15 Years of Body Image Issues That Feminism Should Have Fixed by Now

A Story About Growing Into Body Image Issues and Gradually Beginning to Grow Out Of Them

One of my strongest early body image memories is from when I was about 13 years old. We were going swimming with the PE class and I was taking a shower before going to the pool. One of my friends was in the shower next to me and she commented that my abs were visible. The comment was probably a mere observation, or even a compliment, but at the time it felt like an insult.

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve dealt with some level of body image issues. But unlike what seems to be common among women, it hasn’t had to do with weight. I’ve considered my lean body as unfeminine, and therefore unattractive. I used to think that if only my body was soft and curvy, I would move as much as my heart desires. I was afraid to start looking too muscular and manly.

I guess someone might call this a problem of privilege. Apart from the psychosomatic symptoms that occasionally keep me from doing things I love (or make them feel like a nightmare), I’m healthy. I have a normal weight and no physical limitations. I enjoy moving my body and testing what it’s capable of. I don’t mind sweating during a workout or feeling sore afterwards.

Because my experience is what it is, I’ve felt uneasy talking about my body image. Who am I to complain? When I do discuss my fears with friends, they seem a little surprised and sad: You’re still dealing with that shit? (That’s what I think they think, not what they say.) They tell me it’s just patriarchal ideals I’ve adopted, show an empowering quote on Instagram or reassure me that muscles are also curves.

While valuable, I don’t believe intellectual ideas, body positivity or friends’ kind words can fix negative thought patterns on a deeper, emotional and embodied level. Neither can writing, but it can help make sense of things.

So I’m sharing my story. It’s a story about growing into body image issues and gradually beginning to grow out of them.

Photo by Hayley Kim Design on Unsplash

Inheriting More of the “Boy Genes”

Except for my face, I’ve inherited most of my body from my dad. I have his loose joints: When I straighten my arms or legs fully, they extend over 180 degrees. We both get all kinds of aches and pains if we don’t exercise regularly and retain a strong layer over our loose frame. I also have a similar body type as my dad: My butt and legs have a naturally muscular shape. As a child, I remember wobbling my calves from side to side and realizing that most kids can’t do it because their calves are too small. And like my dad, my muscles start to show quite quickly when I work out.

Despite having a more sporty build, I thought that my body would change a lot during puberty. I remember praying to God to give me bigger boobs than my mum. But when the other girls at school began to get some curves, I got very little. My boobs grew only so much that I could fit the bras that are made for pre-teens (I guess should have gone for the less greedy words at least as big as in my prayers) and my torso remained approximately the same width from chest to hips. Like my sister once commented, perhaps I got more of the “boy genes”.

The lack of change made me feel like there was something wrong with my body. I read about the changes that occur during puberty from my health education textbook and wondered whether I might have problems giving birth one day because my hips were too narrow. There was a short period of time when I (unsuccessfully) tried to gain weight in the hope that the fat would go into my boobs. The Elles and Vogues I read and the music videos and TV shows I watched underlined that a woman was supposed to be curvy and soft in certain places (but not others). Being consistently estimated to be 2–3 years younger reinforced the fear that I looked like a child, not a woman.

And because my body remained lean like it had always been, I didn’t feel feminine and I didn’t feel sexy. This was a problem, because those traits were necessary to be desired by men, which I had already understood to be the key purpose of the female body. Hence, any remark that drew attention to my visible abs or muscular calves sounded like an insult.

To Move or Not To Move?

As an adult, I began to fear that if I worked out too much, my body would become even more unattractive. My legs would become too muscular, my shoulders too wide and my tiny boobs disappear completely.

As a result, I was constantly trying to retain a rigid balance when it came to exercise: I wanted to stay in shape and experience the thrill of challenging my body, but I also didn’t want to look too sporty. When I was at university, I regularly went to group training classes, but limited my attendance to classes like BodyPump which might shape my body too much. Whenever I thought I was losing body fat or my muscles were becoming overly pronounced, I cut back on workouts.

My fears also made me say no to some new sports. When my mum suggested I try out CrossFit because she thought it would suit my strong body and that I might enjoy it (I agreed with her), I waved off the idea because I was afraid to start looking like the women doing CrossFit in YouTube videos.

My balancing act didn’t help me deal with body image issuesmainly to dodge them. The first real turning point came when I started taking dance classes.

These Legs Were Also Made for Dancing

In 2019, persuaded by an old friend who was the CEO of a dance company at the time, I tried a latin mix dance class. Despite almost chickening out of the first class, I started going every week. In addition to latin mix which alternated between salsa, bachata and reggaeton, I took up street dance. And pretty soon, I was confronted with an odd idea about my body.

In my eyes, my body didn’t look right for dancing. I had little boobs to wiggle and my legs looked like they were made for running or cycling rather than salsa steps. During dance class, I was constantly comparing myself to others and criticizing my body.

Over the first year or so, I was confronted with the absurdity of my ideas. By taking a variety of dance classes I saw great dancers of all genders, shapes and sizes. The key was hard work and a playful attitude, not the shape of the body.

I began to actively fight against the futile self-criticism by replacing it with more useful narratives. Whenever I caught myself saying mean things to the mirror, I told myself that all bodies have the right to dance and that different dance styles are not limited to specific body types. Dance doesn’t discriminate.

Along the way, I began to have more fun and also to learn faster. But although dance taught me lots of bodily wisdom, it didn’t completely erase my body image issues.

Trying Not to Add Insult To Injury

Due to a variety of reasons, by the end of 2021, I had lost all the three dance classes I had been taking. Luckily, I had found a new hobby: bouldering. I tried it once with a friend and instantly got hooked. I began climbing 1–3 times per week.

Three months into my new hobby, I dislocated my shoulder while on the wall. Since I have a notoriously loose shoulder (it used to pop out in my sleep), I didn’t think much of it. But three months later it happened again.

I was devastated. Wouldn’t I be able to climb without dislocating my shoulder every few months?

I decided to get it checked. After seeing the MRI images (nothing was broken), the doctor recommended I try physiotherapy. The other option was surgery with a 5-month rehabilitation period. However, due to my “structural looseness” he couldn’t promise that I could keep climbing regardless of the path I chose.

I started physiotherapy and over the weeks we moved from the rubber band to weights. According to the physiotherapist, I needed to build muscle to protect the shoulder. Build muscle??

The comment evoked my old fears, but this time dodging them had a price. If I didn’t do the work, I might not be able to keep climbing. And climbing was the most rewarding hobby I’d ever had: the combination of physical challenge, puzzle solving and socializing made it almost addictive. I wasn’t going to give it up for superficial reasons.

I decided to commit to the physiotherapy and have been following the workout plans dutifully for five months now. Despite the doctor’s discouraging comments, I’ve been able to climb injury-freeat least so far.

And yes, climbing and strength training have changed my body which I have conflicting feelings about. Sometimes I freak out a little when I see my upper body in the mirror, but sometimes I also marvel at it.

What I don’t feel conflicted about is the decision that has allowed me to keep climbing. I love the state of not thinking that I enter while bouldering. I love chatting and goofing around at the climbing gym. I love trying and trying and trying until I crack a challenging new route, especially when I’m doing it with a friend. And I love being strong.

I’m grateful to have found yet another hobby that forced me to work on my body image. Bouldering taught me that choosing the type and amount of exercise you do doesn’t need to arise from fear. You can let joyous challenge guide you. Moving is about so much more than the appearance of the body.

Shame Won’t Solve the Mystery of the Mind

It’s embarrassing to still be dealing with body image issues 15 years after the incident at the swimming pool. It makes me feel like a failed feminist, or just a failed human being. Why do I still care about some dumb beauty standards? Why can’t I just accept my body as it is? Why hasn’t body positivity worked for me?

But when I was writing this story I realized that I’m turning my mental patterns into a problem by being ashamed of them, by adding on a layer of judgment. As meditation has taught me, we have little control over our thoughts and feelings. They pop into our awareness due to past conditioning or some other peculiar reason. It’s a mystery shame won’t solve.

What we can do is try and observe our critical thoughts. This awareness will create distance between us and those thoughts. And, over time, the distance will strip them of their power to shape behavior.

I’ve noticed that the less I care about the way I look, the more I want to move. I want to dance, climb, lift weights, run, swim, walk, hike and stretch. And more and more, that’s what I’m doing.



Fascinated by all things design and human behavior. Especially curious about how and why we make the decisions we do.

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Riikka Iivanainen

Fascinated by all things design and human behavior. Especially curious about how and why we make the decisions we do.