'I find self-body-shaming sad and uninspiring' - Meet Ireland's body positive activists
Tired of society making them feel bad about themselves, these women are refusing to equate self-worth with size, and they want you to do the same. Sophie White meets Ireland's body-positivity activists
Fat. F-A-T. Fat Bitch. Fat Bastard. Fat is a word that no one can get comfortable with. Lately, however, a movement towards reclaiming the word and celebrating all body types is gaining traction - it's called body positivity. The idea of not judging people by their appearance should not be revolutionary, but as many of the women featured in these pages have encountered, the contempt for larger bodies in society is so potent and ingrained, it even polluted their own attitudes towards themselves.
"I just thought being fat made me a shitty person," says the striking and witty Dundalk native Sarah Tyrrell, who posts daily snaps of her size-24 body on her Instagram account, and launched her website, sarahtyrrell.com, to chart her journey to self-acceptance earlier this year.
At one time, larger bodies were held up as the aesthetic ideal - Rubens certainly dug the fat girls. However, it's been suggested that negative attitudes towards obesity may have begun in the early 1900s, as carrying excess fat came to be seen as detrimental to productivity and therefore damaging to the community.
While the idea of self-love may still be a radical one, it's not a new one. The fat-acceptance movement had its roots in 1960s feminism as a protest against weight discrimination. A 'fat-in' was held in Central Park, New York, in 1967, where 500 activists ate and also burned diet books.
Over the next few decades, the fat-acceptance movement evolved, but while fashion brands began to respond to the needs of larger people, the movement didn't have much impact on our collective psyche - after all, the 1990s and 2000s have been the skinniest decades yet. Even its rather uninspiring, ho-hum title ('acceptance' is not the most celebratory of words) suggests it was not the feisty and fabulous movement of its contemporary counterpart: the body-positivity movement, or BoPo as it's known.
The body-positivity movement emerged in the mid 1990s originally, but has exploded in the last couple of years with social-media platforms - especially Instagram - providing a stage for BoPo activists to promote the ideals of the movement: self-acceptance and self-love. Proponents of BoPo preach divorcing our sense of self-worth from our appearance and accepting our bodies without the usual caveats of aesthetic improvements.
Rebecca Flynn started her online community, BoPo Ireland, to spread awareness of the movement here and to help others with their body image. "It's really nice to hear that I've helped or inspired people," she says. "I never really expected it to take off like it has - I think it's probably a combination of people finding me relatable, and body positivity gaining traction worldwide."
Catherine Carton, of the lifestyle blog Dainty Dress Diaries, uses her platform to explore her relationship with her own body. The response to a recent post about wearing jeans for the first time in years made her realise just how many women are deeply insecure because they don't fit the mould. "I was blown away by all of the comments... I wanted to write this post to inspire women. We all need to be kinder to ourselves."
Make-up artist and YouTuber Nadine Reid has a refreshingly joyful approach to her self-image: "I find self-body-shaming sad and uninspiring. The level of worth we put on a few pounds here and there is, to me, a waste of energy. I would rather use that time to develop or do something more worthwhile."
The beauty of the BoPo movement is that it is not dependent on mainstream validation. The participants are not relying on ad execs to recognise their worth. They take pictures, post them on their personal platforms and, in doing so, offer a striking alternative to the abundance of thin, conventionally beautiful women that overpopulate the cultural landscape.
Publishing and advertising industries have caught up to some degree, with plus-size models such as Ashley Graham appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated last year. However, as 'enlightened' a move as that was supposed to be, it didn't feel like much of a win for people with average, imperfect bodies. Ashley Graham is, at the end of the day, the 'right' kind of fat, or as social psychologist Sarah Murnen dubbed it: the "curvaceous ideal".
Graham may be larger, but she still has a flat stomach and large breasts. It's large made palatable for the mainstream. What it really shows is that, as a whole, our attitudes towards bodies are still abysmally unimaginative. Remember the Lena Dunham effect? Dunham first started prancing around on her TV show, Girls, five years ago, forcing us to look at a fat ass without the side of big tits and tiny waist that we've come to expect of a 'curvy' body. And we were outraged.
It's hard to comprehend the saturation of thin, white women in the media until you discover Instagram hashtags like #effyourbeautystandards and seek out something a little different. The word 'representation' may well be the 'empowerment' of 2017 but it doesn't mean that we need it any less. Now that we're curating our own visual culture through Instagram, Tumblr and blogs, I have high hopes for the next generation. Perhaps rather than damaging our self-image, it will be possible to be inspired online by positive activists like the women here.
They are demanding a shift in society's attitudes to bodies that may not conform to the universally accepted tenets of beauty: thinness, whiteness and ableness. Meet Ireland's BoPo activists.
A year ago, I didn’t know the term body positivity. I’d spent the whole of 2016 in counselling and on antidepressants, and I knew I needed to keep working on myself; [I knew] that I still had massive body-shame issues that were inhibiting me every single day.
Six years ago, I had an unexpected teenage pregnancy and, as a result, my whole life plan completely collapsed. Eventually, I had a total meltdown. I felt like a total failure to the point that, on the very darkest days, I believed that everyone I loved would be better off without me, including my daughter. Thankfully, I got myself to a doctor and, through Sosad, to counselling.
Back then I didn’t even know that I had a body-image problem, I just thought that I was overweight and that that made me a shitty person.
One day, my counsellor said, “You don’t need to lose weight”. I couldn’t respond. No one in my life had ever said that to me. I just bawled and he kept repeating, “You don’t need to lose weight”.
We worked on loving myself, but it was really hard to love what I looked like. It took months. I hated my body like an enemy.
My counsellor told me that when I started loving myself I would stop punishing myself with food. He suggested that I had very disordered eating. I have cried through binges, vomited and then immediately gone back into it again and cried and cried and cried the whole time — it’s using food as a weapon against yourself. When you hate yourself, there’s no better way to punish yourself than with food. You punish yourself while binging, then you hate yourself for days and weeks afterwards.
I still have doubts. I think of it like this: I’ll spend my whole life in this car and The Bitch — that’s what I call the doubts — is always going to be in the car, but I don’t have to let her near the wheel anymore. That’s what helps me.
I’ve been tempted to delete the whole Instagram account, but I’m lucky I have great followers, and their comments and messages are very affirming.
I get huge gratification from knowing I’m helping others in the way that BoPo helped me.
My rule is, if someone is uncomfortable with one of my pictures, they need to ask themselves if that picture was the exact same, but of a thin body, would they feel the same discomfort. If the answer is ‘no’, then they have to examine that.
It’s like when Panti Bliss announced, ‘I am homophobic!’ We are all fat-phobic; we’re taught to be. Some people want to learn and want to know about BoPo, but I’m not going to preach or push what I believe on anybody.
I’m having so much fun with clothes now, and sometimes I feel really sad for all the wasted years. I’m nearly 27, and I’m dying my hair pink for the first time because I always believed you could only have cool coloured hair if you were thin! So I’m having a ball; it’s great fun. It’s realising that every package is beautiful.
I was tired of talking about diets and constantly comparing myself to images in the media. I wanted to challenge my negative thinking towards my body and figure out why I was feeling a certain way about how I looked. When I changed my thinking and started to stop caring about what other people thought of me, that’s when I started to feel more confident in my own skin.
I recently wrote a piece on my blog about my journey to body acceptance, and that is when I realised how many other women are affected by this issue.
Body positivity, for me, is about promoting a healthy mindset, and feeling good in the skin you’re in. It is not about promoting an unhealthy lifestyle. I understand we have an obesity issue, but we also have a mental-health issue in Ireland too, where people are starving themselves or torturing their bodies in the gyms to fit society’s idea of the perfect body type.
I follow a healthy lifestyle. I eat to nourish my body and not to starve it. I exercise to feel good and reduce anxiety, and, most of all, my mental health comes first. I could exercise and lose weight and I will still never have a ‘thigh gap’, so instead I choose to accept my body, its shape and its imperfections.
Being more positive about my body is definitely a journey. Like most people, I have days where I feel great and comfortable in my own skin, and then I have days where I just want to cover up. On those days, I challenge my negative thoughts and I try to make myself feel good. So, whether it is a bright lipstick, a new dress or by just being kinder to myself, I do try to make myself feel better.
Slowly, over time, I have more good days than bad days. I no longer give my energy to diet or weight talk. I threw out my weighing scales and I follow people who inspire me on social media, and take the images I see with a pinch of salt.
I first became interested in body positivity a couple of years ago. A fashion blogger I followed, who had a body very similar to mine, talked about a term she’d invented called ‘inbetweenie’ for when you’re neither plus nor straight size, but somewhere in between. It’s a category I think a lot of women fall into. She oozed confidence and positivity and I thought, “She loves herself, why can’t I?” So my wonderful trip down the #effyourbeautystandards rabbit hole began.
I was always conscious of wanting to look pretty, as so much value was placed on it. Both my mum and dad were victims of diet culture and the impossible beauty-standards messaging of the 1980s. I know now that how critical they were of their own bodies had an adverse affect on myself and my sisters, but I don’t blame them; it is almost impossible to escape the pressure of diet culture, then, and it still is today.
Health is so often used to derail the conversation around body positivity. Size has nothing to do with health. Not all thin people are healthy and not all fat people are unhealthy. I ask people who are concerned with health this: What is healthy about teaching people to hate their bodies? What is healthy about obsessing over food? Nothing!
I started the Facebook and Instagram pages BoPoIreland to help myself and as a way to pay forward the generosity I’d witnessed in the BoPo community. I do what I do to guide and offer support, but the real work of accepting and loving our bodies comes from within, and it’s hard work, so a huge shout-out to all the women and men out there on their own body-positive journeys.
I would say I’m at the point in my BoPo journey where I accept my body and often feel quite indifferent towards it, which is actually so nice — to not be obsessing over it daily. Some days I really love it, and I respect and appreciate it for being healthy so far and for gestating, birthing and feeding my son. I like its softness and its strength. It’s my home, and will be with me until the day I die, so I plan to be sound to it.
Around 30 I started thinking about body positivity. I started to notice other people’s negativity about themselves, and that in turn made me look in the mirror and go, ‘Shit, should I be unhappy my ass and tummy are both getting huge?’
As a make-up artist, I’ve worked with some pretty high-profile clients, and you wouldn’t believe the insecurity of so many beautiful women.
I have been trimmer and lighter at times, like when I was training for a charity boxing match. Everyone told me, ‘Nadine, you look great, you’ve lost weight!’ This never particularly pleased me. I would say, ‘Thank you’, but really, it felt shallow. I would prefer someone comment on why I was fighting and what that meant to me, rather than the results of the training.
I was raised by my mum and my aunts, and they are pretty fierce, strong-minded women. They taught me to walk confidently in my own beautiful brown skin. My mum taught me that looks fade and good character and strong ethics last forever.
I have never had any negative statements about being a bigger-size woman. I think it’s because my personality takes centre stage, not my body. I honestly believe every person deserves to feel happy and celebrated at whatever size they are. Great health is not a size.
It’s worth noting that I am blessed to have views on body size that are different to the average Western woman. Although I was born in England, I was raised in a Jamaican family and have spent much time in Jamaica, the Caribbean, and, recently, Africa. Ideals of beauty are very different in different parts of the world. I would be celebrated and adored for being larger in many countries.
I’ve never been photographed like this, ever! I now think, ‘Nadine, grab everything great life has to offer you! And don’t let not having a perfect BMI or body-fat ratio stop you from doing anything.’
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styled by Sophie White
Sunday Indo Life Magazine