Artwork by visual artist Adrianainstagram/mezcaldream

During this pandemic, our relationships with our own bodies and our health are at the fore of public consciousness. Our all-too-typical problematic behaviour, when it comes to eating and exercise, has been sharply accentuated. It was Rebecca Ebner-Landley’s recent article in Cambridge Girl Talk that prompted me to think further about this topic. Discussions around obesity and eating disorders have already become a part of the national debate in which everyone has an opinion. Our bodies, and fat, have been politicised and during lockdown, these emerging discourses have constituted much of the ongoing discussion.

We live in a world where the press and social media are permeated with promotions of diet-culture and an unhealthy obsession with our health and bodies. Diet pills and powders often promoted by celebrities not only are falsely advertised since they do not work, but can cause serious damage to our health. Short-term consequences like upset stomachs can turn into longer-term issues with digestion and metabolism. This toxic and unregulated exploitation of our insecurities, shockingly, is a hefty earner with the diet industry estimated to be worth around £2.8 trillion globally. How on earth can we separate ourselves from this onslaught of societal guilt-tripping?

“Our bodies, and fat, have been politicised and during lockdown”

With this abundance of social pressures exerting themselves, is there really any way we can develop a ‘normal’ relationship with what we eat and how we move our bodies? I’m hoping there is, so today I wish to share something I never thought I would experience. Last week, I went for a run. I put my trainers on, called the Dog, and off I went. The last time I voluntarily, guilt-free, wanted to go for a run, actually did it and felt  good about it was…. never. 

In another life, my teenage life, I quickly developed anger towards exercise and everyone who spoke about it. I remember a particular Wednesday in 2012, when I was 13 years old. My very sporty and energetic friend was convincing me to participate in the cross-country race that afternoon. The PE teacher thought it was a fantastic idea and, since there weren’t enough people on the team already, encouraged me to take part. I reluctantly agreed, not wanting to disappoint, and half-ran half-walked the race. I came last, but I felt proud of myself. The following week, I was again asked to come along, and this time, I really didn’t want to. I went anyway, dragging my heels along the way, not really trying because I knew I’d come last anyway. 

And so it went on, almost every week for the rest of the season. I hated it but at the same time I knew that I would hate myself even more if I didn’t run. I wasn’t able to say no and I wasn’t able to disconnect myself from feelings of guilt and hate. Whenever running came up, between ‘fun’ 3k runs with the family on Sunday or challenges at school, I would always protest. And then, inevitably I would begrudgingly put my trainers on and run anyway, hating everyone, but most of all myself, in the process.

“Naturally, our concerns over health are heightened, but we’re sacrificing balance, reason and mental health”

During this time, we had a school assembly about eating disorders, with the clear aim of targeting the most vulnerable demographic for mental illnesses of that kind: young teenage girls (the boys of my school had a separate talk about another topic, as apparently boys aren’t susceptible to mental illnesses…). Whilst statistics often show that issues regarding self-esteem and body image attack primarily young women, mental health and body image issues are not just reserved for angsty teenage girls. A survey, conducted by the Mental Health Foundation with YouGov in March 2019, highlighted that issues related to body image and mental health are always tied to certain factors and experiences such as long-term health conditions, gender and sexuality, among many others.

The survey also found that just over one in five adults (21%) said images used in advertising had caused them to worry about their body image. What’s more, just over one in five adults (22%) and 40% of teenagers reported that images on social media caused them to worry about their body image. These statistics hit even harder now, in times where social media is inundated with posts about eating healthily, exercising and staying productive. Coupled with the sustained promotion of unrealistic beauty standards, it can be challenging to disconnect our self-perception from what we are relentlessly exposed to. Naturally, our concerns over health are heightened, but we’re sacrificing balance, reason and mental health for unhealthy habits ridden with guilt and shame. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned since those wonderful early teenage years, it’s that exercise should never be associated with feelings of hate and guilt. Knowing this, I turned to other forms of exercise: I’ve always loved dancing and I started going to the gym, learning over the years how to use all the machines and how to use weights. Although I enjoyed the process of learning, in part I turned to the gym because I could go alone. My family knew how incompetent I was at sport and I hated the idea of always being the slow, useless one on a team when people were counting on me to deliver a good performance. 

Things have changed now. I’ve grown up and I feel less ashamed and more confident in my own (in)abilities. But of course, it’s not always that simple. Suffering from chronic back pain has, for a long time, tested my anxieties surrounding feelings of incompetency and laziness. Like everyone, I think my relationship with exercise (and my body) will always be something to keep in check and periodically question. 

About a year ago, personal trainer and now writer Tally Rye came to the Union to lead a workout and speak about the sometimes-negative relationship between social media and fitness. Following her Instagram account has definitively challenged my outlook on exercise when I didn’t even realise it needed challenging. It is possible to exercise without the sole aim of losing weight, or to fit beauty standards that simply don’t account for the normal person . My warped sense of self, and the corresponding feelings of shame and guilt, were accentuated by social media, but it is also because of this very platform that I am trying to unlearn all the  misconceptions we have drilled into us. I’m tired of constantly feeling at war with my body, and maybe it’s time I make peace with it.


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