My Journey To Self Acceptance
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As we continue to explore ideas to do with body positivity and acceptance, Writers’ Club winner Jessica shares her life-long experience with loving herself, and what changed her mind when it comes to beauty standards...
“I do these exercises everyday to prevent my butt from getting too round,” my grandma said, as she cycled mid-air. She surveyed 11-year-old me critically. “You really need to start doing these”.
Growing up in a Chinese family, I always dreaded going to family meetings. In Chinese culture, it is perfectly acceptable for relatives to judge another family member’s weight, height, skin tone etc. Too fat, too skinny. Too tall, too short, too tanned. The expectations were endless. There is something wrong with the world when aunties call you ‘healthy’ with a look of disdain.
Besides family, I also had my peers to contend with. For context, I was, by all standards, a healthy kid. Not overweight, and not underweight – but I was ‘broader’ and more muscular than most girls my age. Children are, for the most part, not kind to one another and at a younger age, difference breeds hostility. I used to do ballet, and a memorable moment that shattered my self-esteem was when another kid turned to me and said “I heard you do ballet. You don’t look like you would do ballet - you’re too big to dance.”
I was mortified, and thus began my journey to look like my skinnier peers who better fit the ‘ideal’ body type that a ‘girl should have’. From ages 10-13, I threw away my lunches, exercised every day and had crippling self-esteem issues. To my frustration, my broad shoulders never diminished in size, neither did my ‘Serena Williams’ legs. Looking back, I feel indignant – surely being ‘healthy’ was a goal and having muscular legs and broad shoulders should have been celebrated as instrumental to my sporting achievements? In addition, Serena Williams is one of the most iconic sports women out there (23 grand slams? Sign me up) and using her name to bully someone about their body is hugely inappropriate. Besides, I was a good ballet dancer and never slipped below a Distinction for any of my grades – my body type never held me back – what a ridiculous notion.
I moved to the UK when I was 14 and was suddenly hit with a wave of culture shock regarding my body. In school, being tanned and having large breasts and a booty was ‘in’. In school, my ‘skinny’ friends, who would be considered the ‘ideal’ body type in Asia, complained that they were built ‘like doors’ and did butt-lifting exercises and calf-raises to increase the bulk of their legs because they wanted to ‘fill in’ their jeans. People envied my muscular legs – one of my classmates called them ‘Disney legs’ as they looked like Disney princess curvy legs - and as a dress size 10, I was a ‘perfect size’. Shock. I wear size M/L in Asia, which I was always really self-conscious about. All my life I was taught that straight, long legs with a small butt was the ideal, then all of a sudden my peers wanted the opposite.
It was then I started to realise how arbitrary the word ‘beauty’ is. The ideal body type has changed so much through the ages – take BuzzfeedVideo’s ‘Women’s ideal body types throughout history’ video for instance. Since I was born, the beauty standard has swung wildly from Paris Hilton’s 34-24-34 body type, to Kim Kardashian’s ‘bubble butt’ era, to today’s ‘baddie’ slim-fit body type. Ten years ago, women strived to look one way. Now, women strive to look another way. The ‘perfect body’ is a societal construct fuelled by capitalistic marketing campaigns and a handful of clothing designers. What we must realise is that beauty standards go around in a vicious cycle that will never be broken until we learn to love ourselves as we are and accept that there are some things we cannot change, so we must learn to love.
Metabolic rate, fat distribution, bone structure, bone density, hormone concentration etc. are all hugely variable among people. We have pear shaped women, apple shaped women, inverted triangles etc. In terms of metabolism, we have endomorphs, mesomorphs, ectomorphs and hybrid variations of those three types. Truly, most of what you look like comes down to genetics. Workouts and diets all work differently on different people. We all know people who seem to eat all they want and never gain weight. In the same way we all know people permanently on a diet who never lose weight. Much of this boils down to metabolism - if all human beings were fed the same and exercised the same, we would still have different body types.
Ultimately my message is this – that body feature you hate, someone else loves and wants to have. If you compare your body to other people, you will never be happy with your lot because the hard truth is, you will never have that person’s body. You don’t have the same genetics as them and never will. And that’s okay. What matters is that you realise that beauty is arbitrary and it really is in the eye of the beholder. The most important beholder is you. Not society, not your friends, not anyone else. So be bold in your body and realise that you are you, and will forever be you, and you have a beautiful body that keeps you alive and lets you do the things you want to do. Realising this changed my life and guided me through my self-acceptance journey and I hope it will be the same for you too.