Strong Women: 'I was obsessed with being thin, now I'm happier at a size 18'

The concept of a ‘strong woman’ is still stigmatised – and strength is still seen as an inherently masculine trait.

But women, of any age, size, race and ability, can be strong, fit and love their bodies. We just have to remind them.

A recent Sport England study found that 75% of women are put off from physical activity because of a fear of being judged.

This series aims to change that, to redefine what it means to be a strong woman and to normalise diversity in female strength.

Philippa Berry was obsessed with being thin. At university she had disordered eating and would miss meals to try to get as small as possible.

Now, thanks in part to chronic fatigue syndrome, she has had to drastically change her approach to food and exercise.

She is bigger than she has ever been, and so much happier for it.

How has your relationship with fitness changed?

When I was a teen I was naturally very slim, so I didn’t see the appeal of it. My main purpose in working out wasn’t for fitness, it was to get thin. I was obsessed with being thin as a 19 and 20-year-old. It really took its toll on me.

I feel that something in you changes when you realise working out and exercising isn’t actually about being a thin person, it’s about being healthy. And that is what I love about it now. I feel healthier, and my body thanks me when I exercise.

It’s the same as with drinking water and eating vegetables – it may not be massively appealing to you – I would much rather a bar of chocolate or a glass of wine – but you can feel its effect almost instantly and your body feels more nourished and enriched.

Do you remember when you first started to fixate on being thin?

When I went to college at 16, I was meeting so many different people from different backgrounds and I just lost all my self-esteem.

One of my friends had started calorie counting and cutting back on what they were eating, and it all seemed so normal and simple. It was easy – that’s what appealed to me the most. I started following in her footsteps. I would bargain with myself; ‘if I eat this for lunch then I will have to have something small for dinner’. I would skip meals that no one would notice.

When I got to university and could finally live alone, things got very out of hand. I had no one looking over my shoulder. No one to notice that I hadn’t eaten all day.

No one was suspicious and the pounds just flew off. At one point I was a size 6, and for a tall girl that’s pretty small. You could see all my bones protruding out of my skin. And some part of me just loved that! I could wear what I wanted, I felt like I looked amazing. But I couldn’t eat.

That’s why my boyfriend stepped in and started taking me to the gym. He was trying to show me that I could eat like a normal human being and still remain slim, by building up muscle and building up my metabolism.

The only problem was that when I’d started eating like a normal person, I realised how much I loved food, and so started eating too much and not exercising enough.

I managed to get myself into a place where I hated the sight of my body and didn’t know what to do about it. So, I did what I know – I starved myself.

There have been many points in my life where I have turned to starvation instead of actual fitness in order to become thin. I felt incapable of loving myself when I was bigger, and whenever I would try the ‘normal’ way of losing weight – diet and exercise – the results would come on too slowly and I would give up.

What people often don’t realise though, is the faster you lose weight, the faster you will put it back on once you start to slip. Which is why my journey seemed to go around in circles.

In the last two years though, after taking another slip into over-eating and not really knowing what to do, I have been more successful in doing things the right way – and I am so glad I did.

It is miserable being so hungry all the time, and even though I am now the biggest I have ever been size-wise, I am also the happiest and the healthiest. I wouldn’t change that for the world.

Why do we need to redefine what it means to be a strong woman?

I think the ‘strong’ women we see in the media are often women who are physically strong, or have done something of extreme significance. Women who have got to the top of their career ladder, or have run marathons, or won awards.

However, I see strong women every day. Mothers who give their lives to look after their children. Nurses who take care their sick parents, sacrificing their own health. Women with disabilities and women of colour fighting for their rights and working hard in the face of adversity. These are the women the media really need to focus on more.

We have come a long way as a society to diversify the way media portrays not just women, but people in general. However, we do still have a long way to go.

I feel that women like me need to be empowered so they can go on and achieve their dreams. I’ve let my own insecurities hold me back for so long.

Am I good enough? Will people like me? What if I fail?

Now I am finally facing those fears so that when I have a little girl, she knows there is nothing holding her back from achieving everything she wants to.

The main reason we need to change the view of strong women is so that we can empower the next generation of girls to be stronger than we were, and that’s such a beautiful thing when you think about it.

Was it difficult to accept and love the way your body has changed?

To be completely honest, it has taken me a long time to accept it. I loved being a size 6, in some twisted kind of way. I loved not having to worry about what I was wearing. I loved being this tiny person.

It has taken me a long time to realise that it is not a realistic way to live (for me, I do know some people are naturally that thin, and that’s not a bad thing).

I also think I have blocked out how truly miserable I was back then.

I was always hungry, I had constant headaches, stomach aches and pains. I try to remind myself of that now any time the thought of reducing what I eat slips into my head. It isn’t a good way to live and it’s not worth it. I was obsessed.

My main love is the confidence I have now. I never thought I would be able to say that, not in a million years.

Just being able to step outside in a comfortable outfit and not really care what other people think of it is so soothing for my soul.

The thing about fitness when you’re a larger person is that it makes you love your body in a new way. I have all these lumps and bumps and wobbly bits, and I’m not exercising to get rid of them necessarily. I am exercising so that I can walk up a flight of stairs without getting out of breath, and so I don’t end up with heart problems when I’m old.

I love every curve now, and I have worked hard for every part of me.

Yes, I still have days when I hate my body and wish I could be thinner, but I only have to remind myself of what it really felt like when I was thin and starving myself to realise that where I am at right now is so much better.

One day I may be thinner as a result of exercise and healthy eating – that kind of just happens. But that is no longer my goal. My goal is to be healthy, and that’s all that matters in life no matter what size you are.

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