Beauty Myths and 'When I'm Thin' Lists

Beauty Myths and 'When I'm Thin' Lists

by Issie Fenlon

1. When you fall out of love with yourself


December 2005 – I sat in front of the mirror outside my bedroom, rapidly jotting down my burning desire to host the launch of my world-changing first novel at my local library, so that ‘Forest Hill (the quiet, Tubeless corner of London that I grew up in) could be remembered for something more than the weird old walrus down the road - this being the centrepiece attraction at the nearby Horniman Museum. I then proceeded with my odd nightly ritual of standing in front of my mirror and talking to myself. This wasn’t going over revision notes or a quiet verbal reflection of the day though; this was fighting talk. On this particular evening in December, I decided that I was going to be a published writer one day.

December 2013 - I opened an encrypted file on my laptop and added to the list of all the things I was going to do once I had finally lost three stone, became toned and had rid myself of my stretchmarks. This included skydiving, getting a Masters degree in Broadcast Journalism, taking more photos with my (by all accounts perfectly decent) boyfriend at the time and sending in pieces of my writing to numerous publications.

If the above list seems bizarre, the justification I gave for making it was pure asininity.

I had convinced myself that if my body were a little more proportional and if I took up less physical space, I would then be allowed to take up more emotional and intellectual space. According to what I had seen in both fictionalised and real-life scenarios growing up, you had big bones or you had big dreams, because having both would make whatever boat you were on rock just a little too much. Based on my own skewed observations, I surmised that drawing attention to yourself was only for those who could slip through cracks easily, or for those whose faces were too aesthetically pleasing to punch.

I could either spend hours primping, picking and concealing the monstrous form I saw in the mirror, or spend mere seconds staring at my naked self before disintegrating into tears - so the mirror in my university room had a blanket Blu-tacked to its reflective surface whenever I was alone. There was no more talk of being the next big author, no more fighting talk.

Why was that?

Because somewhere between twelve and twenty, successes and failures – both those that had passed and those that were bound to happen in the future – were intrinsically tied to the physical ‘flaws’ that I saw reflected back at me in the present.

Poor personal perception and an unhealthy relationship with mirrors are all symptoms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) [1], a branch of mental health that often distorts sufferers’ body image to the point where it interferes with their day-to-day behaviour and interactions, as well as their future plans. It can affect anyone on the gender spectrum and can range from an acute focus on specific body parts to a severe urge to augment one’s weight or muscle mass.

            Putting important social or life events on hold until physical augmentation has occurred is also common with BDD - sadly, ‘When I’m Thin’ lists and other variants of it aren’t as uncommon as you’d hope. Just typing ‘When I’m Thin List’ into Google produces a depressing array of Reddit threads, Twitter accounts and personal blogs that combine incidents of weight loss with the achievement of other unrelated life goals. Even stand-up comedienne Sofie Hagen discusses the sad and bizarre concept of having such a list in a video with Glamour UK: ‘…There are a lot of fat people who have a “Once I’m Thin” list, and that has got to stop. Throw out that list!’ [2]

            What was the link between my experience with BDD and traditional mainstream media though, and what made it a distinctly feminist issue? As I see it, women’s insecurities across whole communities have not only been inflamed by a severe lack of visual representation in mainstream televised media, they have been weaponised against women. Part of my struggle with body image occurred because I looked for fuller figured women travelling, exercising, having sex and generally enjoying their lives in amongst the mainstream images I consumed on a daily basis, and was left desperately wanting. Female characters I admired on screen – Monica Gellar, Rory Gilmore, even the filmic version of Hermione Granger - only seemed to be granted happiness if they had completely overachieved academically or professionally, and looked ever so young, beautiful and thin while doing so.

As Naomi Wolf points out in 'The Beauty Myth': ‘we are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement’[3]. That ‘violent backlash’ certainly rang true while I was in my teens – with every cosmetic advert and every episode of 'Sex and the City' I watched, the implication seemed to be that you could always be smaller, thinner, sexier, glossier, bouncier and whiter before you embarked on your other personal goals.

If I felt the dearth of decent female representation as a larger girl from a white, privileged background, my personal need for representation didn’t even scratch the surface of the much larger call for women of colour, disabled women and those who identify as female in the LGBTQI+ community to be represented on screen[4].

            The endless stream of diet, exercise and beauty regimes aimed specifically at women will inevitably carry on until they become unprofitable for companies to produce.

I still have that list on my computer – which has thankfully been downgraded from a ‘When I’m Thin’ list to a good old-fashioned ‘To Do Whenever The Fuck You Want To’ list, with some of the activities on the list already being ticked off.


2. Regaining the right to self-love  – links to mental health services and online body positive communities


Cutting off mainstream media and erasing every bad memory regarding body image won’t necessarily eradicate body negativity – negative thoughts always find a way back in like unwelcome guests. Although access to mental health services across the NHS is dangerously underfunded[5], I still strongly suggest that you do not wait until thoughts become actions. Talk to your local GP or apply for counselling through your local NHS Trust as soon as invasive thoughts start to dictate how you live your life ( It’s a step in the right direction. Mental health charities such as 'Mind' ( offer digestible information about many areas of mental health, from diagnosis to seeking help, to self care. UK-based charity 'Time to Change' also has a page of contact details so that you can ensure that the care and advice you get is best suited to you, whatever your age, background or sexual orientation (

What has enabled millions of people across the developed world to defy body negativity when a therapist isn’t available? When it’s 3am on a cold Tuesday in December and the voices in our heads have kept us up for hours, listing off our ‘problem areas’ and our calorific intakes for the last day? A thriving and inclusive body positive community that welcomes in members from all backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, orientations, levels of ability and genders, at any time of the day (or night).

 And it turns out that the visual body positive revolution is very much hand-held, as platforms such as Instagram allow instant access to body positive activism. It is a collective of women supporting women, filling the void with messages of self-love and effectively taking back the female gaze from those who wish to weaponise it against women. Instagram activists dare themselves and their followers to #donthatetheshake (@bodyposipanda), to embrace their scars as signs of strength (@scarrednotscared), to enjoy life to the fullest while recovering from eating disorders and mental health traumas (@fightingformei and @selfloveclubb), to fight for the rights and happiness of those who are not fully able-bodied (@sitting_pretty) and to rethink how we expand the community to include all branches of intersectional feminism (@thevagaggle). Perhaps even more powerful than their messages of activism, these Instagrammers also record themselves having fun, sunbathing, eating, partying, dressing up, graduating, dating, travelling, wearing the latest fashion, starting families and succeeding in different ways, totally subverting the aesthetic of happiness as a merely white, thin and able-bodied figure.

Sofie Hagen, in her analysis of ‘Once I’m Thin’ lists, states that one of the best things you can do to combat body negativity is to ‘be part of this revolutionary group of hardcore, cool, tough-as-fuck feminist fatties who are out there in the world, sticking it to the man, sticking it to the patriarchal oppressive society that wants us to think we have to be smaller to be of worth’[6]. And for me, with the body positive community so readily accessible nowadays, it has become easier and easier to uncover the mirrors, unashamedly take up space on their reflective surfaces and give myself the fighting talk again – I will write, I will fight oppressive opinions about the female body, I will eventually make Forest Hill known for more than just the weird old walrus down the road…


[1] ‘Body Dysmorphic Disorder’,

[2] Sofie Hagen – ‘…on self-love, self-worth and givig fewer f***s’ for GLAMOUR UK

[3] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (Vintage: London, 1991), p.119

[4] ‘It’s a man’s celluloid world: study finds women under-presented in film’ – Rory Carroll, The Guardian, Tuesday 14th March 2014

[5] ‘Ministers accused of failing to keep mental health pledge’ – Emma Wilkinson, BBC News, 23rd August 2015

[6] Sofie Hagen – ‘…on self-love, self-worth and givig fewer f***s’ for GLAMOUR UK

Title image: Do You Want Zine by Laura Callaghan (@lauracallaghanillustraton)

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