“I always end up feeling like shit when I look at Instagram,” said Selena Gomez, who has 133 million Instagram followers, when she was interviewed by Vogue last year.
Selena. Freakin’. Gomez.
Of course, she’s not the only one. In 2017, the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health released a survey of 1,479 young people analysed on their attitudes to social media and found that Instagram, where personal photos take centre stage, received the worst scores for body image and anxiety.
“Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough,” admitted a respondent.
But blaming social media for women’s poor body image is easy. Harder to face is that Instagram is just the latest platform for the insidious syndrome of relentless body-hating our culture encourages in women. On this subject, a Glosswitch piece in the New Statesman exhorted feminists to remember the analysis in older tracts like Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue and Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, that “oppression was structural and bodies were real.”
“Once upon a time, we may have been angry about this,” she despaired.
Is feminism failing in the fight for the female body? The $160bn global beauty industry is growing at up to 7% a year, more than twice the rate of the developed world’s GDP.
My own belief is that it’s hard to escape a cage with a shape that keeps changing. Feminism may have accepted Naomi Wolf’s 1990 dictum that “dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history” but in 2018 #cleaneating” and #fitspo don’t admit to being diet cults, even 37m or 54m Instagram posts later. In her latest book, Natural Causes, Barbara Ehrenrich criticises the recent paradigm shift in which “now, health is indistinguishable from virtue”. The last decade has witnessed the emergence of orthorexia – an eating disorder in which a fixation for “healthy eating” is what causes one harm.
However the propaganda message redesigns itself, we can’t – we must not – abandon a feminist imperative to own our bodies as sites of our unconditional love.
It’s an activist mission that’s inspired Grace Ritter to declare “Weigh Free May”. The 24-year-old student from Perth is now in recovery from an eating disorder that dominated her life for 10 years. She’s created a website and Facebook group, encouraging others to let go of obsessive, aesthetic self-assessment for just one month.
Her campaign requires no donation, there are no events beyond your own commitment: “I just wanted to start up a way to get people talking and thinking about ways they could be valuable and things they could do,” she says, “that weren’t about shrinking themselves.”
Grace, I am so in. And in the belief that bodily comfort is a feminist act, I’d thought I’d share my own super scientific recommendations for simple ways to celebrate your body in a weigh-free May.
My eight feminist ways to love your body again
Take an Epsom salt bath. You can buy box of magnesium crystals for about five bucks (£2.50) in the supermarket, and poured into a bathtub of warm water they make a sound like fairy magic. The Epsom Salt Council claims the magical properties of a long soak include relaxing muscles, nursing bruises, softening skin and relieving irritations like sunburn. At the very least, you can relax in the tub safe in the knowledge that somewhere in the world there’s an Epsom Salt Council.
Wear comfy slippers. A fancy pair of slippers not only make your feet feel like kissed princesses, they also decrease your risk of catching colds and flu by keeping you warm. Changing into slippers stops you from traipsing gross germs from outside to inside, keeps your carpets cleaner, reduces risk of foot infections, prolongs the life of your socks, prevents floorbound slips, and makes you more productive. Relaxed workers – as it turns out – get more work done.
Cuddle a puppy. Puppies are fluffy bombs of love and adoration that keep you warm and cosy and live for your physical presence. They’re also powerful chemical weapons that activate oxytocin in the brain, reducing bodily stress, improving the immune system and lessening the impact of pain.
Enjoy casual sex. Researchers from NYU and Cornell University concluded that “if you want to have casual sex, you definitely should” as doing so lowers stress and raises overall emotional wellbeing. Only when people bring their hangups to hookups do they become problematic. And there’s a really easy way not to get emotionally hung up on a sex partner. Have a shower and leave, deleting their number on the way out. What you experienced can live on forever in your own smug smile.
Share a cake. Cake is delicious. And according to researcher Penny Wilson from ANU, the consumption of cake also connects us to its social role as “a symbol of joy and celebration; the conveyor of history, culture and tradition; as a token of love, belonging and social occasion”. These are lovely feelings to share with another person. So get someone over and have another piece.
Get around in bamboo underpants. They’re so soft! They’re made from sustainable material! They hug your bum like a baby blanket all day and – even better – discourage the proliferation of vaginal thrush. No, they do not resemble any costume of a Vegas showgirl but, girls, anyone who kicks you out of bed for being comfortable is not gonna provide you much comfort in bed.
Have a cup of tea. Sure, tea reduces risk of heart attack and stroke, may help protect your bones, can alleviate depressive symptoms and studies suggest it can diminish cancer-risk, but the main reason to have a tea is that it’s tasty. Its dreamy flavours and perfumes are transportive. If you brew a quality teabag of black tea in boiling water for no less than three minutes, no more than five, remove the bag and add milk to taste, take a deep sniff and sip … hating anything is really hard.
And, remember, Celeste Barber is good for you. If ever there was an antidote for the body hating blues, it would have to be the Australian comedian. Her legendary Instagram account doesn’t only mock the falsity of Instaperfection, but inspires a vision of female experience in every way superior for a failure to live up to it.
Because we can starve ourselves, measure our pieces, work ourselves into the metal of the gym-machines, suck in our cheeks and become obsessed with our own shame for doing so.
But maybe May is a good month to put on our slippers, get comfortable, watch Celeste and observe that eating chips off the floor, dancing around in your pants and spraying yourself in the face with a hose really does look a lot more like fun.
- Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist