I’m 47 and I’m in good shape.

As a woman, this has invariably led to me being regularly called (amongst other things) “lucky”, “genetically gifted”, “fortunate” or – simply – a “bitch”. Usually by other women (actually, come to think of it, never by men). Sometimes, those interested enough will probe deeper, asking if I’ve always had a well-shaped body, or if I “work for it”.

I’m a health coach, but my first career was as a professional ballet dancer. So I’ve never not worked on myself physically, and I’m always circumspect with my diet and lifestyle choices but who knows what I would’ve looked like if I’d gone in a completely different direction?

Some might call my path a fortunate one, simply because I’m not in a position now of finding myself overweight and out of shape as I’ve aged. But it wasn’t always this way for me and I experienced a pretty tough intro into “Hating self, 101”. 

What pudding exactly? 

To be fair, I’m built more like a hurdler than a classical ballet dancer – although lean and toned, my muscles and tendons are short and tight, the antithesis of what’s considered optimal in ballet. So, while I worked my ass off and managed to enter a ballet company, I was constantly picked on for my non-balletic weight and shape until one day, I was pulled off stage by the director and told I looked like a “pudding”!

Now, given that most self-respecting ballet dancers would throw up at the mere thought of a pudding (or anything that constitutes food – the enemy), being called one was the most heinous accusation a director could hurl at one of her dancers. I didn’t ask what sort of pudding I resembled, but I do remember my world crashing at that precise moment.

The result of this uplifting and motivating conversation with such a sensitive, caring person in a position of power (who just happened to have been taken out of a ballet by her director for being overweight many years prior to this) was that – rather than starve/binge and puke/smoke myself to death (I’d tried all that, to no avail) or be eternally miserable and regularly weighed by company management – I chose rather to leave my beloved and all-consuming theatre life and see what else the world had to offer.

This wasn’t easy. Considering I’d known from the tender age of five that I wanted to be a “ballerina”, I had a hard-hitting identity crisis that threw me into a deep depression. It also left me feeling pretty shitty about my body, to understate things.

New beginnnings

Two things happened as I moved forward into my new life. I knew, on the surface of it, that this director woman was full of crap and that – in fact – I had a great body in terms of shape. But I also bought into the fact that I’d been publically shamed and forced out of a career that meant everything to me and which left me feeling I wasn’t worthy or valuable.

The result? For the next fifteen years I used my body as a means to affirm this worth and value; I used it to feel good about myself, to feel attractive to others and to feel superior to those who couldn’t “compete” with what I looked like. It was “self-love” without the love and it was only after going through a temporary separation from my partner a few years ago that I made a determined effort to avoid using my physicality to affirm my worth.

It was really tough not to seek out affirmation from others through this period. I worked closely with a very good therapist (who I still see from time to time) and we sorted through the shit while I made a firm commitment to myself to begin to love the me I was/am. To quote Bart, “Aih, caramba!” Talk about a minefield of learnt vs developed perceptions, perspectives and prejudices! Years later, I can’t say I’m there yet, but I am so much closer than I was. I can say with all honesty that I treat myself with loving care and that I feel good about the person I am.

In my work with female clients, there’s a theme that runs deep and hard. “I’ll love myself when I’ve lost the weight.”; “My life will be so much easier when I look good.”; “Things will be perfect when I can fit into a size X.” Basically – I’ll love myself when I’m “acceptable” (based on society/ peer/ parent/ media views on what’s acceptable), but not before. Sound familiar?

Achieving self-love

So here’s the rub, and maybe this will come as a surprise to you. We’re all in the same boat! Whether you feel you need to achieve an “acceptable” shape or weight, or whether you’ve already achieved it, we need to learn to love ourselves as we are. It doesn’t mean (in the case of wanting to change your body shape for the better) having to accept that your body will always look like it does but it does mean having to face yourself and learn to love who you are independently of your body.

I happen to think that for those of us who are “fortunate” enough to have always had a good shape, coming to terms with the loss (as we get ever older) is going to be one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do in a world that reveres, adores and obsesses about physical beauty.

So, no matter where you are or where you’re coming from, it’s a struggle; self-love is imperative if we’re going to be able to enjoy a meaningful, happy and worthwhile existence. And after all – puddings are for eating, with love and enjoyment.