“You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

CN: body image, weight loss, potentially triggering comments, mention of actual weights

I wrote a while ago about body image. I had just gotten to a point – finally, after so many years – of being happy with the way I looked. I wrote that I would ignore the weight on the scales, and I would focus on loving my body for what it is; flawed and human and beautiful. Nearly a year later, that ideal is under threat.

Moving to London, I joined a new rowing club. It’s easily the best decision I’ve made since coming here. My new girls are funny and smart and kind, and getting to know them, becoming their cox, has been a pleasure. It’s given me somewhere to go when the days at work seem too long, somewhere to focus and forget how much I miss Cambridge, how much I miss my friends, how much I long to see my boyfriend. A bad day at work can be worked out in the gym with them, lifting half of what they do. It can be alleviated squatting behind them on the ergs, watching their splits drop and willing them on with everything that I have. The best times are when we’re on the water, and it’s still and calm and I can feel myself slipping back into that place I loved at Cambridge, where the world is a puzzle and your voice, your words, provide the solution. When there is nothing else in the world but the rhythm of the rowers, and everything else melts away. It’s why I love racing so much; in that moment, we are one.

We have a new coach. He’s eccentric, and constantly grumpy, and also, I suspect, slightly brilliant. I enjoy coxing under him; it’s stressful, but he reminds me of my DoS at Cambridge, a woman I admired above all others. Compliments are rare; criticism is swift; and you can feel yourself becoming better the more time you spend with them. It’s not a picnic. More than once, I’ve sat in the boat on the edge of tears, as my coach tears into me and I feel, more than anything, that I’ve let my girls down. But then he says “good job today, Sarah”, and suddenly it’s all worth it. He’s clever like that.

The first time we met, he took one look at me, his eyes pausing on my long legs, my strong thighs, the curve of my hips.

“You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

It was not the last comment he would make on my weight in the months that followed.

“How much weight can you lose and how fast?”

“You’ll need to cut down”

“Do you even fit into the boat?”

“See her? She’s a real size for a cox”

“You probably weigh as much as me!”

“We’ll need to run that muscle and fat off of you”

“You need to take responsibility for your own weight.”

“We need to get you down to an acceptable weight.”

I’m big for a cox. I’m tall, always have been, and with my long legs comes extra weight. The minimum weight for a women’s cox is 50kg. The minimum weight for a men’s cox is 55kg. I am currently sitting at around 60kg. The whole point of the minimums is to stop coaches forcing their coxes to lose an unhealthy amount of weight, as going below that results in the cox having to carry weights into the boat and so any advantage is lost. 50kg for me is not possible; my coach accepts that, even if he’s not thrilled at the idea. But 55kg is certainly within reach, and that’s what he wants me to get down to.

I’ve never tried to lose weight as an adult woman. My body has changed so much over the years, gaining and losing weight, and it’s now settled into where it’s meant to be. Where it’s happy being. This is the me that runs and lifts weights and does yoga and climbs. This is the me that dances around the kitchen and spoons my boyfriend late at night and wiggles into skinny jeans and buys tiny crop tops from charity shops. If I wanted to, I could tell my coach to bugger off, tell him that I love myself and I won’t change for anyone.

But I know that I have it in me to lose that weight. I’m competitive; I want the best boat I can get, and there are smaller coxes in my way. More than anything, I know it would help my girls. The trouble is, how do you love yourself when you’re constantly weighing yourself? When every mouthful you eat has to be analysed? When you find yourself hating yourself a little bit more every day? When a glance into the mirror isn’t “damn girl, you look hot today” but “fuck, I knew I shouldn’t have had that sandwich for lunch”?

I don’t have the answer. I need to take this slow and steady. I need to lose weight doing the things I love; I need to run, faster, and lift (if not anything too heavy) and climb, and stretch. I need to cook, healthy meals from scratch. I need to dance around that kitchen, and then I need to snuggle on to the sofa and watch a movie with a glass of wine. And if, it the end of everything, I can’t get to 55kg, I need to be the best damn cox I can be. I reckon that’s more important than an extra 2kg any day.

Imperfections: Learning to love your body

TW: self-esteem issues, counselling, exercise, weight loss, weights given in numbers

Growing up, I wasn’t what you would call a sporty girl. In fact, I was the opposite: shy and awkward, I tried to avoid getting involved in sports at school, for fear of being mocked. It didn’t help that my school operated a segregated PE programme: sports like football and rugby for the boys, cheerleading and (I kid you not) “Bollywood dancing” for the girls. As an uncoordinated, gangly teenager without a sense of rhythm and chronically low self-esteem, dancing around with pom-poms was not my idea of a good time.

Even then, I was intensely aware of my body. I have always been slim: pictures of me as a young girl show a freckled, lanky wildling. My sister and I spent our childhood out of doors, running around, climbing trees and racing our bikes around the estate. Yet, when puberty struck, my body understandably began to change. My hips began to jut outwards, my body filled out, and – to my absolute horror – I grew breasts. All of this was accompanied by a kind of dysphoria: I knew logically that this was supposed to happen, that I was still slim and that even if I wasn’t, it was hardly the end of the world. And yet I still cared.

My teenage years were a battle with my body, as I think many young people’s are. I would spend hours, alone in my bedroom, desperately doing sit up after sit up in the hope of elusive abs. I would look in glossy magazines, despairing when the women were either gorgeously curvy or stick thin: but no one like me, slim on top and then widening out massively at the hips. I once sat in a counsellor’s office, 15 years old, and had her ask me what I liked about my body. The only thing I could say was “my ears.” I genuinely had found fault with the rest of my body.

I grew out of the gangly, insecure phase. I hit 17, 18, and I could legally go out. I realised that in spite of what I’d always feared, men did find me attractive. The realisation that I could go up to a man in a bar and ask for his number was a revelation to me. Coming to Cambridge continued this revelation. I’m not ashamed to say that I spent my first year dating – and bringing home – as many men as I could. Slowly, I realised that men really don’t care what you look like with your clothes off: most are just happy to have a naked woman in the room. Self-esteem needs deeper roots than being attractive to men, however, and Cambridge helped me to find that as well.

Coming up to Cambridge, I knew that I wanted to take up a sport: I just had no idea what. In fresher’s week, I attended my college boat club barbeque, and I’ve never looked back. Rowing became my obsession, and for the first time in my life, I found a sport I enjoyed. I also found more than that, however. I learned how to do circuits with my crew, how to work out my core, and my legs (of course – every day is leg day for a rower) and my arms. I still remember that first week, shaking on the mat, unable to hold a plank for more than 20 seconds.

In turn, a new found love of working out led me to the college gym, where a friend and I would spend hours trying out all of the machines, before giving up and running on the treadmills, discussing feminist politics (much to the consternation of everyone else in the gym, I’m sure.) It led to learning to run last summer, really run – and finally I understand what Caitlin Moran meant when she said that running fast is like dancing in a straight line. I learned to rock climb with my boyfriend. I regularly practise yoga. And, for the last couple of weeks, I have been lifting weights with my new crew.

When I exercise now, it is very different to that scared teenage girl, performing sit-ups to look like an unattainable ideal of beauty in a magazine. Of course, I still have insecurities. I feel like my hips are too wide, my nose too big, my freckles ugly, my stomach not perfectly flat. If I could change all of those things though, I’m not sure that I would. The thing is, I have been thin: really thin. At the end of my first exam term, stress and heartbreak caused me to lose 2 stone. I was 19 years old, 5’8 and I weighed just over 7 stone. When I look back at pictures taken on holiday that year (including the one at the top of this post), you can count my ribs. My hipbones jut out alarmingly. My stomach isn’t flat: it actually caves inwards. Perversely, I thought at the time that I looked good.

Coming to terms with my body has been years of work in the making, and the battle is not yet won. Perhaps it never will be: I certainly will never escape the ideal of “the perfect woman” that society seems to intent to press upon us. My mantra when I work out – as cheesy as it sounds – is that I’m doing this because I love my body, not because I hate it. I am not contorting my body into challenging yoga poses to shave that little bit of fat off of my hips: I am doing it to stretch my body to its limits, to places that I couldn’t achieve even a few months ago. When I run, it is not to fit into a smaller size of jeans; it is to be outside, in the cold air, feeling my feet pound the pavement. Now, when I do sit ups, it is not for perfect abdominals (although I certainly wouldn’t mind them) but for the endorphin rush when I finish exercising.

Acceptance and self-love is a long journey, one that many people spend their lives working towards. I hope, that as I get older and my body continues to change, I will continue to love it. I hope that I can keep seeing my body not in terms of how it looks compared to the women in the media, but to what it can do: how fast it can run, how much it can lift, how deep it can squat. And I hope that I love my body for all of things that it allows me to do everyday: for the ability to cook, and dance in the kitchen, and cosy up with friends on movie nights, and hug my boyfriend whenever I want to. It’s a long journey: but it’s one well worth undertaking.