Trigger warning, this article includes discussions of self harm and eating disorders
When we envisage conquering our body image issues, most of us would not anticipate that it would involve stripping off and marching through Soho, in bikinis, during the busy lunch hour, whilst being filmed for television. And yet, that is where I found myself.
And let me tell you now, no one was more surprised than I was.
On Wednesday 23 May at 12pm body positivity campaigners in a diverse range of shapes and sizes joined together and marched through Soho in our bikinis. It was one of those experiences which was both surreal, affirming and terrifying in equal measure.
The Flashmob was co-ordinated by writer and activist Natasha Devon MBE and Stephen Bell, co-creator of Portrait Positive, an exhibition of photographs shot by Rankin and featuring models with visual differences which is set to launch in the National Portrait Gallery later this year. The was intended to protest against the increasingly narrow beauty ideals which are prevalent within our society.
Whilst I was fully behind the campaign’s ideals in theory, the actual notion of removing my clothing in public was still utterly terrifying. I would be lying if I said I did not spend most of the time beforehand bouncing up and down with anxiousness. It was in fact only in the hours after the march, when the adrenaline eventually subsided, was I able to realise just how nervous I had been about whipping off my clothing and protesting loudly and proudly.
“Whilst body positivity is an ideology and political movement I have always been in full support of, the act of being confident in my own body has always eluded me.”
I am acutely aware that as a young, white, cisgender, thin girl I have a tonne of privilege and it was for this reason that I seriously considered not attending the march at all. The focus of body positivity movements should not be on bodies like mine. However, I am also queer, invisibly disabled and have scarring all across my body from half a decade of self-harm, so I know that bodies like mine are rarely seen displayed proudly on show. Although body positivity should not centre on me and my experiences, I could still use this opportunity to uplift and support those with marginalised bodies as well as promote the importance of body confidence for all.
At best, I have a fractious relationship with my body. Over the past few years, we have gone through a lot of tumultuous things together, and I have dealt with overwhelming and complicated feelings by hurting my body in a myriad of ways. I would like to say that this is all behind me now, but even in the hours leading up to the march I was in a spiralling vortex of negativity and self-hatred. If body confidence is anything, it is certainly not binary. The concept of using my body positively – eating food and exercising in ways which feel good, working on overcoming self-harm – is still incredibly new to me. Standing in Soho in a bikini was certainly throwing myself in at the deep end.
I was terrified that my insecurity would make me seem fraudulent at the march, but what I found instead was a group of people who were more often than not fighting their inner demons, too. Those at the march ranged in size, shape, colour and ability. There were scars and birthmarks displayed proudly on show, not covered up, as we are so often told to do. Several people there had experienced eating disorders – something which the charity B-eat says 1 in 10 people will experience before the age of 25. What was apparent when talking to the other people there, was that their path to confidence was seldom linear. Many of us, I think, were not as confident as the phrase body confidence implies.
At the end of the march, I was stood, almost in a daze. I could not quite comprehend what we were doing, what we had done. I was also relieved to find the sky had not fallen in and that, in fact, I was increasingly comfortable and by the end did not want to actually put my clothes back on.
But I was also perplexed as to why it seemed so revolutionary to have our bodies on show (and also, I admit, quite angry at this fact). After all, we were just people. It dawned on me slowly just how brain-washed I had become, picking up subconscious ideas about what ideal beauty looked like. Although I actively work to deconstruct these notions on a daily basis, the subconscious brain is incredibly powerful and, when singular ideals are repeated everywhere in places like advertisements, they are still absorbed into our thinking. Diversifying the images of the people we see and normalising a variety of bodies is just one step towards fighting these increasingly narrow beauty ideals, and it was powerful to be a part of that.
I have spent many years beating myself up for not having more confidence in my appearance and even for the fact that, on more days than I like to admit, the way I look can determine my every waking thought and action. However, if nothing else, yesterday enabled me to discern even more clearly that I am one person trying to fight my way past massive systems and industries which have a vested interest in keeping me insecure.
One person alone cannot fight that, but I reckon if enough of us band together – bikinis optional, of course – we might well stand a fighting chance.