Edition 14 — Summer bodies

June can be a triggering time of year. It’s also Lipoedema awareness month, so let's talk about it.

“Relationships with our bodies are social, political, and economic inheritances.” — Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body is Not an Apology 

Are you worried about getting your kit off this summer? You are not alone. We love summertime for its iced coffees and balmy nights. Less enamouring is the call to wear fewer clothes and flaunt our flesh. It is a triggering time of year for all genders, shapes, and sizes of people. Everyone has an ideal physique in their head. You know the one I mean. It has been fed to us by films, TV shows, advertisements, and that one cruel kid in every school. Each of us carry ~feelings~ and a personalised secret shame for being, in our eyes, too skinny/fat/tall/short/etc. 

Rest assured, research has shown that only 5% of American women possess the natural figure and shape of women most frequently seen in mainstream advertising media. I presume the percentage decreases within a global context and when we add all genders to the equation, too. That means a whole lot of us are sitting outside the parameters of what we are being sold is considered an ‘ideal’ and ‘normal’ — by which being white, slim, and able-bodied is implied. No reports show how the elusive 5% feel about being represented in advertising, but I am willing to bet that they don’t feel too great about themselves, either. 

Cleverly, whilst we are all being sold a lie, we are also conveniently being sold a product that can ‘help’ us. The cosmetic industry has been constructed to keep us buying products, from fake tanner to shampoo — USD$532 billion worth of products, in fact. Sonya Renee Taylor surmises it perfectly in her book The Body Is Not An Apology. She states: 

“Our economic systems shape how we see our bodies and the bodies of others, and they ultimately inform what we are compelled to do and buy based on that reflection.” 

In the name of journalistic integrity, I should disclose that I am someone who enjoys wearing the occasional party lip and has a skincare routine that I’m obsessed with. In researching this article I asked myself, do I enjoy these things, or have I been led to believe that using them will make me feel good? Are beauty products used as marketable body positivity ploys? Taylor addresses this paradigm through a concept she terms Best-Interest Buying. At its core, best interest buying suggests using one’s resources in a way that is aligned with joy, connection, authenticity. “What each of us needs to live in the fullness of our personal expression will be as varied as our individual bodies and dependent on our lived experiences.” In short, buying products, surgery, enhancements for yourself equates to freedom and self-love. Conversely, Taylor terms buying to “fix some presumed flaw” — as prescribed by the media — as Detriment Buying.

Aside from products marketed to ‘fix’ us, our society is obsessed with diet and exercise as a healthy remedy to keeping in shape. Although it reads as a well-intentioned message to promote, its implied meaning has limits that are rarely addressed in mainstream media. And really, why would they be? As we’ve seen, entire industries would collapse if we all started feeling good about ourselves. Read that sentence again and let it sink in. 

It’s a farce to suggest that a person’s body shape, size, and overall look is down to their diet and exercise. And yet, it’s the kind of messaging that is supported by the NHS. Not only is it untrue, but it is also unfair, too. Some people can’t maintain what is described as a ‘healthy’ weight or change their physical health despite working out and dieting obsessively. The message that diet and exercise is the ultimate route to physical health is not inclusive; it leads to eating disorders and poor mental health

The role genetics and hormones play in dictating one’s natural shape is less frequently talked about. Even less frequently talked about are the medical conditions, disabilities, and fat disorders that can determine a person’s shape, size, and quality of life. A 2019 Vice report stated that although differently-abled people are positioned to reap the benefits of exercise, they are often denied access to the proper training they need, leaving them excluded from traditional exercise spaces. Fat disorder sufferers too, sit on the margins of society. All too often conditions, such as lipoedema and Dercum’s disease go misdiagnosed as obesity and blamed on the individual. 

Lipoedema has gained increased media awareness in the past year thanks to public figures like Shaungha Phillips sharing their experiences. The disease is characterised by ‘painful fat’ that cannot be burned through diet or exercise. It is often found in the hips, legs, arms, and buttocks, causing the skin to look lumpy and out of proportion to other areas of the body not affected, such as the torso. Lipoedema fat is sensitive and painful to touch, easy to bruise, and susceptible to swelling. People with lipoedema report a feeling of heaviness and restlessness that comes with the condition. Women are commonly affected by the disease and it is estimated that 11% of the female population are affected. Medical sources predict this figure is likely underestimated. 

Due to the nature of the disease and our obsession with diet and exercise, lipoedema often goes misdiagnosed as obesity. Read any lipoedema forum online and you are bound to come across a number of heartbreaking stories from misdiagnosed women. Women who spent years being repeatedly shamed for their weight. In such stories, GPs often prescribed diet, exercise, and even gastric bypass surgery in some cases as remedies. Early detection helps to slow the disease's progression, however, there is no cure. Water-assisted liposuction to remove lipoedema fat is an option however it is not covered by private or public health.* 

In my research, I learned about body neutrality, the no-man’s land between loving and hating your physique. The body neutrality movement takes the sting out of the body positivity movement. Sting, you might ask? Sting. The sting of exclusion for people who can’t relate to messages like “Your body loves you, it doesn’t fail you.” Keah Brown, journalist and activist rightly states “For some disabled people, that is just not the case. Your body does fail you and your body does break down.” 

Think of body neutrality as less, ‘I am beautiful and I feel terrific’ more, ‘my appearance doesn’t impact how I feel about myself.’ Re-addressing how we relate to our bodies with an air of pragmatism is a genius way for all bodies to feel empowered. As one Instagram advocate the_lipoedema_life captions it “...I’m coming to terms with accepting my body the way it is. I’m not loving it, I’m just more neutral about it. They’re legs. I’ll never be a supermodel or a track star. But they bring me places and take me on lovely family vacations.” Body neutrality is the inclusive, welcoming hug we have all been waiting for. Writer and activist Marilyn Wann explains:

“If I tried to come up with a word for everyone getting to be their own unique self, free from transphobia and sexism and everything else — I don’t know what word I would use exactly, but ‘body neutral’ sounds good.” 

It’s difficult to decide how to end this essay. Of course, I want to be uplifting, and hopeful. But I also want to be real. Body shame is so deeply rooted in our social fabric it will take more than body neutrality and Dove beauty campaigns to shift what are now our cultural norms. It figures that focussing on how you feel in your body is an efficient way to bypass body shame. This summer, I vow to leave my tried and tested comparison tendencies at the door and instead lean into how I physically feel. I invite you to do the same. Perhaps more importantly, ask yourself, how do you want to feel? What is the most joyful path you and your body can take to achieve that? 

*Liposuction to treat lipoedema is not covered by the NHS in the UK. Undergoing private surgery prices a lot of people out of receiving the treatment they need in order to live a better quality of life and to stop the disease from progressing further. Please consider signing and sharing this petition to publicly fund lipoedema surgery.

Lead image: Max Dupain, Spontaneous composition (1935) via AGNSW

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