by Hayley Doyle
As I begin to write an article on how I’ve felt about my body over the years, it strikes me that the majority of women reading this will have had similar thoughts, trauma and misery. Many will have had much worse experiences. My story exists because I was led to believe that I didn’t look right. It’s taken me 40 years, but what I’m starting to understand is that there is no right and there is no wrong. There is only you. Which is why we need to speak about it. We need to let it out. And we need to change the narrative.
When I was 18, I attended a full-time dance college. I’d gained a scholarship because of my singing ability, but due to this, I was under a watchful eye that my dancing was up to scratch. After a few months, the principal called me into her office. She congratulated me on how hard I’d been trying at ballet, not my strongest point. She was looking forward to hearing me sing at the forthcoming show. Then, she looked at me seriously and said, “Now, Hayley, start shifting the weight.” I was standing there in a leotard and tights, my hair in a bun. Exposed. I was also told that I wouldn’t be getting entered into certain ballet exams because I would automatically fail due to the shape of my body. This was code for, “your breasts are too big to be a dancer.”
To put my weight into context here, I was about nine stone. I wore a size eight, or ten, depending on where I shopped for clothes (which is a whole other topic, isn’t it?). I was forever on WeightWatchers, counting my points using a sliding cardboard chart that I took everywhere with me. I’d skip breakfast to keep my calories lower. I’d look longingly at the skinny girls eating peanut butter on toast from the cafe next door, washed down with a chocolate bar. I’d witness girls being praised for losing weight, some rapidly, and find out they had been eating tissue paper. Rather than think this was appalling, I’d wonder why I didn’t have the will power to do this, too. The will power!! How messed up is that?! Not to mention an insult to people who genuinely suffer from eating disorders.
A year later, I left that college. I spent a summer at youth theatre and enjoyed long, passionate days rehearsing for a musical in Manchester. Days before opening night, I decided to drastically reduce my intake of food so that I looked “amazing” in the show. I collapsed in rehearsals. Luckily, some water and a sandwich sorted me out, plus harsh a telling off from the choreographer… who was Cuban and called Isolte and fierce and awesome and full of celebration for all shapes and sizes! The world needs more Isoltes!
But let’s rewind a little further.
I’m 11. I’m in a (different) leotard. I’m backstage, sitting on a chair after just performing a little routine for a dance competition. There are a handful of other girls awaiting their turn. I look down and notice a little bulge around my tummy. I prod it with my finger. I notice that some other girls don’t have this. I instantly think it’s unattractive. Why? Why do I think this? My parents never mentioned it. I’m sure my dance teacher never did, either. I was 11. I was a child. I was very loved and supported. But I just knew it was better to be thinner. Smaller. I just knew.
Because it’s everywhere.
Earlier this year, 2021, I turned 40. It’s been inspiring and at times overwhelming to witness certain movements evolving on social media, and in particular for me, the body-confidence movement. Thanks to brilliant influencers such as Alex Light, I have come to realise that it’s not just me. That I’m not the only one who has struggled. Of course, I know people have suffered with eating disorders and I’m grateful that I’m not somebody who has. But to know that there are so many women out there who have just felt not worthy because we aren’t what society and the media have led us to believe was, perfect.
Now, let me ask you some questions…
Have you ever been congratulated for losing weight?
Have you ever told somebody they look amazing because they have lost weight?
Have you ever eaten less the day (or days) before an event or party?
Have you ever felt self-conscious around people physically smaller than you?
Have you ever presumed other people are happier than you because they are slimmer?
Have you ever believed you would be happier if you were slimmer?
Have you ever blamed your boobs for being too big or your hips for being too wide?
Have you ever squeezed into clothes rather than buy the bigger size?
Have you ever eaten ‘good’ during the week and celebrated with a naughty ‘cheat’ day?
Have you lost weight from a fad-diet and then hated yourself for regaining the weight?
If you have answered, yes, to any of these questions, then you have been a victim of body-shaming.
Sadly, the majority of women are. And if I’m honest with you, I still have a long way to go in my own journey of acceptance. I’m still not convinced I am perfect. I’m still trying. I’m in a process of acceptance, and a long way from accepting. Because how do you un-do forty years of being told one, singular narrative?
Like I mentioned earlier, I have big breasts. It’s genetic - you see, I instantly make an excuse - and while I’ve had friends who have lifted my spirits and told me they are wonderful, beautiful, I never believed they were necessarily a good thing. I always felt like my friends were being kind. That they felt a bit sorry for me. Because big breasts make you look fatter, yeah? I have avoided certain clothes because of the fear that I look like I’m flaunting my chest, that I’m trying to be sexy and “up for it”, dressing inappropriately. When I fell pregnant with my first child, I worried that I wouldn’t breastfeed because it would be embarrassing. I’d see new mums discreetly feeding because they had smaller breasts. I worked hard to mentally push against this and be grateful that I could breastfeed. And I’m not alone in having these thoughts and anxieties. I am one of many big-busted women who have felt self-conscious all throughout our adult lives, simply because we have been brainwashed. Let’s look at it simply; my breasts are a part of my body, like my arms and my legs. They are natural. They fed my two babies for the first nine months of their lives. And yet, I still try to hide them, to make them disappear beneath sports bras, dark tops and baggy dresses.
I promise I’m working on it…
And for my daughter.
Wouldn’t it be marvellous if she grew up and never, ever had these thoughts? I want her to look in the mirror and see how radiant she is. I want her to see her eyes bright and alive, her infectious smile, how hilarious and smart she is. I don’t ever want her to zone in on a single part of her perfect body and think that she is somehow not worthy. Because she is. She is beyond worthy.
We all are.
Now, the influencers of the body-confidence movement experience trolling and a backlash from those who believe they are encouraging obesity and bad diets. This is not what the influencers are trying to do at all. Nobody is promoting an unhealthy lifestyle. They are shining a light on the fact that no two humans are the same and that one size definitely does not fit all. The idea that there is a perfect body shape has been making people - predominantly female, but not excluding males at all - mentally and physically ill for decades is what they are trying to change. Everybody is different. Treat it that way.
In 40 years time, I want my daughter’s story on body-confidence to be singing a very different song to the one we’ve been chanting in chorus for far too long. So let’s take up space. However big or small you need that space to be. And let us sing our own song!