Conversations with Sarah Bryan (Subject: Body Image and Coaching)

At 26, I finally have a good relationship with my body. Does that mean it’s perfect? No, not even close, but it’s improving and that’s what matters.

One of the main reasons I, and many others, have been able to learn to love myself is because of people like Sarah Bryan.

Sarah is a 30-something body image activist, coach and writer from Melbourne. Her biggest loves are her collection of rescue pets (3 cats and 2 bunnies), her partner, books and potatoes. When she’s not coaching clients, Sarah is trying to smash her 2020 reading challenge of 100 books.

With lockdown and isolation bringing up body image worries and anxieties for many of us, I really hope Sarah’s passionate words can remind people that it’s okay not to feel okay and that a number on a scale or a dress size does not indicate your worth.

Describe your own body image journey.
I started becoming preoccupied with my body in my teens. I had just started high school and for the first time in my life, people started commenting on my changing body. Puberty wasn’t unkind to me but it brought with it some fairly noticeable changes!

Looking back, my body wasn’t significantly different to that of my peers but I began to feel like it was. This combined with appearance-based bullying at school, I started to believe that my body was ‘wrong’.

Every time I looked in the mirror I saw a body that was too ‘big’ and took up too much space. I wanted the bullying to end and I longed to be smaller, just like the women I saw in the latest magazines or TV shows. I just wanted to fit in with my classmates.

It was also around this time I started engaging in disordered eating behaviours. I would use food to comfort and numb the negative feelings I had about myself and my body. I’d go through these periods of binge-eating and then into restriction mode by dieting and excessive exercise.

Negative body image, chronic dieting and binge-eating was a big part of my life for over 12 years. I felt so alone in my struggles and I didn’t really understand what I was experiencing. I thought it was normal to hate your body and that I was the problem and didn’t have enough willpower when dieting didn’t work.

In 2017, I was finally diagnosed with binge-eating disorder and I started treatment. Since then, I’ve been able to create a healthier relationship with my body and find acceptance.

I think so much of your story is something that many, many women will sadly identify with. You now work as a body image activist and coach people who want a better relationship with themselves. What made you decide to do this?

Part of my journey to healing my relationship with my body was identifying the reasons why I felt so negatively about it. I began to realise most of the reasons why I believed my body was the problem was through the messages I was receiving and the conversations I was having.

We aren’t born hating our bodies – it is something that’s been learned from the ways we are told that weight loss is good and weight gain is bad. It’s the lack of body diversity in our media, the way certain bodies are celebrated and others discriminated against. The way society has created these unrealistic beauty and body standards that all of us, at some point in our lives, have felt pressured to live up to.

I don’t want young girls or women to continue feeling less than because of their body so I decided I wanted to use my own experience, my platform and voice to create change and conversation around body image. To use my voice and my privilege to speak and stand up for those who can’t. We all deserve to exist in a world where all bodies are celebrated and treated with respect.

I couldn’t agree with you more! Why do you think that so many women feel that their worth is tied up within their weight and appearance?

I think it really ties into the messages we are fed throughout our life, especially during crucial developmental stages. I started taking on the belief that my worth was tied to my weight and appearance when I was bullied in high school about my body. Already, I was receiving this message that my body was ‘different’ and as a result, was getting treated horribly. The bullying was also from my male peers so it also reinforced the belief that my body needed to be ‘desirable’ for boys and men to respect and value me.

In addition to the bullying, it was also the bodies I saw represented in the media. Even in teenage magazines, there was no one who looked like me. In television shows, movies and my favourite singers and bands, I never saw someone with a similar body to mine who was successful, valued, desired and accepted. I really began to carry the belief that my worth was tied to my weight and appearance – not how caring, compassionate or smart I was.

Your Instagram really promotes the idea that worth is not dictated by dress size or body shape. What do you hope someone visiting your page takes from your posts?

I really hope that they get the message that they are worthy just the way they are. That they don’t need to look a certain way, be a certain weight or wear a certain size of jeans to be accepted and loved.

I want to show people that there is a world and a life outside of loathing your body and that you don’t have to diet because your friends are dieting. That you can enjoy food without feeling guilty. That there are so many other things you can be doing than spending all your free time, energy and money on changing your body.

I love those messages! Do you ever receive negativity online because of the ideas you promote?

Unfortunately yes. As a fat woman who openly accepts her body as it is, I experience quite a bit of trolling. Usually it is from ‘people’ or accounts who get a thrill out of bullying people or saying something ‘controversial’, other times it will be everyday people who feel they need to provide me with unsolicited advice.

There is so much stigma around people living in larger bodies – that we couldn’t possibly be ‘healthy’ unless we actively try to lose weight and the usual stereotypical insults that are so, so harmful. This isn’t just directed to people in larger bodies, but it’s a narrative told in all of society. People fear weight gain. They fear getting fat like it’s the worst thing to ever happen to them and that’s all part of the problem.

How do you deal with the negativity that you are sent?

Some days it’s easier than others. I’ll have days where I just brush it off and get on with my life. Block, delete, report – I rarely respond to them.

But other days it will get to me and all those negative beliefs come back. On the tough days, I make sure I up my self-care routines, like taking a break from social media, talking to a friend, read a book, go for a walk or just pat my cats!

You are vocal about body love and body acceptance as well as days you might yourself struggle or feel like you need to ‘perfect’ your image. Why is it important for you to share this alongside your overall positive message?

I think it’s really important to be honest about my struggles. Being real about no matter how far into your body acceptance journey you are, you will still have challenging days. It makes the process a bit easier to deal with when you know that it’s ‘normal’ to not feel great about your body 24/7.

There was a really great quote I came across “body acceptance is an evolution, not a sudden miracle” which I think helps put the journey into perspective. Don’t see body acceptance as the next thing to perfect or strive towards because you’re going to set yourself up for failure. It’s absolutely normal to go a few steps backwards in your journey but you’ll begin to realise that the challenging days do get easier. It might be as simple as acknowledging that you’re having a bad body image day and moving on, instead of ending up in a shame spiral like you would have previously done.

What does the word ‘beautiful’ mean to you?

When I think of the word beautiful, I think of my cat, Simba. I’m serious – even though he is super cute and handsome and smoochable, his beauty is in the way he is so gentle, caring, forgiving and has so much love to give. I think this is true for humans as well, beauty does come from within. It’s compassion and kindness to others, generosity and love. Cliche, but they are qualities that matter so much more than looks.

With everything going on in the world right now, it’s been a challenging time for most people. How has isolation impacted your mental health and the way you feel about your body?

It has impacted me quite a lot but with it has been lots of personal growth too.

In terms of mental health, I think the fear of uncertainty has impacted my anxiety quite a bit. Also losing some income and worrying about finances has been challenging. I’ve been quite stressed but I’m feeling much better now. I do feel like I’m getting used to the restrictions now. It feels like the new normal so I am definitely coping better.

With body image, I’ve found that I’ve been having some fears around weight gain. I’ve been worried because I’m not moving my body as much but also slipping into some of my old eating habits such as turning to food when I’m stressed and bored. I’ve been reminding myself that weight gain isn’t the worst thing that can happen and to trust my body. To treat my body with kindness, compassion and gratitude to counter some of those negative thoughts I’ve been experiencing.

What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with their body image?

Don’t be afraid to reach out for support. I think there is a perception that issues with body image aren’t serious or worthy of seeking help for. If the feelings about your body are consuming your life and are affecting the way you live, that’s not normal. You should be able to wake up each day and not spend hours thinking about your body.

It’s not normal obsessing over your appearance, or saying no to things because you’re ashamed of your body. It’s not normal to have sleepless nights, to feel hopeless or to worry about what others think of your body. There is a world outside of bodies and appearances and there are people that can support you.

If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?

Don’t change yourself to suit other people. I think I’ve spent most of my life trying to change myself to fit in, to be accepted and validated by others. The real magic started to happen when I embraced who I was rather than focus on who I wasn’t.

Be yourself, even if it feels uncomfortable, you will find your people and you will find joy, freedom and peace.

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