The day I reached my desired weight of 105lb, I felt . . . odd. I stepped back and forth on the scale like a madwoman, back and forth and back and forth, just to make sure the ticker wasn’t deceiving me. I couldn’t believe it. Seven and a half stone! All the years I’d spent dieting had finally paid off. At the time, I was a twenty-three-year-old model and had been starving myself on and off for nearly a decade.
I’d dreamed of this moment for years, fantasizing about walking out of the house and people doing double-takes at my ballerina-like frame; clothes looking ten times better on me than on the average person (because hey, why wouldn’t they? I was finally gorgeous); men falling over themselves while marvelling at my beauty.
But ‘odd’ was the operative word here, and that initial two-minute sense of euphoria quickly subsided. As I clocked my reflection in the mirror, I didn’t see perfection. I may have reached my goal weight, but I still wasn’t beautiful, despite what I’d been led to believe my entire life.
Life had taught me that, in order to be happy or valued, I had to be thin. It had started subconsciously as a child, when friends would complain about their weight and how they didn’t have a ‘playground boyfriend’ because of how fat they were. It started with a friend’s mum constantly complaining about her weight and saying how ‘jealous’ she was of my mum’s figure. It started with my mum, jogging for miles every day and eating salads in order to stay slim. It started with cartoon characters in kids’ TV shows being made fun of for being fat – or, worst of all, people in your class being made fun of for being fat. I quickly learned that ‘fat’ was the enemy.
As a teenager, the stigma towards being fat became worse. No one wanted to be ‘the fat girl’. Being fat meant you were friendless. It meant no boys fancied you. It meant you were lazy; that you were ugly and worthless. No matter what I read or who I spoke to, if you wanted to be successful, then the message was clear: DO NOT GAIN WEIGHT. The last thing I wanted to be was curvy . . . and yet I was.
I looked nothing like my mum or my sister, who were perfectly lithe. I was fourteen and a size fourteen, with boobs and hips, and as someone who reached puberty well ahead of her peers, I felt like a total freak. I envied the sporty girls who seemed to make being thin look effortless. I was jealous of girls who could have one portion of food at lunchtime without feeling hungry afterwards. Why couldn’t I look the same as them?
I’d collected fashion magazines for years, but the ones in the early noughties had soon become bibles of ‘thinspiration’ for me – page after page of tall, frail-looking waifs wearing the most fabulous of clothes in the most exotic of locations. As a chubby teenager with acne and low self-esteem, these models were who I desperately aspired to become. And so, with the limited knowledge I possessed, I felt I’d finally cracked the code: that being thin was my gateway to happiness.
Most people remember their youth as a time of getting drunk in fields, but all I remember is diets. In a feeble attempt to feel happy for just a moment, food – or, rather, the lack of it – soon became a solace. I tried them all – low-carb diets, the ‘one apple a day’ diet, the baby-food diet, the 500-calories diet. And, naturally, the weight came off. Being thin got me noticed for something. Being told I looked great was an incentive to carry on and, soon, I had to learn how to maintain the low weight. Bulimia became the answer – throwing up plates of delicious food in secret in an attempt to show the world I was perfect. And it worked: I loved it when people noticed my body getting smaller or showed concern for me.
I didn’t stay a teenager for ever, of course, and by the time I reached adulthood the damage had already been done. My anorexia and bulimia – though I wouldn’t acknowledge the fact it was that – was now deeply ingrained in my every day life, every calorie and ounce of fat accounted for. It didn’t help that these backward societal beliefs of how women should look had also infiltrated the minds of women around me. The way my friends and I looked (or didn’t look) became the pinnacle of conversations, our worth as human beings based solely on what dress size we wore. Perhaps he dumped me because he saw my cellulite? Perhaps if I was thinner, I’d get the job I want?
I was ashamed of my curves, and I wasn’t the only one. It became clear via our conversations that we women needed to rid ourselves of the things that made us feminine as though our lives depended on it. No matter what magazine you picked up or what TV show you watched, the overriding consensus was the same as when I’d been a child: Being thin will make you happy.
By the time I’d reached 105lb, my life-long ambition of becoming a model had finally come true. But rather than making me feel content in who I was, my new weight gave me an excuse to hate myself further. I detested myself. I didn’t question why, despite achieving my dream, my life didn’t miraculously improve. I just figured I’d have to plough my energy into becoming even thinner, until I was finally happy.
Beauty, as I soon discovered, was measurable, in the guise of a 34–24–34-inch ratio. Either you reached those measurements and got the jobs, or you didn’ t – it was as simple as that. But no matter how much I dieted, I could never reach the standards the fashion industry said were ‘ideal’, and I often wondered if I was being punished for something I’d done in a past life. The lowest my hips got down to was 34.5 inches, which my French agent said was ‘almost perfect’ . . . but not perfect enough.
Not long after, I was dropped by my London agency for being ‘too big’ at a size six. To say I was gutted would be an understatement. Blame it on hunger or pure frustration, but I absolutely lost it, writing a lengthy Facebook post about the pressures of the modelling industry that by chance went viral.
To cut a long story short, an American modelling agency saw my story and flew me out to New York to sign with them. I jumped at the chance. New York felt like a new beginning for me – a chance to be free of the issues I had at home and to start something new. But while I felt like I was starting afresh, in reality, the worries I had about my weight still lingered in the back of my mind and I wondered if I’d ever be free of my demons.
I hadn’t been out there very long when I discovered the world of plus-size modelling, full of gorgeous women working for Vogue and Elle and other huge brands. There was no denying their beauty, despite the fact they looked nothing like the models I knew (and the model I was). They owned their femininity, showcasing their rolls and thick thighs and big boobs, and I was envious: envious of women being happy with their size in a world that conspired against them.
Around the same time, and thanks to something called Instagram, I also discovered the body-positivity movement. These women weren’t models necessarily (though there were a few models who supported the cause), but they were women who, like me, had been made to feel less than, simply for not fitting the mould.
To begin with, I felt like these women were being disingenuous. I mean, how could you possibly love your body without someone else’s approval beforehand? How could you call yourself ‘beautiful’ if a man didn’t? I genuinely didn’t think it was possible to celebrate your outward appearance if you didn’t look like a stick insect, yet I saw picture after picture of women showcasing their so-called ‘flaws’ with pride. And I wanted to experience that.
Seeing images of curvy, beautiful and – most importantly – healthy women began to change the wiring in my brain. It might sound silly but, up until this point, I’d never seen cellulite on another woman before. I’d certainly never seen someone actively promote their acne on social media for – shock horror – the entire world to see, or talk positively about their not-so-flat tummies. And for someone who believed these flaws should never see daylight, that felt really refreshing.
I wish I could tell you that, after seeing body-positive women both in and out of my industry, I finally learned my worth and lived happily ever after, but of course I didn’t. Learning to love your body doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t just wake up and unlearn the countless articles, headlines and destructive imagery your brain has soaked up over the years. It was an uphill battle trying to forget everything I’d ever been taught about beauty.
As a recovering bulimic and anorexic, gaining weight was nauseatingly painful. While I admired the confidence of women celebrating their bodies, I just couldn’t seem to appreciate my own body changing. But I was willing to give happiness a chance. I sat down and marvelled at the intricacy of a doughnut; I savoured meals out with girls I’d met and the stories we shared. Food was no longer an enemy but something to celebrate.
The weight soon piled on, as it does with most anorexics. And when my model agency suggested I join the curve division, I had to admit defeat – learn to let go of control and everything I’d known to be the ‘right’ way of being a woman.
Soon, my curves became my most favourite element about me. Apparently, though, the body-positivity movement came with its own set of rules. As I started to take photos of my body and celebrate my new-found curves, new critiques appeared. What would you know about hating your body? You can’t be body positive if you’re a size ten. And so, just as I’d started to feel beautiful, or part of a group that ‘understood’ me, I felt abandoned again.
I wanted to be happy, and I thought the body- positivity movement was the way in which I finally would reach inner peace. But if I looked too ‘small’ in photos and made a comment about how I loved my shape, the negativity online would roll in. So, in order to fit in, I started to position my body in Instagram photos to look ‘bigger’. I posted photos of my tummy and my cellulite in unflattering angles, all in a desperate attempt to be accepted.
The compliments on social media came flooding in. I made other women feel comfortable when I wasn’t sure I felt comfortable myself. It felt strange that, although body positivity celebrates women for their flaws, they’re still celebrating outer beauty.
And then, one day, I’d had enough.
If you want to know how I truly learned to love myself, it is this: I accepted myself.
I accepted the fact that I’m never going to be ‘body positive’ all of the time. I accepted the fact that I’m never going to be the most beautiful person on the planet, or the most feminine, or the thinnest or the most curvy. I accepted that not being perfect is okay.
Whenever I took a break from positioning my body into appearing bigger, or stopped caring about what other people thought both online and offline, a feeling began to well up in me. Love. Love for myself, in a body I’d abused and hated my entire life but that had never given up on me.
The only way to love your body is to change your mind. And what I’ve learned is this: you won’t find beauty in a dress size, or by gaining weight, or by trying to please other people, or by worrying how you come across to them. I’ve truly never felt better about myself than when I don’t think about my body, in any way.
Happiness can come in lots of ways, like running yourself a bath, or telling yourself how grateful you are for something, or by drinking a cup of tea by a fire. There’s a reason Audrey Hepburn said, ‘Happy girls are the prettiest.’ These little things are what light me up, and I have never felt more beautiful than I do now.
Reader, there is a happy ending to my story, and I end it on precisely that: happiness. Yes, I found it. I found happiness when I stopped putting so much emphasis on my outer appearance and started to consider what inner beauty meant instead.
Beauty, I’ve discovered, is a feeling. And only you have the ability to reach it.
Charli Howard's essay is from Beauty Reimagined: Life Lessons On Loving Yourself Inside and Out, a collection of 11 life-changing stories about what happens when women challenge the expectations that society places on their appearances.