It happened on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, three weeks ago.
I’d been to the same hotel twice before (I love it, mainly because it’s mostly Turks, it’s childfree, and it has a cute little water-taxi to take you in to town) but right before those holidays, I’d worked hard to get my ‘bikini body’. I’d gone into a near-panic if my weight, a few weeks before each holiday, wasn’t at the target I’d set myself and arranged to immediately go on some food group-avoiding diet plan to get there. I’d then congratulate myself on hitting the target and feel ready to hit the beach.
But this time I’d done the exact opposite.
Believe me, it’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I even wear a bikini in public. Throughout my teens and twenties I had dreadful body-image problems, so much so that I’ve never learned to swim. The pool was a scary place where I felt completely exposed. It stemmed from having a curvy-hipped (otherwise known as pear-shaped but I’m rebranding it) body and wanting to be a ballet dancer. My ballet teacher made comments about my bottom half being a ‘problem’ for ballet and so the dysmorphia was born. I would look in the mirror and see terrible things, when in fact, I have the supposed ideal hip-waist ratio of 0.7. But I thought I looked hideous, and only began to think I looked ‘alright’ in my late twenties. I remember the day when I wore a short(ish) skirt with thick black tights IN PUBLIC for the first time. I cried with shame at the bus stop (I did!), but strangely, nothing happened. No one screamed in horror, apart from me, inwardly. My friends encouraged me to stop wearing huge clothes to hide myself, and the new me was born.
Or was she?
In my thirties, I started doing the fad-diet thing. I began running and did the Atkins diet, closely followed by Dukan, and pretty much didn’t eat complex carbs for a decade. Yes, I lost loads of weight, yes, I gained new-found energy and confidence, but I still didn’t feel bikini-great. Not until a game-changing moment in Bermuda.
I was with my ex-husband, and I asked him to take a picture of me in my bikini on the beach, just standing there, no special angles, no flattering pose. I remember saying, ‘I look quite nice’ when I saw the picture. I saw a very pale, but shapely figure standing a bit awkwardly, wearing an unattractive baseball cap. But I liked what I saw. I began to quite like my body.
After that you couldn’t get me out of bikinis, but before each holiday I was determined to control my weight so my curvy hips didn’t look too curvy and my stomach stayed flat. Until this year, that is. In the spring, I had tried the Fast Diet and it just succeeded in making me feel miserable and making me look older. I was heartily sick of cutting out major food groups and yearned for a normal relationship with food where I wasn’t starving myself one day and bingeing the next. I suddenly thought – why don’t I just do that? Stop all The Nonsense and see what happens.
I did it. Weirdly, I had no pre-holiday weight panic this time. I tried beach wear on before I packed just to check I didn’t look like a bean bag. Nope. I looked like a nice curvy woman in beach wear.
And then I saw the Turkish ladies on the beach. Many shapes and sizes surrounded me on loungers but they were mostly curvy. And they looked happy, with ice creams in their hands and adoring partners rubbing sun-tan cream into their ‘wobbly’ bodies. I learned about the Turkish love of the ‘kalça’ – everything between the waist and thigh area – from a guy who clearly liked mine. There were a couple of Dutch and Belgian women there – they were clearly where I had been in terms of the Dieting Decade and looked older and strained next to the Turks. And, well, next to me, really.
Since I’ve stopped The Nonsense, I’ve slept better, looked younger and felt happier. And much sexier. It’s like the gloom has lifted and all is clear. None of us need to do this to ourselves. Women I consider to be incredible in their personal and professional lives have admitted to me that they’re following some kind of mega-control diet like I was, like not eating in the daytime, or restricting their daily calorie intake to near-starvation levels. Why are we doing this??!! I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that my insomnia disappeared completely when I stopped restricting certain foods. I was sleepless for the whole of the Dieting Decade and probably not functioning as well as I could in my daily life.
When I stand in front of the mirror now I see someone different to the person standing there twenty years ago, but she was probably there back then. I just couldn’t see her. When I see a self-conscious curvy young woman on the street I want to go up to her and tell her she looks lovely, or at least I hope someone is telling her that. If I see an older, hollowed-out woman on the Tube I want to say ‘stop controlling it all – let it go, you’ll feel stronger.’ But it’s so much easier said than done, shedding that urge to control our bodies. After all, it’s taken me about twenty-five years to get there.
Most of all I want to say to any woman who is worrying about what she’ll look like on the beach, put your bikini on and get someone you trust to take a picture of you in it. Look at it. Objectively. Look how womanly you are, whether you’re apple-, pear- or pomegranate-shaped, stick-thin, fleshy or somewhere in the middle. Most guys I know can’t understand why we put ourselves through all the pain of constant body control. They like our fleshy, curvy bits (or whatever bits take their fancy) and don’t really get why we don’t. They stand by while we put ourselves through the self-imposed regime, watching us go crazy whilst they tuck into a bacon sandwich.
Ooh now that’s a thought. And I’m going to have white bread too.
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