Saturday, July 20Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Some Things Never Change: Body Positivity or Toxicity?

By Beth McCowen

As the weather gets hotter, and the events that have been in our diaries for months are finally rolling around, it’s time to switch up our wardrobes to include some summer attire after months and months of cosy jumpers and trendy scarves. As joyful as the sunshine, floral dresses, and holidays can feel, this transition in season, and therefore style, is easier for some than it is for others. Throughout the autumn, winter and even spring months, we often grow used to hiding away our bodies, our insecurities, under clothes in which we feel comfortable, usually on the basis that they show less of our skin than the alternatives that are more practical for the summer. 

For those who have struggled with eating disorders, other health problems, or difficult relationships with body image, this annual tradition is daunting and sometimes triggering. Scars, stretch marks, and changes in weight have an illogical stigma attached to them. The body positivity movement has, of course, grown in recent years. This is not to say, though, that it comes without its own challenges. Much of the narrative surrounding this maintains a focus on what our bodies do for us. Whilst this is absolutely a valid way of appreciating our physicality, it can feel exclusionary to those who additionally suffer from physical health problems. Feeling like your body is working against you rather than with you is both mentally and physically draining, and when you throw beauty standards, gender norms and unsolicited advice and opinions from others into the mix with our mental health, it can often be the perfect recipe for disaster. 

Lots of our generation have grown up with families or childhood friends who, as brilliant or challenging as they might be, have helped to shaped our view of ourselves from a young age. While they may not have always overtly criticised our appearances, indirect comments can have a more lasting impact than they might ever imagine. Negative discussions regarding their own appearances and lifestyle can force us to look at ourselves in the same unconstructive way. Judgements made about strangers can cause us to worry that people are quietly hostile towards our own choices, looks or even just genetics. In truth, people probably aren’t even looking at you beyond thinking they like your top or your hair, or some other element which you might have felt insecure about before leaving the house. 

As the saying goes, ‘comparison is the thief of joy’. It is natural for our bodies, fashion, and so many other things to change as we develop into adults (which is a terrifying thought on its own). It is the sad reality that as much as we can strive for body acceptance and positivity, so many people have been conditioned to always want what we can’t have. Being unhappy with your appearance, especially as a teenager, seems to have become an almost universal experience. We hope for it to change, but when it does, sometimes we still wish it was different or even just what it used to be. This is a vicious cycle so many are still working to break. Others look at us wishing they had something we did, just as we likely do to them. But who does this really help? 

Coming to university is the prime opportunity to break away from cultures which have been detrimental to our self-esteem. Here, you can choose your friends wisely and find those who truly understand your experiences and feelings. Knowing your worth and upholding self-respect is vital, and Royal Holloway is where so many of us have learnt the hard way to do exactly that. This is an essential aspect of the journey into adulthood, and as much as it can be a bumpy ride, it is also liberating. But, it is typical to still occasionally face attitudes or behaviours that do not align with our own stance on these matters. It is a very personal thing, and can be difficult to navigate, particularly when you are taken by surprise at someone’s approach. It is important to prioritise your own wellbeing and surround yourself with people who do the same, who lift each other up. It is not easy to distance yourself from expectations that we see every single day in the media and so on, but one step at a time and with the right people, it is indeed possible to embrace who we are. Everyone is allowed to have bad days, it feels natural to sometimes analyse whether the way we look or what we do is really good enough, yet this should not be the deciding factor in our joy. 

Our society and cultures are ever-evolving, as are we. Things like social media can be central in these movements, which has its benefits, but there is nothing wrong with removing yourself from environments which do you more harm than good. Learning to love yourself is a difficult thing to do, and there are many ways different groups of people go about this within their communities. Ultimately, the road to it lies with us, and it is more than okay to achieve your own goals in a way that works for you. Be safe, be kind, and look after yourself and your mind.