Love your body. We’ve heard it all before, and to most of us, raised on a diet of, well, diets, skinny celebrities and wonder cures, it’s in one ear and out the other. But body image is a fundamental part of who we are, and it affects everything from our relationships to our careers, no matter what we do.
Look at Serena Williams, probably the world’s greatest athlete, routinely remarked on for her supposed lack of womanly curves. Look at Kate Moss, who’s on the record as saying she was ‘embarrassed’ about her body. Look at Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton, two of the world’s most powerful women, regularly body-shamed for their haircuts, their choice of suit, their shoes. It’s endless, and we all do it, to others and to ourselves.
I work on a local radio show, and I write, generally, about politics and women’s issues. Body image and beauty are generally not my thing. I’m not a girly girl. But when I was asked by the National Women’s Council to give a talk on body image, it got me thinking about it. My instant reaction was to say no. But why?
To answer the question, I had to go back a bit. Just a couple of months ago I attended a Woman’s Way seminar in Cork at which the broadcaster Andrea Hayes spoke about chronic pain. I cried listening to Andrea, like a lot of women at that seminar. Because her story – although more extreme than my own – was very familiar.
Since I was a teenager I’ve had chronic pain. A hip problem experienced as a baby resurfaced in my first year in college. I became ‘the girl with the stick’, on a diet of painkillers, Crunchies and cups of tea. I struggled to keep up with friends I had just met, walking between lectures. I dropped the high heels (I couldn’t walk in them anyway), found pubs with seats, and got used to being refused access to nightclubs with my dangerous weapon – a walking stick. (I did look for a photo to illustrate this part. I don’t have any photos of me with my stick. I wonder why!)
After an operation that is no longer conducted on humans (only labradors – seriously), I spent another six months on crutches. The surgeon pronounced it a resounding success. I hid my scars on holidays, limped between physios and GPs for another couple of years, tried unsuccessfully to keep my weight under control by swimming and tried to forget how much I loved walking in the Ballyhoura hills around my home town, one of the most beautiful places in Ireland for a walk.
After leaving college, I cultivated an image of indolence. Getting up at 6am for physio twice a week but pretending to be lazy to new friends and colleagues in order not to walk anywhere is hard. I only confided in certain people. Most people are kind but few are patient.
Fast forward through a promotion, a rotating cast of housemates and a move to Cork, when everything changed. I discovered yoga and realised that for all my adult life my body had consisted of a problem to be solved, a pain that needed dulling, a barrier and a curse. While I had a physical reason for this, it was a psychological problem, and it’s one that affects most of us in some way. It might be our weight, our height, our nose, our teeth or something else that few others will notice, but so many of us treat our body as a barrier to who we want to be.
For me, yoga became the solution, the analgesic and the lifting of a barrier I thought would be there forever. While my pain didn’t go away, it became secondary to what I suddenly saw as the incredible power of my body.
In a yoga class you suddenly see all the things you can do, not the ones you can’t. You’re so focused on your own strength and agility that the tiniest improvement is Mount Everest and the skinny girl beside you who can’t quite touch her toes is beside the point anyway. That moment where you finally do a basic sequence properly, or do a full twist, or master the headstand (only to be back at square one at your next class, inexplicably), is golden. And it teaches you that the body is powerful and unpredictable. You don’t know your own strength.
With the new confidence yoga gave me, I saw an image consultant who showed me how to dress to flatter my shape instead of hiding it. I started to do TV work, appearing as a panellist on RTE’s Today Show, Tonight with Vincent Browne and Ireland AM. And, when I got married, I wore a daring dress that I loved and that showed off my best asset – my legs, which look great, even if they don’t work properly!
I have setbacks, of course; a recent fall has left me back at a stage I thought I’d escaped. But yoga, and time, and support from some amazing people, have taught me that the human body – even mine, lopsided and liable to let me down though it is – is an amazing thing. Learning to love what your body can do, can make you love how it looks. It’s all connected. Chanting ‘om’ is optional!
This piece was published in Woman’s Way in 2015.