Denise Smith is a stylist, a journalist, a bride to be. I was dying to ask Denise about how her experiences have shaped her relationship with her body and her mental health more broadly, especially as she works in the fashion and beauty industry.
Can you start off by describing the attitude to beauty in your family home while you were growing up and how you think that affected you?
My mam always taught myself and my sister to love ourselves and embrace our individuality. We had a very healthy childhood. My mam was never obsessed with how she looked, she didn’t diet or would never talk about cutting carbs from mealtimes or verse us in the importance of exercise – stuff that myself and my sister generally do now. When we spoke of beauty in my house, it was of inner beauty. My mam taught us that there was beauty in excelling in school, in taking part in a dance rehearsal or laughing with friends. I don’t ever remember being aware of my body when I was a child.
During your teens, how did you feel about your body? Did you compare yourself to your friends or family? Do you remember who your role models (for example musicians, actresses, an older cousin etc) were and what, if anything, you did to look like them?
At 5’9, growing up I always felt painfully out of place. While my friends were petite and dainty I towered above them. For a very long time I felt like I took up too much space. I longed to look like my sister who was always and still is, thinner than me. While I was broad and big chested, she was petite and perfectly proportioned. I can’t even begin to imagine how many hours of my life I wasted by wishing I had a smaller waist, shorter legs and straighter teeth.
Do you remember ever feeling body shame as a child/teenager, or being body shamed by others?
I was regularly called out for being too tall or ‘big’ which I interpreted as fat. I remember trick or treating with my friends when I was nine-years-old and a man opened his door and proceeded to fill my friends’ bags with treats and then turned to me and laughed and said, ‘are you not a bit old for this?’ It’s funny that I can still remember something as silly as that but it really affected my confidence. I didn’t look like an average nine-year-old. I was different, and to me, that was a problem. As I got older I would daydream about having the same body shape and being the same height as my friends. I didn’t want to be the girl that was always shuffled into the back row of my dance classes because I was the biggest or told that I was a fine child.
How, if at all, did your relationship with your body change from childhood through your teen years and into your adult life? How do you think this has affected your mental health?
I began to accept my body more in my late teens. My long legs soon became one of my best attributes and I began to embrace my hour glass shape. That being said, I still struggled with my body. I would obsess over the height of my heels before I went on a night out and tell my friends to wear their highest pair. I would often find the nearest chair as soon as we got to a nightclub and sit there for the night or else down shots for a confidence boost. The way I felt about my body definitely affected my mental health because I always felt that I wasn’t enough, that I didn’t belong. I had such low self-esteem, I never considered myself attractive. I allowed people to take advantage of me and I was always the first person to insult myself. That way, nobody else could do it first.
If you haven’t had kids, how do you feel about how it will affect your body, and your relationship to it?
My sister has recently just had her first child and I know she has struggled with the changes to her body. If I am lucky to have kids, I hope that I will embrace the changes to my body with the knowledge that that I am nurturing a life.
As you get older, do you feel your attitude to beauty change? And are you concerned about the effect that aging will have on your body?
I think I have slowly come to accept my body. If I am honest, I am not too concerned about the aging process just yet, I am more concerned about toning up and losing weight ahead of my wedding. I think I will always have that burning desire to lose another 5lbs, or think that my body is always a work in progress. I hope that feeling will change some day and I will accept myself fully and realise I am enough just as I am.
Do you think that men and women are equally subjected to unrealistic beauty standards?
In my opinion there is not as much pressure on men to look a certain way. As women, it is almost demanded of us to be thinner, to be wrinkle free, to be perfect. From celebrity culture to social media, we are told to conform to unrealistic beauty standards, to fit a certain body shape. On the flip side, men are expected to be strong, to show no emotion, so they are also expected to conform.
Do you remember one stand out moment in your life that highlighted to you how you felt about your body, whether positive or negative?
I recently tried on wedding dresses for a feature for a magazine and I cried when I saw the pictures. I hated every single one. Despite my friends and family’s insistence that I looked beautiful, all I could see was my double chin and fat rolls. It was the first time I had ever tried on a wedding dress and the moment was ruined because I felt that I didn’t look like my best self. How sad to ruin such a special moment because of vanity.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about your relationship to your body, what would it be?
Be kind to yourself. Everyone is waging their own silent battle. And while you may not see it, you are perfect just as you are.
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