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  • Writer's pictureNiamh O'Reilly

Surviving The Body Brainwashing Era

I looked back at an old photograph of myself the other day and I couldn’t get over how slim I looked. I must have been about 19 in it. I was at college and was probably at my lowest adult weight, but I can distinctly remember feeling fat and generally unhappy with my body. I sighed, wishing I could go back and give myself a friendly slap in the face and tell myself how well I looked.


Hindsight is a funny thing, but looking back I can’t say I’m entirely surprised at how I was feeling during those years.


If, like me, you’re a millennial who was born in the 80s and did your growing up in the 90s/early noughties then you probably had similar body hang ups to me. The reason is clear. We grew up in an era that old us women like Kate Winslet and Martine McCutcheon were in fact plus size. Wise cracks about Kate infamously taking up the floating piece of the wardrobe in Titanic because she was too fat, were rife. Martine McCutcheon’s perfectly normally sized arse was the butt (sorry, not sorry) of all the fat jokes in Love Actually. Jessica Simpson was called fat for wearing high waisted jeans. Tyra Banks was called fat for wearing togs and late-night talk show hosts ripped Britney to shreds for that MTV performance.


As bad as all of those were, what always sticks in my mind is watching Trinny and Susannah put middle aged women in the mirror room of shame and point out every flaw on their bodies. And no one ever bat an eyelid. Including me. I was brainwashed. It was a toxic culture. It was accepted. We had magazine covers with big red circles around women’s cellulite. If a woman sat down in a bikini, her normal skin folds were blown up and called spare tyres. Heroin chic was hot on the fashion runway. Women with normal body sizes were routinely called fat and there was no such thing as being too thin. The message was wobbly bits of any kind were bad. Very, very bad.


I’d be amazed if any woman, regardless of her age, made it through that time emotionally unscathed.


There’s a lot about today’s world that worries me in terms of my children growing up. But one thing I’m happy about is the broader range of body representation on show. Social media has changed the game, and we see creators of all different shapes and sizes proudly sharing their style and there’s a much lower tolerance for making people feel bad about their weight.


The body brainwashing might have ended, but it takes time to get over it. It's only recently, and oddly since I had kids, that I can say I feel a lot happier about my body. It’s not perfect by any means. It’s riddled with wobbly bits, stretch marks, scars, and imperfections. In fact, physically it’s in much worse shape than my 19-year-old counterpart. And still, I feel okay with it. I feel more accepting of what it is and I don’t feel under that same societal pressure I once did.


What are your crazy memories of that time?

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