Let’s Magnify, Embrace & Celebrate our Differences... with Helen Cross

This is not my first rodeo when it comes to writing about body image, something which has become a hot topic of conversation as social media plays an increasingly bigger role in our lives, or perhaps I should say the perception of our lives. Whether we think it’s a force for good or a force, damaging the lives of many younger men and women, I suspect that conversation will continue.
I’ve battled my own demons when it comes to body image. I’ve had a warped sense of size when i’ve looked in the mirror. Size 6 clothes have hung depressingly on my tiny frame and I’ve fought an addiction to exercise and battled an eating disorder in my early 20’s, which affected me both personally and physically at a time when I had the world at my finger tips, moving up the ladder in an exciting career.

This was all before the whirlwind of social media took over how we view the world. I can only imagine how my mindset would have dealt with the onslaught of filtered, staged and perfected images showcased on online platforms, especially that of Instagram, which some people sadly use as means to gain validation and acceptance.

For me personally, I stopped eating. Not to look a certain way, but to gain control of the one aspect of my life I could at a time of change, when I was entering into the world of work after graduating and travelling. I was the text book personality type of someone with an eating disorder; conscientious at school and university, and driven to succeed.

While I don’t believe social media is solely responsible for causing mental health issues, I do believe it’s contributing to the epidemic of teenagers and adolescents reporting cases of anxiety, depression, low self esteem and eating disorders as they grapple with accepting who they are. Life seems far more complicated for them than it need be, and I feel they are missing out on a whole world of discovery and adventure.

Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of those I polled believed social media is having a negative impact on body image, leading to episodes of body shaming and hateful trolling, with some commenting the search for perfection online is “suffocating” with “unrealistic expectations” being set. It has also been described as a “rollercoaster ride of self love, self comparison and self sabotage”, with lots of unrealistic images, making it hard to navigate who is being true to themselves and distributing misinformation about how to get that “perfect body”.

There is no getting away from the fact that many of us are visual creatures. We like beautiful things and people and even in a world without social media, it is human instinct to draw comparisons. I know I’m guilty of it. However, social media has definitely magnified this world of comparison and this for many is dangerous, especially when it comes to body image.

Nevertheless, social media is not going away any time soon. What we need instead of a drip feed of unattainable images showcasing perfection, is a steady stream of honest, realistic and diverse images, highlighting that beauty and healthy bodies don’t come in one size. We are all different and these differences in all their colours and shapes need to be celebrated.

If you go looking this movement is happening. People are realising social media can be used as tool to showcase what real beauty and real people look like, with an increasing number using Instagram as a way to express their individual style and personality. It can be a great tool to inspire and cultivate positive messages when deployed the correct way. Admittedly, you need to go looking and be able to navigate wisely but there are some great women doing great things.

Founder of the Warrior Woman Project and inspirational blogger Natalie of Style Me Sunday is working really hard to promote positive body image and self acceptance online, breaking stereotypes and showcasing that accepting our vulnerabilities and differences is a force for good. I took part in her 3rd Warrior Woman Project last year and this truly had an overwhelming positive impact on me. Posing in my oversized knickers with other women, seven months after giving birth to my second child is a sure fire way to see that beauty is not one size, and that confidence and beauty go hand in hand.

Taryn Brumfitt, founder of the Body Image Movement and creator of the documentary Embrace is also a great example that you can be strong, fit and beautiful. She is on a mission to help women feel more confident in their skin and remind others you don’t have to conform to toxic messages online to be accepted.

Megan Jayne Crabb @bodyposipanda, who has overcome anorexia is also flying the flag for diversity and helping others to embrace their imperfections. She is a breath of fresh air.

A huge turning point for me personally was having my first two boys. I struggled initially with the changes my body was going through but I soon realised what an incredible instrument my body was. Post babies I’m not agonising over my body shape which has changed, I’ve embraced these changes and work hard with what I’ve got to keep fit and healthy. For many, however, I understand that after having a baby you don’t feel yourself and this is not helped by the images of famous people snapping back into shape, making you question why you still look 6 months pregnant and you’re not back into your skinny jeans as you walk (or in my case waddle) out of the hospital.

Again there are some wonderful personalities and bloggers online working hard to spread positive messages about accepting the changes your body goes through throughout and after pregnancy, as so often the changes that occur go unspoken. The Fourth Trimester Project, bloggers Clemmie Telford, Clemmie Hooper, and Steph Douglas have all taken big steps to try and normalise different body images pre and post birth. The artist and photographer Lara Donnie’s powerful images highlight that although during pregnancy you may feel like an imposter has taken up residency in your body, this is the time you should be most able to claim it as your own and be proud of it.

As I hurtle towards my mid 30’s I am slowly gaining more confidence in my own skin. I love bright lipstick and dangerously high, high heels, they're weapons in my armoury to feel confident and express myself, but equally I’m happy in my hoodie. My two year old tells me my legs are scratchy, and I haven’t had a bikini line wax since my honeymoon and one of the reasons I grew a fringe was so I could neglect my eyebrows a little more than I probably should.

Seeing men and women confident in their own skin, is what I believe to be beautiful and we have a responsibility to educate our children and ourselves about the importance of self worth. Remind ourselves that images can be airbrushed and manipulated and most importantly aesthetic beauty ages and vanishes. Our bodies and mind can achieve far more than our looks in the long run and accepting our differences is what makes us unique. Who wants to be the same as everyone else. Love yourself a little more and live life. There are adventures to be had, in heels, hoodies or bright lipstick. It’s up to you.

You can keep up to date with Helen on her Instagram @mrshelencross

And further musings on her blog, The Gingerbread Woman.

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Nicola PSBComment