My best friend and I have just returned from six days in the Cinque Terre, and boy, was it fun. But it was also an emotional rollercoaster in terms of body image.
I’ve been struggling to articulate how I feel about it, but will make an attempt.
Like a lot of others, I’m actually two people. There’s the me I aspire to, and then there’s the me that I am. When it comes to body image and how I view myself, I spend most of my present time thinking 1) ‘my body is not quite where it should be’ and considerably lesser some time thinking 2) ‘hey, I actually like how I look’.
More or less, I’m OK with my body. But what bothers me, is that when I’ve looked back at pictures of myself, I think: “Jesus CHRIST, you thought you looked okay?? You looked amazing and you didn’t even realise it, you dumb fucker!”
I’m 36, and I carry a lot more self-confidence about myself than I ever did in my 20s, and crucially, this confidence doesn’t originate in how I look. It’s a slow sense of assuredness, built from experience, self-love and appreciation, of the perfect pitch point between the solidness of my thoughts and the pragmatism of how I look.
But that doesn’t mean I always have it together. Or that I radiate confidence all the time. And a dark undercurrent to all of this is the realisation that in three years I will hit my 40s and it doesn’t matter whether or not people say I look young for my age, I can feel my body slowing slightly and staying in shape is harder than it ever has been before.
I don’t like to compare my body to other people – I feel it’s a wasted form of energy. But what I do prefer is being in places where there is a variety of body sizes. Airports, service stations – anywhere NOT LONDON you name it.
It reminds me that actually having vastly varying body shapes is normal. It’s why I can’t and don’t endorse the ethos of the fashion and media world that bodies only come in one size. And there’s a subtle nuance. I don’t look at someone bigger and go ‘oh thang fuck I ‘m not as big as them’. Rather, it makes me more accepting of my own body.
But when my friend and I rocked up to the beach at Cinque Terre, I wish I could say I was better than this, but the beach was flooded with 18-year-olds and women in their early 20s and my god, they looked phenomenal. Their skin peachy and perfect, no scrap of fat on them. Frankly, it made me feel like a heffalump – and not just any heffalump, an OLD heffalump.
I spent about two days moaning about this (of course I was jealous) because I was and never am going to look like that again – my skin may look good for its age but it is never going to have that young, barely-touched sheen to it. And as gross as this sounds, we saw how men looked at them and not at us, and that invisibility felt crushing. Also galling because I never, ever want to feel like the male gaze shapes how I feel about myself.
And then, just as I was on the verge of turning poisonous and green with envy, we went to a bar. We ended up chatting to these two utterly beautiful women, who it turned out were 20 and 21. The men they were attracting were nothing to feel bad about – I saw how greedily these guys gobbled their youth with their eyes, only seeing the flesh and not actually seeing them as women, as people. And through the course of our conversation, it transpired that they felt childish and as if they weren’t mature enough to chat to us. And doh! Of course I forgot how when I was that age talking to someone older, I was so gawky and nervous in my lack of knowledge and confidence.
When we returned to the beach the next day, it kinda changed how I viewed everyone on there. I forgot that the paradox of youth is that it is effortless and so natural, so enviable when you no longer have it. Yet like some cruel pact with the Gods there is a price, and the price of that supernatural beauty is not being granted the wisdom and confidence to appreciate it. And with social media amplifying every tiny flaw and supercharging that path to perfection, being able to survive that must be incredibly hard.
I mean look, I know the realities of being in my 30s means I have to try harder because everything IS harder. I cannot eat all the pasta, all the bread, or drink all the booze and expect my body to look great. It takes a lot more self-control, willpower and decision-making around what I choose to put in my mouth.
But despite the work, I know that my confidence is hard won which means somehow, I appreciate it more. I can sense when it kicks in like a trusty old friend.
So if the price of my inner peace and confidence is a bit of orange peel on my arse, I’ll take that over awkward youth anyday.