The first time I remember thinking critically about my body was when I was about nine or ten. I wanted to start shaving my legs (which is outrageous, thank you Mum for saying no), and my brothers had just learned that calling me fat was a great new insult. I remember bending over and gripping my rolls of tummy in dismay and declaring to my Mum that I was indeed fat.
It makes me extremely sad to realise that by the age of ten I was already aware that I wasn’t suppose to have visible body hair and that being fat is possibly the worst thing you can be. To be honest, not that much has changed.
The first time I remember my body being sexualised by somebody else was at the age of 11 or 12. I had just started wearing proper bras which did not escape the notice of the boys at my school. I remember feeling scandalised, like they had just seen me naked. I pretended I didn’t hear their cat calls and comments, but that feeling of shame never really left me.
I went through the traumatic experience of growing boobs virtually over night. I went from training bras to D cups in the blink of an eye. For me that was more significant and formative than getting my period. No one can see your period. Everyone can see your boobs.
In my mind they have always been a hinderance rather than a blessing. Try shopping for a size ten back and an F cup and finding anything other than a skin coloured monstrosity. You’ll still pay $50 for it though. In New Zealand, the choice of bras was absolutely dismal and more often than not, an attempted shopping trip would end in tears. Don’t even get me started on bikini shopping. Right now I own three different colours of the same bra, and the day Marks & Spencer discontinue the style is going to be a stressful one for me.
Because they are a source of discomfort and stress, I feel almost a detachment from my boobs. I dress in a way that most people don’t even notice them. Almost all of my friends have had a moment where they have gone, “Helen! Oh my gosh I never realised that you have huge tits!” I am that good at disguising them.
My body also does this thing, where the first place it gains and loses weight is from my boobs. I remember I used to own bras in three different sizes to account for this. When I was struggling with disordered eating one of my red flags that something was not okay, was when I had to buy bras in the smallest size I had been since I was sixteen.
My weight has fluctuated a fair bit since my early teens. Sometimes for obvious reasons like partying three days a week and living off peanut butter on toast. Other times it seemed to do whatever it wanted. The problem is that every different phase didn’t go unnoticed by other people. Peoples reactions and comments added to the feeling I had developed when I was younger, that my body was not completely my own, that it was up for public discussion and that there was something wrong with it.
Commenting on someones appearance is pretty standard practice. I’m not much of a compliment giver in general, I think simply because I find them awkward to receive myself. When someone tells me I’m looking thin, which is of course the ultimate compliment in our culture, it makes me think about what was wrong with how I looked before. Was my body not okay? All those times I got dressed up and felt good about myself, was everyone laughing at me?
The times in my life when I have been at my skinniest do not correlate with me being my happiest. In fact almost the complete opposite is true. Skinny definitely does not equal happy or even healthy, so I personally am trying to make an effort to steer away from describing anyone in that way at all. You never know what someones relationship with their body is and what effect your comments could have on them. Women particularly, are often reduced to being the sum total of their appearance. Only worth anything if we fit a certain mould that most of us never will.
If you have women you love in your life, I challenge you to appreciate and compliment them on everything else that makes them special, other than just their looks. Or if you do want to tell someone they are looking fly, do it in a way that doesn’t hone in on their weight. Men also deserve to be looked at as more than their just body. Bodies grow and change and heal and do far more important things than displaying a six-pack or thigh gap. And definitely, definitely don’t comment on the size of someones boobs. Man or woman.