You might know Gill better as her alias, @sciencesnapstories. She began on Snapchat, sharing her scientific knowledge about almost everything you could possibly think of with her avid followers, but soon moved over to Instagram as her primary platform.
Why do I follow Gill? Well honestly, I follow Gill because she legitimizes my beliefs. For the past three years I’ve worked hard on my relationship with my body, learning to accept and love it just as it is. Funnily enough, the biggest hurdle for me wasn’t accepting how I looked, but accepting that I could look the way I do and still be healthy.
This was really hard for me because the message that fat people cannot be healthy is beaten into us so hard from such a young age that the idea that that could all be a lie felt too far fetched to be true. Then I found Gill.
Gill taught me so much about my body. She breaks down the complicated science of biology into really accessible bullet points that even I can get my head around. She backs everything she says up with real life studies, and really sifts through the bullshit science to share only the proven, unbiased facts.
Following Gill has helped me to really believe that my body can be fat and healthy. It’s helped me to understand why diets don’t work, and the damage that they do to the body. She’s shone a light on the truth behind health and wellness that has really opened my eyes. She’s given me that final bit of confidence I needed to be able to stand up for myself, my body and my health in the knowledge that what I’m saying is scientifically true.
Aside from being the brains behind @sciencesnapstories, Gill is a former weight lifting champion, a Mum, a wife and a very funny, endearing woman. She’s a thin woman who knows her privilege and uses her platform to support those of us in marginalized bodies. But she doesn’t just shoot the science shit about health. Follow Gill and you’ll learn so much about so many different topics.
I’m full of admiration for Gill and look up to her in many ways. So, I was chuffed when she agreed to do this interview with me. I had very high expectations for her answers, knowing how intelligent and articulate she is, and she didn’t disappoint. Enjoy!
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?
In my home, beauty was definitely something to be valued, and a reliable indicator of someone’s status, success and sanity. You’d hear throwaway comments about how such-and-such had “let herself go”, akin to social suicide and have they no self-respect. The least you can do is put on some make-up, were you reared by savages?
Beauty and weight were inextricably considered one and the same. You couldn’t be beautiful if you were bigger – have a pretty face perhaps, but but such a shame about the figure. Diet culture was as normal a topic of conversation around the dinner table as community gossip, and remarking on other people’s appearance was a perfectly acceptable exchange of information.
Mum would often comment that she’d be “happy when [she] loses those last few pounds” and the shamefully fat, happily thin narrative was thus embedded. But she was a product of her time too, living through a transformative age that a lot of the baby boomer generation only got to experience from the sidelines – returning to work after babies, more independence and the ability to own your own home, car and social life, but with values that still belonged to their parents.
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?
I started my first Weight Watchers diet at 14. I think that should set the scene appropriately. From a young age I was told that I had inherited my mother’s child-bearing hips; meant as – I presume – a backhanded kindness by the wider pool of family and friends. My mother would say it to me apologetically, as if passing on her genes for a rotund bum was some kind of genetic time bomb that would inevitably explode, imbuing me with despair and unhappiness.
Later, of course, I would reflect on the Irish obsession of how permissibly we commentate on women’s bodies, reducing them to baby making factories in everyday conversations, but that’s a conversation for another blog.
I was a teenager in the 90s, so supermodels, All Saints and the Spice Girls were the look du jour. Low slung denim and belly tops everywhere, and were you even anyone unless you wore cargo pants with flatform trainers? Not all of us felt very comfortable with the trends though as evidenced when I was about 14 or 15 and going to a Spice Girls theme party. After agonising over which Spice I would closely align myself to, or more importantly whose outfits I could get away with wearing, I settled on the only logical answer: I put on a very smart, roomy, black linen suit and went as their Manager.
Do you remember ever feeling body shame as a child/teenager, or being body shamed by others?
Me: 15, in a mixed school, a sporty, rather robust young woman who was just finding her footing on her journey to accepting her fate as having an “athletic” body (no boobs, big bum, broad shoulders, but just the right side of pretty to be considered attractive to the odd few).
Any doubts I may have had about how I was seen by the opposite sex were firmly put to one side when a boy in my year approached me right before assembly one morning and earnestly asked – in front of what felt like the whole school – what exercises I was doing to make my legs look so big, that he wanted to bulk up for rugby. He honestly meant no harm, I was a jock, one of the blokes, he admired my strength and my body’s functionality.
It was more of that backhanded kindness – I was accepted because I was so good at sports, but my body was appreciated for how well it stood up to my male peers, and not because it was desirable – I was not (never have been?) a beautiful woman. Strong yes, sexy not so much.
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?
My relationship with my body was largely shaped by hearing the conversations my Mum had with her body, most of them quite negative. I’m certain that she complimented me frequently and told me that I looked well and healthy and pretty and great and all of those things, but it was the voice that she used with herself that stuck with me longest. Putting on weight was surely a sign of laziness and failure, and I would only be happy again once I’d dieted it all off.
My early-teen Weight Watchers experience reinforced that message hard, with peers *and* teachers commenting on how much “better” I looked having lost weight. But to try and lose weight and not succeed? Talk about a double whammy of self loathing. So the message – to me at least – was clear. Thin was successful and worthy of praise, fat – or even gaining any weight beyond my slimmest – meant I was failing, or that any other facet of my life that wasn’t quite working out was most likely because I wasn’t slim.
This continued right through adulthood, and led to a rollercoaster of feelings around around my weight. I don’t think my size has ever been the sole cause of my ongoing mental health issues, it’s been another handy rod for my depressed brain to reach for when it’s on a major self-loathing bender.
If you’ve had children, how do you think that has affected your relationship with your body?
It’s had a massive impact, but in a very non-linear way. Watching the body that I’d worked so hard to keep strong and active get slower, bigger, stretched and sloppy was so hard, and I struggled to really relax into my new shape. I also had the appetite of a horse so while my body was ploughing ahead to stockpile as many calories as possible for impending newborn baby madness, my head was finding it hard to come to terms with just how much my body was changing.
On the plus side though, my boobs got huge, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love them! Having small kids quite rudely interrupts the very personal, intimate relationship that a woman has had with her body all her life. It’s not yours anymore, not really, not while the babies are small. Even if you aren’t breastfeeding your baby, you’re holding them, cuddling them, bouncing them, keeping them close, giving them your warmth for comfort and to induce sleep, generating energy for the *sole* purpose of keeping them alive, and biology very quickly reminds you that once that little person comes along you kind of have no choice but to put yourself to one side for a while.
So your body goes on autopilot, does what it needs to do to survive, and you’re powerless to do much about that. Like watching a loved one go off and live the life they want even if you’re really not sure it’s right for them. Tough extra-large tits love, baby comes first and you’ll have to pick up the pieces of your physicality when they’re big enough to outrun a sabre-toothed tiger.
Of course society would have us believe that you’re a particularly inferior woman if you don’t drop the baby weight within days of giving birth, and my own body’s resistance to leave the comforting swell of maternity pants left me feeling fairly terrible about looking in the mirror. I yearned for the days when my skin didn’t look like aging leather that had been stretched to Alaska and back.
Things improved after I had my second, and last, baby. I was able to go back to the gym and start to appreciate my physical strength again. It would be completely misleading of me to try and pretend that I’ve remained at that bigger size, I’m back to around the same size I was before babies, but with significantly more wobbly bits and my slimline waist is a long distant memory.
I still struggle with body image, and my frame of mind is a work in progress. It bugs me that I even care about my weight, that it’s still such an indicator of high value to me. It irritates me that there’s such a lack of acceptance around the completely normal changes in women’s body’s postpartum. Thanks to extensive tearing I have bits sewn up slightly irregularly, my boobs are small again but now sag quite a bit, and my tummy is round and bears the leftover fat storage that once kept my babies nourished and happy.
I hate the negative narrative that comes with all this, and I hate that I care about it so much, that instead of congratulating my amazing body I’m perversely annoyed with it for the having the audacity to make life and – gasp – get older. But like I said, my frame of mind is a work in progress.
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?
On one hand I have significantly fewer f***s to give, and that definitely brings with it a confidence that I never had when I was younger. As you get older you have the wisdom to know that other people don’t see the same flaws you do, and you can embrace a freedom of acceptance that youth doesn’t afford.
But ageing women are not beautiful creatures in society, and the ones who do get lauded are the ones who have somehow magically escaped getting older and “look younger than their years”. When was the last time you saw a woman over forty being admired *for looking over 40*? I am fine with getting older right now because I’m not older yet, I don’t have wrinkles on my decolletage, although the tautness of my once youthful skin is definitely diminishing at a very fast pace. I am not worried, but I will be.
Do you think that men and women are equally subjected to unrealistic beauty standards?
We are in the same way that politicians and bankers are held to the same standards of morality and justice as you and I.
A Pew Study in 2017 found that the most valued trait in men is honesty (33%) but physical attractiveness in women (35%). In fact physical attractiveness is ranked 6th with 11%. We don’t expect men to be beautiful, we expect them to be reliable and trustworthy, because they are the valuable gender. Women, on the other hand, are for pleasure, for someone *else’s* pleasure, and so we place greater value on how they look because they are a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded, morally speaking.
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 remember being 13 and trying to buy a pair of jeans. None of the ones I liked would fit over my thighs and I ended up having to buy men’s jeans. They were huge in the waist, snug around the thighs. They were awkward, just like me. It’s how I’ve looked at my body for most of my life – never really fitting the conventional shape properly.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about your relationship to your body, what would it be?
Your body is amazing and beautiful no matter how much of the negativity you internalize, I promise. Take all those hours you’re spending worrying about how you look and put them into going out and enjoying yourself – you are bloody gorgeous, and anyone who puts you down is coming from a place of badness inside themselves, it’s not a reflection on you. I know it’s hard for you to believe this right now, but believe older you when I say it.
If you could change one thing about society and how it treats women and their bodies, what would that be?
Where to start? Fundamentally, acceptance. Just let people be – their bodies are not our business, not in any way. There’s a big part of me that just doesn’t understand how this isn’t the case, it seems like such a simple idea. I guess maybe as I unpack all my own biases I realise how much kinder it is to let other people live their lives as they wish, and it all seems so obvious?
You can have your mind blown by Gill some more over on her Instagram account.