What does the phrase ‘body acceptance’ conjure up for you? Is it the idea of accepting your flaws? Is it fighting to oppose the gender, racial and privilege prejudices that society imposes on you? Perhaps it means neither loving nor wishing to change your body at all, but simply thinking about it neutrally?
Whatever your answer, there’s no denying the body is a contentious topic. The concept of ‘body image’ can often be triggering, especially because the cultural conversation around it shifts all the time.
Despite the empowering work of movements such as Body Positivity and Body Neutrality, there are still plenty of people not comfortable with their bodies. A March 2019 survey by the Mental Health Foundation and YouGov found 20% of adults had felt shame, 34% had felt low and 19% had felt disgusted by their body image in the previous 12 months. Collectively, then, we have a long way to go before reaching a place of peace.
However, there are women who have already found their way to that place – some of whom have overcome great challenges to get there. Four of these women have spoken to us about their journeys. Their stories suggest ‘peace’ is not a fixed destination, but somewhere negative thoughts about our bodies can be overridden and we can appreciate them for the natural wonders they really are.
Aleesha Hansel is a commercial curve model, presenter, host and film-maker. She has become an advocate for diversity and inclusion, particularly for BAME models.
“I used to feel my body never really fitted the brief and fell outside of what was considered ‘normal’. I was always taller, bigger and different to my peers and people I saw in the media.
Trying to get into modelling a decade or so ago as a plus-size model was really quite difficult. Mainstream agencies didn’t have ‘curve’ boards like they do now. That constant rejection was depressing and did knock my feelings of self-worth. Just like everyone else, I have moments when I look in the mirror and see the cellulite on my thighs and think, ‘Why can’t I just have smooth skin?’ But I’ve got to a place where these moments are fleeting and I can quickly refocus. Life is too short to worry about something really so small. No one else will ever notice your ‘flaws’ as much as you do.
Talking to others helped. I released that everyone seemed to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or awkward about something. When someone tells you what they dislike about themselves and it’s something you wouldn’t even particularly notice, you just have to remember the same goes for you.
Everyone is so caught up in their own worries and insecurities that they have no time for yours too, so there’s no point worrying. My advice would be: instead of concentrating on what you wish you did have, celebrate what you do have. We are quick to criticise and slow to praise ourselves.”
Stephanie Dunleavy co-founded wellbeing brand Soul Analyse and is a breast cancer survivor. Her body image changed after her diagnosis.
“I’d been writing about self-love for years on the Soul Analyse blog and encouraging others to believe in their worth, but what was happening for me inside was a very different picture. I was constantly criticising my flaws and I couldn't see beauty in myself. I didn’t think I was tall enough; I didn’t think my body shape was good enough; I disliked my nose – the list went on. I guess I just didn’t ever feel like I was ‘enough’.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2018 at the age of 29. My daughter had just turned one. I knew that if I wanted to give myself the best fighting chance of survival, I had to heal and make peace with every part of my life – including my body.
Nowadays, I see that my body is magnificent. I am grateful for it every day. I love all of my features, including my flaws because they make me, me! I especially love my scar on my breast as it’s a beautiful reminder that I am a survivor and that my body so graciously healed from something so life threatening. There are still times when I catch myself being critical, but instead of listening to that negative voice, I give it little attention because at the core of my beliefs I now know that I’m enough.
What helped me to get to this place? Affirmations can be extremely effective. They are a way to change the old negative narrative we've been telling ourselves for however long. I believe that, unless we work on ourselves, most women fail to believe they are enough. The affirmation ‘I am enough’ is so powerful. I now use it every day and it reminds me that I don’t need to change a thing about my body. I am already enough just as I am.”
Marianna Sachse founded sustainable children’s clothing brand Jackalo. She recalls the invasive molar pregnancy that changed the way she felt about her body.
“I think my challenges helped me see how complicated the human body really is and the limits of control. With good habits, there is a lot we can control, but not everything. It’s a bit of an odd push-pull, but this back and forth helped me understand the elements of my wellbeing that I have a hand in – and how to ride the wave when I’ve got no control.
At 40, I feel pretty damn good about my body now. I kicked cancer’s butt. I delivered a baby on my bedroom floor – assisted, of course! I run because it makes me feel awesome, not because I want to look a certain way. Sure, I feel self-conscious of my mum-belly and developing wrinkles from time to time, but I place these in the context of my life and learn to live with them, if not embrace them.
Meditation and exercise are critical for me. They help me address racing thoughts, which are often self-critical. Instead of focusing on speed or distance when I run, I focus on enjoying the experience, which often means going slower. I go somewhere beautiful and connect with the world around me – I have been known to literally run through fields in joy!
I'm a big fan of meditation as a way to find peace. Tara Brach is an amazing guide and her podcasts are easy to access – go back through her archive and give it a listen.”
Sophie Crowley is a chronic illness blogger living with chronic fatigue syndrome (or ME). The change in her functionality changed her relationship with her body.
“I was part relieved at being diagnosed with something and being able to give a name to the myriad symptoms going on. At the same time, I was frustrated at my body’s inability to behave normally. I was angry looking around at my peers going about their daily lives, like I would have done before, and angry that it had all been taken away from me.
I like to live by a quote I was told a number of years ago: nothing changes if nothing changes. While I can’t magic away the ME, I can change my mindset towards it. Now, instead of being angry at the condition, angry at the lack of a cure and lack of any universal treatment, I accept I have the condition and that this is the way it is going to be for a while.
If you have been through a big change in your life that has affected your body, you must allow yourself to work through the grieving process first. The grieving process isn’t just reserved for bereavement, but for any situation where you have to process the loss of something. In my case, I had to process the loss of my previous self. This involved the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Find those you trust – friends, family – to confide in and, most importantly, be kind to yourself.”