'It's taken me a lifetime to stop loathing my body' - writer Bryony Gordon on how she's finally found body confidence
For decades, British author Bryony Gordon felt betrayed by her body, her head full of negative thoughts that made her hate every inch of herself. So how did she end up running not one but two marathons? As her new book is published, she reveals how exercise changed her life
For a long time - most of my life, in fact - I thought only of what my body couldn't do. As a child, it couldn't do a handstand or a cartwheel. It couldn't shoot a goal in netball. It couldn't do cross-country or swim butterfly or manage to connect a tennis racquet with a ball. As a teenager, it couldn't seem to look the way that was necessary to attract boys: it had to give me one long, bushy caterpillar eyebrow instead of two normal ones; even at the age of 14 it couldn't give me smooth and silky skin, deciding as it did to dump a whole load of silvery stretch marks on my thighs and boobs, because my body couldn't grow normally, just obscenely quickly, almost as if overnight. My body could not be thin. It could not be toned. It could not look the way other bodies did in the magazines I read religiously.
I felt I had somehow been given the wrong one. How else to explain the gnawing sense of insecurity, the yearning to unzip my skin, shed it and start all over again? It wasn't just the way I looked on the outside. It was the way I felt on the inside. Regular readers of my column in the Telegraph will know all about my experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, from the age of 12. My head tortured me as much as my stretch marks and over-the-top boobs and inability to do sport. It told me that I was the worst human being in the world, that I was about to die, or be arrested, or carted off to a loony bin.
My head, like the rest of my body, did not seem to want to play ball. Every part of my body seemed to let me down. At 17, I got alopecia. At 19, I developed bulimia. In my 20s, I discovered cocaine, which allowed me briefly to pretend I was the person I was supposed to be. Even in my early 30s, when I met my husband and started a family, my body continued its miserable quest of failure. I couldn't give birth naturally. I couldn't breastfeed. I couldn't drink normally. I was hopelessly overweight, tipping the scales at 16st at my heaviest. (Note: this is not a tale about weight loss. It's a tale about the things we can gain when we stop thinking about losing the whole time). Why could my body not even allow me to eat normally, like the balanced people I continually read about? 'Will I ever be a proper, functioning grown-up?' I thought, almost permanently, on a loop. 'Will there ever be a time that I don't feel like a complete and utter failure?'
And then I had a revelation that would change the way I viewed my body for ever. It prompted me to enter the London Marathon, and then to enter it again - running in my underwear. At 36, I did my first handstand. I am planning to do an Ironman triathlon, and will (hopefully) run my third marathon next month - a trail run along part of the Cotswold Way.
So what changed?
This: I realised that I was not alone in my self-loathing. Because self-loathing is what it is, really. Not insecurity - that's too light a word to describe the default position that most women are expected to take on their bodies. Of course I knew that others had qualms about themselves. I had heard supermodels and film stars talk freely about the bits of themselves they disliked the most. And if they genuinely disliked their legs, what hope for the rest of us?
And I thought, because of the numerous articles I had read about developing confidence, that being confident was the normal way, the mindset to aspire to. I thought that if I could just be a bit less this and a bit more that, then maybe I could get this miraculous feeling, too - the feeling that was sold to me by glossy models beaming happily and sexily from magazine covers and billboards and movie posters and, and, and... I had no idea that confidence was just a trick, that even glossy models sometimes disliked themselves, that the grass was always greener and lusher and that, basically, I was just one woman out of billions who had been brought up to believe that they were either never enough or far too much (pity the girl who was arrogant enough to appear 'full of herself'). My mother had been conditioned in the same way, as had her mother, and her mother, and so on, probably back to the year dot.
It was only when I started to talk about my own mental health and self-esteem, that the penny started to drop for me. The letters and emails and cards I received on a weekly basis from readers relaying their own issues allowed me to see that, actually, it was perfectly normal to feel weird, and that the real freaks were the people who claimed to feel normal all the time. Writing my last book, Mad Girl, about my battles with mental illness, opened me up to a community of other people who had felt the same way as me - and had not only recovered, but achieved remarkable things in the process. Thanks to the book, I was becoming open to the possibility that the only thing standing in the way of feeling confident and happy was the negative talk in my own brain. It wasn't a teacher who said I would never amount to anything, a bully who stole my lunch money or a man who broke my heart. It was me.
At around the same time I was sent out to New York to interview Tess Holliday, a plus-size model who had started the hashtag #effyourbeautystandards. Tess was at the forefront of the body-positivity movement, whereby women who had traditionally been ignored by mainstream media used social media to let the world know that they existed too. I left that interview feeling inspired and, most of all, represented: I did not feel so strange. The tectonic plates were shifting under my size 18 to 20 body, and I liked the way it felt.
Around this time, the This Girl Can campaign was in full swing. Launched by Sport England at the beginning of 2015, it was an attempt to change the fact that there were two million fewer women out there exercising than men. That gap is still large, despite 75pc of women saying they want to be more active; the main barrier, research by This Girl Can has shown, is a fear of judgement. This struck a chord with me. I knew that exercise would help my mental health, but I was terrified of taking that first step in case some lean and leggy lovely in Lululemon laughed at me. It never occurred to me that said lean and leggy lovely might have other things on her mind, or that Lululemon made leggings for women my size too (they do). Still, the offer from the charity Heads Together of a place in the 2017 London Marathon gave me the necessary nudge I needed. And so began my journey to prove that the best thing to do is quite often the thing you think you can't.
By the time I completed the marathon in 2017, I had noticed a huge increase in my followers on Instagram. Every time I posted a picture of my runner's body (lumpy, bumpy and very, very wobbly), I was struck by how many likes I got: thousands upon thousands. Like everyone else, I had always assumed that social media was a sort of evil, a way of making you feel inferior. But as the messages flooded in from women telling me about runs they had been inspired to go on (by me? Was this really happening? Yes, yes it was, and every damn day at that), I began to realise that social media was setting many of us free.
I remember posting a picture a week after the marathon, me standing in my granny pants and a sports bra, chafing scars on my thighs and cellulite clearly visible. The show of support was so incredible that I was convinced of the need to do it more - there is something incredibly empowering about posting a snap of your saggy boobs in a bikini while on holiday and the overwhelming response being 'You go, girl!' instead of 'Yuck, go away'.
As I followed more and more body-positive accounts, I realised that social media was enabling us to feel seen for the first time, and when you feel seen you are far more likely to get out and about. It was then that it became obvious to me what my next book had to be about. It had to be about the unexpected way I had come to love my body - bumps, boobs, birthmarks and all. How I had stopped the endless negative chatter in my head simply by doing the things I feared most - and how in the process I got closer to my husband and became a far more present parent.
I wrote Eat, Drink, Run as I trained for marathon number two, which I ran alongside the plus-size model Jada Sezer. I met Jada, ironically, on a Lululemon influencers' weekend, where she expressed utter astonishment that I had run a marathon. 'It hadn't ever occurred to me that girls like us could run,' she beamed, before begging me to do another one with her. It was a little while later that we decided to do it in our underwear, to prove to people that a runner's body can come in all shapes and sizes.
The response we received was incredible. And yet it also broke my heart to see how many people - both men and women -approached us on the day to tell us how insecure they were. If I needed proof that people were becoming sick of body negativity, then I got it on marathon day.
Of course, there were trolls. There are always trolls. The people who sent messages telling us that we were disgusting; the ones saying we would probably die; the usual suspects droning on about how we were promoting obesity - even while running a marathon. But the trolls were outnumbered by 30 to one and each negative comment only added fire to my wobbly belly.
When I was growing up, being wholeheartedly proud of yourself was looked down on. Then self-love became a radical act. Now, body positivity is something people are embracing - even Hollywood wants in on the action, with the release earlier this month of Amy Schumer's body-confidence comedy I Feel Pretty.
And so, for my daughter's sake, I have stopped thinking of what my body can't do. Instead, I thank it for what it has done, and what it will do in the future.
I still don't have masses of confidence, but do you know what I do have? I have a body, a vaguely functioning one at that, I will not be getting another so I may as well be kind to it.