was enraged and incredulous, and decided to post a photo documenting her own ‘weight’:

 

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Jameela Jamil didn’t ask anyone to do anything. She posted the photo simply because she was annoyed and fed up. It turns out that thousands of other people were annoyed and fed up too.

So many people sent Jamil their own version of her photo that she had to create a whole Instagram account to showcase them all. Women, and some men, have sent photos of themselves with all of the things they value and love about themselves written over the top. It is, in Jamil’s words, a “museum of self-love”, a place where people can “feel valuable and see how amazing we are, and look beyond the flesh on our bones.”

 

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The speed with which Jamil’s photo has grown into a full-blown body positivity movement is a testament to the intensity of our collective dissatisfaction with the toxicity that surrounds us and dictates how we view ourselves.

Nobody wants to feel awful about their body. Nobody wants to hate themselves.

Nobody wants to see magazine page after tv advert after billboard after Instagram post of female bodies that look nothing like those of any of the human women we know in real life. Nobody wants to feel self-disgust when they eat a chocolate biscuit. Nobody wants to hear a friend say that they’ve already eaten lunch and know that they’re lying.

We don’t want the narrative we’re being served, and yet it has become impossible to reject or avoid. Young people – young women in particular – grow up marinating in toxicity until it has seeped so deeply into our bones and hearts that it can no longer be washed off.

But now there’s Jameela Jamil. She’s appeared like a big breath of air, holding nothing back, refusing to be airbrushed, shouting and swearing and shining her light on the injustice of how women women continue to be represented, valued and treated in our society: “it’s so upsetting, it feels like such a betrayal against women. I will not be part of it and I will not stop calling it out when I see it.”

What she’s offering is a wake up call to the media and to all of us consuming it. What she’s saying is that this is not ok, it’s damaging all of us, and it has to change. What she’s already proven is how many people are ready and desperate for the change.

Want more? As well as @i_weigh, you can follow @jameelajamilofficial on Instagram & @jameelajamil on Twitter (do it, she’s hilarious). You can watch this interview for Channel 4’s Ways to Change the World podcast, and read this interview with Stylist. If you’re in the UK, you can also listen to Jamil’s recent documentary about consent – The New Age of Consent – created for BBC Radio 4. 

It’s Time to Talk About Vulvas

Three years ago I went to the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre in London. I saw a fabulous illustrator called Jo Harrison who handed out colour-by-number, annotated vulvas. I took mine home and put it on my fridge. My friends would come round – educated, feminist, female friends – and they’d look and squint and tilt their head and say, “Oh! So that’s what that bit’s called.”

I was pretty horrified. It turned out that not many of us knew what our vulvas actually looked like, let alone what all the flaps and holes and mounds were called. This just didn’t sit well with me. If we don’t have the language to talk about our own bodies then how can we speak up and speak out about them? And if we don’t know, or like, what we look like, then aren’t we missing a very important part of ourselves?

So, I set up @thisisavagina, an Instagram feed dedicated to vulvas of all sizes, shapes and colours, to help us know what they look like and love them no matter what. I was utterly shocked to learn that girls as young as nine are going to doctors to ask for labiaplasty in the UK. The fact that young girls dislike themselves so much at such a young age, so much so that they want to have invasive surgery to change themselves, broke my heart.

These days, we gain much of our knowledge of vulvas from porn, an industry based around fantasy. Far from seeing a variety of normal and hairy vulvas as we grow up, many of us have never even looked at our own genitals in a mirror. Yet, somehow we still feel there is something wrong with them. Asymmetrical, too big, lop-sided, sticky-out – not the neat, little, ever-smooth Barbie vaginas we see so often. 

As well as making vulvas visible, I talked about vaginas. A lot. At work, with friends, with partners, with my parents, at parties with people I didn’t know. It became seriously apparent that the words ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ are words we loath to use, or even to hear. Most people prefer to mutter ‘down there’ and flutter their hands around their crotch or blush and stammer out the word ‘fanny’.

To be so embarrassed by such an integral part of you that you can’t even utter its name is restricting and sad and perpetuates the problem. It’s also detrimental to our health: 66% of 18-24-year-olds don’t go to see a doctor about vaginal problems because they are too embarrassed to even use the word ‘vagina’.

Alongside regramming work from brilliant artists on @thisisavagina, I created my own vulva artwork, including the geometric vulva that I use as a logo.

I fell in love with it because I think it looks like a vulva and a strong woman with her hands on her hips and a superhero motif all in one.

It represents everything I feel about being a strong woman. It started life as a screenprint on a t-shirt and as I wore it to parties, the pub, work and the gym, I had people asking where I got it and whether I could make them one too.

And so I did. I used a company called Teemill because they are ethical and sustainable and I couldn’t put my vulva on anything that wasn’t organic (a general lesson for life, too). Before long they were whizzing off t-shirts from the little print factory on the Isle of Wight to people all over the globe.

I wanted my fierce little vulva to go out into the world and start up more conversations. The more we talk, the more we know and the less embarrassed we become. And the more we can make women and girls love their bodies for what they are and what they look like, the better. We have enough to be fighting for without having to fight our own bodies.

I donate half of the profits to Bloody Good Period, a fabulous organisation that collects and delivers menstrual products to asylum seekers and homeless women in the UK. They are utterly brilliant – I’ve never met a group of people who throw the word ‘vagina’ around more than I do.

My t-shirts are a symbol of pride and love for vulvas. They are a way to start conversations about why it is important that we can use the words ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ without blushing or looking away. And they are, hopefully, a tiny step in helping women and girls to love their vulvas no matter what they look like.

So buy a t-shirt and join the vulvalution!

10 Instagram Accounts Busting Period Taboos

Silence around menstruation may be far from broken, but it’s definitely showing cracks. Just search #periodpositive or #menstruationmatters on Instagram if you don’t believe me! Here are 10 taboo-busting accounts to follow to help celebrate and normalize periods – one double tap at a time.

1. Pink Bits

This Australian artist posts illustrations to celebrate “the bits and shapes we’re told to hide”. Period-positive, body-positive and just really cute, these illustrations will cheer up any Insta feed.

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2. Lunette Cup

Lunette sell environmentally-friendly menstrual cups, but you can enjoy their colorful Instagram whether you’re a customer or not. They often share links to genuinely informative articles, like how to make the most of your exercise routine by synching it up with your menstrual cycle.

3. Bloody Good Period

Bloody Good Period provide menstrual supplies for asylum seekers, refugees & those who can’t afford them by collecting donations and distributing via drop-in centres and food banks across the UK. On social media they’re opening up conversations by posting reminders that periods are natural, NOT shameful.

4. Menstrugram

This Berlin-based art project is a “rebellion against the taboo”. The photographs are all of menstrual blood, which – being really honest – I found quite shocking at first. This made me realise I’d never ever seen an image of real period blood before, and proves the entire point of the project.

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5. Blood Cycle Community

On online community of “menstrual health seekers”, Blood Cycle Community are trying to increase access to menstrual health through advocacy, education and innovation. Their Instagram is a mix of illustrations, poems, quotes and photos that are often really funny and always really important.

6. #HappyPeriod

A social movement to normalise menstruation, plus provide products to low-income and homeless communities in the USA. Creators of the ‘Hello, I’m Menstruating’ tee that I want in every colour.

7. Cycles + Sex

Not just about menstruation, Cycles + Sex want to educate people about their bodies and “highlight the interconnectedness of our sexual, hormonal, reproductive and menstrual health”. This is a no-shame, no-stigma, no-topic-too-taboo kind of account, and there’s a great balance of education and celebration.

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8. Aunt Flow

For every 100% organic, non-applicator tampon Aunt Flow sell, they donate one to an organization in the USA that supports menstruators in need. On their Insta you’ll find posts encouraging businesses to stock bathrooms with tampons for their employees to use for free, as well as posts providing information on the harmful chemicals used by many leading tampon brands. There’s chlorine in those things?! Chlorine?!

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9. 4 Women Ovary Where

This volunteer-led movement raises money and collects products to assemble menstruation kits to “provide the homeless population of LA with a comfortable period”. Along with photos of their volunteers in action, their period-positive, confidence-boosting quotes and illustrations are a welcome addition to any menstruator’s daily scroll.

10. THINX

THINX is a brand striving to break down taboos, so whether you buy their products or not their Instagram is still a great place to find a little period-positivity. Granted, their photos are more often of flawless models than real-life humans, but the images are beautiful, the captions are candid and it’s refreshing to see new and innovative options being offered to people who menstruate.

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Am I missing something? Who would you add to this list? Leave a comment if you have any suggestions, and make sure you’re following Girls’ Globe on Instagram too!

At 25, I’m Finally Meeting my Cycle

I started taking the contraceptive Pill at 15. At 19, I had an implant inserted. Earlier this year, a decade after starting, I stopped using hormonal contraception.

My decision was mainly based on my growing disbelief at how little I knew about my own reproductive health.

At 15, at 19, at 22, all I’d known was that I did not want to get pregnant. And all I’d had to do was make an appointment with my doctor, pick my poison from the menu of contraception on offer, receive no guidance, ask no questions, fail to read the leaflet handed to me, swallow a tablet I knew nothing about once a day and get on with my life. Easy.

I’ve visited a doctor several times with concerns that my contraception might be adversely affecting me. Each time, I was reassured that whatever symptom I was worried about had another explanation. Anxious? Exam stress. Overly emotional? Family stress. No energy? Life stress. I once summoned up enough courage to tell a university doctor I was worried the Pill was the reason I had no interest in having sex with my long-term boyfriend. She laughed, asked me which magazine I’d read that in and told me it was common for people to grow apart at my age.

Hormonal contraception is the only medication we take without being sick. It impacts our emotions, mental health, quality of life and long-term fertility. Yet we are not educated about it.

As I learned more about the impacts of artificial hormones on emotional wellbeing, it started to frighten me to think of how regularly women say “I didn’t feel like myself” when describing contraception that didn’t work for them. I worried that if I’d been using artificial hormones since the age of 15, they could be affecting or even creating parts of what I thought of as my ‘self’.

I’d also been in the dark about the extent to which hormonal contraception affects body literacy. If you’d asked at any point over the past few years, I think I would have said that I knew my body quite well. I’ve never felt too terribly uncomfortable in my body, but never really consciously comfortable in it either.

I’ve learnt more about my own body in the past few months than in the rest of my 25 years combined. Since stopping hormonal contraception I feel connected to my body in a way that I never have before. I feel like I’ve woken up. It’s an incredible and a terrifying feeling, because I’m so horrified to realise that I didn’t know I was asleep.

As I’ve tried to educate myself about natural menstrual cycles – which I’m now experiencing for the first time in my adult life – I feel more alert to the signs and signals my body sends me. I’m working on building my knowledge of what’s happening at different stages of my cycle, and I feel more able to listen to and respect what my body wants and needs at each.

I find my emotions have far less power to stop me in my tracks now that I can better pinpoint the reasons I might feel the way I feel from one day to the next. I feel more energetic and less anxious. I’m more motivated to exercise, my libido is higher, I’m less easily overwhelmed. My hair is thicker and shinier. I feel more confident than I ever have in my life.

It is essential to acknowledge that the Pill and other forms of contraception gave women unprecedented freedom and equality in the past and continue to empower women all over the world today. Access to contraception is linked inextricably with feminism and the fight for gender equality. Having grown up in Scotland, I am in a massively privileged position to have the access that I do to contraception, information and services. I also know that for many women with certain medical conditions, the Pill and other hormonal contraception are absolutely the best options.

My point is that, despite the layers of privilege within my own life, I didn’t know I had a choice. I didn’t know there was choice as to whether or not to use hormonal contraception at all. If we each have a right to contraception then surely we each have a right to make an informed choice about it. It’s not about saying one way is best, or telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t do. It’s about the basic fact that you should never feel powerless over your own body.

In the 1960s, the Pill was incredibly liberating for women. In 2017, not having to rely on huge pharmaceutical companies or damaging the environment to prevent pregnancy, and to know how my own body works? That sounds liberating to me.

However you choose to prevent pregnancy is entirely your choice to make. Your body is yours alone. But knowledge is power. It feels like I have a whole world to learn about, and I’m excited to be at the beginning of a long road to better understanding and appreciating my body. I’m excited to take control of, understand and demystify this cycle taking place within me every single month, and to harness the power within it.

If you’ve had your own experience of shifting from hormonal to natural contraception, or if you have suggestions of things I should be reading/following/researching – please feel free to share in the comments below!