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Why do I feel the need to justify my body’s ‘flaws’?

Why do I feel the need to justify my body's ‘flaws’?

Welcome to the next instalment of Body Talk.

This article contains references to eating disorders.

Welcome to Body Talk, our new monthly column written by journalist, author, and GLAMOUR's Website Director, Ali Pantony. Ali has written extensively about her own journey with body acceptance and eating disorders for GLAMOUR, but still feels there’s so much to be said on this topic. Despite the millions of #bodypositive TikToks, the societal pressures we face as women have never really gone away. In her monthly column, Ali explores the journey to accepting our bodies in a society that has always taught us otherwise.

“Would you like me to massage your stomach?”

The question sends a pang of fear through my chest like lightning, but still I reply: “Sure.”

I’m on holiday in Mauritius and the day before, my boyfriend of five years asked me to marry him on a quiet, white sand beach as local fishermen cheered nearby. Now, we’re at our beautiful beachfront hotel getting a couples’ massage in an outdoor spa to the sound of birds chirping in the trees above us, as the sinking evening sun turns the sky cotton-candy pink. It’s all quite revolting. I’m amazed you’re even still reading this.

Lying on my back, the masseuse moves the blanket draped over my torso to the side, revealing the faint, white lines that zigzag like stitches from my lower stomach up to my belly button.

‘She’s going to ask if you’ve ever been pregnant,’ says the voice in my head.

‘Well, I haven’t,’ I think. ‘So, what do I say?’

‘How about: ‘I had a shitter of an eating disorder at university and then when I started eating normally again I piled on the weight like crazy, hence the stretch marks?’’

‘Yeah, I’m not saying that.’

The masseuse moves onto my arms and hands, and I start mentally scrambling for an excuse as to how the little cluster of perfectly circular burn scars found their way onto my wrists.

‘How about: ‘I guess I was just really fucking sad at the time?’’, says the voice.

‘Needs work,’ I think.

Of course, the woman who spends the next hour rubbing ylang-ylang oil across my body from head to toe doesn’t once question the collection of different scars found in its various folds and contours, nor does she flinch when touching them, as the voice also informed me she would.

The next day, while lying on a busy beach, I began mentally preparing myself to stand up from my beach towel in just my swimwear and walk 10 yards to swim in the bright-blue sea.

‘What are all these people going to think of your cellulite and stretch marks?,’ the voice chimed in.

This time, I was determined to shut it down.

‘Right, what exactly are we so afraid of?’ I thought. ‘This is the body that can climb mountains, that can lift weights, that keeps your blood pumping and your heart beating and your lungs… well, whatever it is that lungs actually do. Who cares what anyone else thinks?’

I spent so long on that holiday excusing my body to no one but myself, and it’s something I’ve done for most of my adult life. A therapist once told me this sort of negative self-talk – one that’s become habitual over the years and often happens unconsciously – is extremely difficult to unlearn. It’s something ingrained in so many women like me who grew up in a society that told us if we had stretch marks, cellulite or a stomach that wasn’t perfectly flat, there was something wrong with us.

Take Kourtney Kardashian, who recently shared some holiday photos on Instagram to celebrate her 45th birthday. Despite only having a baby last November, many were quick to comment on her body.

‘Looks like another baby in the oven,’ read one comment. ‘Kourtney, are you pregnant?’ asked another.

A few days earlier, her sister Kim wished Kourtney a happy birthday with another holiday photo of themselves with sister Khloe on the beach, in which Kourtney’s postpartum stomach wasn't – brace yourselves – completely washboard chiselled. Quick! Someone call the coast guard!

One bold commenter wrote: ‘You know she’s not going to like this photo, Kim’, to which Kourtney responded: ‘I LOVE this photo! It is me and my sisters having the best time on a trip with our kids… and the memories to last forever! And I LOVE this body that gave me my 3 big babies and my little baby boy.’

Kourtney, too, felt the need to defend her body. Just like Selena Gomez last year, when she took to social media to address her recent weight gain. The then-30-year-old singer was subject to relentless trolling online, and searches for ‘Selena Gomez weight gain’ spiked after her appearance at various award shows.

Selena shared a video explaining that her weight gain was caused by the medication she takes for lupus, an autoimmune disease for which she’s undergone chemotherapy and a kidney transplant. ‘When I’m taking it, I tend to hold a lot of water weight, and that happens very normally,’ she said. ‘When I’m off of it, I tend to kind of lose weight.’

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Selena and Kourtney, two women who have spent most of their lives having their bodies relentlessly scrutinised, are just two examples. There are countless celebrities who have been forced to publicly ascribe their weight gain, scars or changing bodies to illness, pregnancy or menopause: Chrissy Teigen, Michelle Obama, Ashley Graham, Gabrielle Union, Bebe Rehxa. I could go on.

It’s as though we’re all desperately shouting into the fat-phobic void, ‘Look! It’s not my fault!’ As if Kourtney’s stomach would be less acceptable if she hadn’t had kids; Selena’s weight gain deplorable if she wasn’t chronically ill; my stretch marks punishable by law if I wasn’t recovering from an eating disorder. What would happen if we’d all said, ‘I just decided that having ice-cream for breakfast was more fun than a spirulina smoothie’? Or, ‘I finally stopped giving a toss what society told me my body should look like?’

I spent so long on that holiday excusing my body to no one but myself.

The fact that women like me are so ashamed of gaining weight that we feel the need to defend our bodies in a way that absolves us of guilt speaks volumes to the sizeist society in which we find ourselves. We all know that women’s bodies come in all shapes and sizes which fluctuate for a whole host of different reasons. We also know that we don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why our bodies change. But in reality, that knowledge alone isn’t enough to quash the guilt, or silence that voice in our heads telling us, ‘There’s something wrong with you.’

Hopefully one day, I won’t feel the need to justify my body. Hopefully it will just be enough that it can climb mountains, lift weights, and do the rather miraculous job of keeping me alive.

For more from GLAMOUR’s Website Director and Body Talk columnist, Ali Pantony, follow her on Instagram @alipantony.

For advice or information on the topics mentioned in this article, contact Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, on 0808 801 0677.