Giving up the idea of the 'perfect' body by the time you're 30

Body image battles: “Why I gave up trying to get my perfect body before turning 30”

Posted by for Wellbeing

Your 20s are for baring midriffs and getting as fit as possible before the onslaught of babies in your 30s – right? One writer explains why she’s no longer buying into the rhetoric of getting the perfect body before 30 and why the rest of us would do well to turn our backs on similar arcane body image demands too.

In 2020, I saw the UK lockdowns as many people also did: chances to lose weight and shed the gradually bigger body I had found myself enveloped in since my mid-20.

Sure, it might sound undeniably vain to have seen this time of individual and collective suffering, uncertainty and sadness as an opportunity to shift the weight I had collected through poor diet, overconsumption of alcohol and lack of any exercise, but with just over a year to go before turning the big 3-0, all I could think about was, at the end of Covid, I wanted to emerge as this slim, successful butterfly.

As part of the desperate routine I’d participated in many times before, I unfollowed all the ‘hot bod’ accounts on Instagram and vowed that I would begin my fitness journey ‘on Monday’.

When that Monday morning finally came round, I managed 20 minutes cycling at a modest to slow speed on my £10 Facebook Marketplace exercise bike while parked in front of Erin Brockovich. That evening, after seeing a reality star’s Instagram feed (which had slipped the unfollowing net), I cried at her apparent success and amazing body.

Dr Josephine Perry, sports psychologist and author of The 10 Pillars of Success, told Stylist: “Media has a part to play in how we all link our own fitness and body image, and those aged around 30 have grown up with social media having an impact on their lives. 

“As our own media feeds are so unique, it’s important to remember that you have control over those feeds and what you see, and remove people if they feel toxic, your heart sinks when you see their posts or they prompt you to negatively change your behaviour (exercising too much, eating too little). We need to do regular social media audits to cleanse our feeds of all those harming our own body image.”

I kicked off my fitness regime with a slow slog on my spin bike... and then ended up crying at some influencer's Instagram feed.
I kicked off my fitness regime with a slow slog on my spin bike... and then ended up crying at some influencer's Instagram feed.

These comparisons, however, don’t just stem from social media. I feel as many women approaching their 30s do: that we have been fed a dread of turning 30 without having built the ‘perfect’ body, a glittering career, and a successful relationship. 

“The reality is that society denotes 30 to be the milestone for women to have ticked most of the boxes that enable you to begin the responsible years of your life,” says psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee Chambers. “If you’re about to turn 30, you’ve got to remember that it is only yourself who can set your own metrics, rather than the ones society chooses for you”.

I am fortunate to be surrounded by friends who are either also about to turn 30 or have crossed the 30 threshold and survived unscathed, having ticked off some of their own milestone achievements.

One such friend, Rachael*, 29, recently became a first-time mum and told me over a breathy voice note while pushing her baby’s pram up a very big hill: “While I’ve always struggled to be consistent with fitness. It was the determination to have a baby that prompted my decision to get fit and prolonged my effort to keep it up now I’ve had the baby”.  

That conversation got me thinking about the ‘all or nothing’ attitude towards fitness I’ve had my entire life. My early 20s were marred by sporadic late-night trips to the gym followed by weeks of cheap takeaway pizza. Was my attitude towards fitness skewed towards the wrong goal or had I simply not worked through other obstacles in my life to reach a good relationship with getting fit?

I picked the brain of a fellow northern pal to see if her experiences aligned with mine. “My attitude towards fitness is definitely not where I thought it’d be before I turn 30,” says PR professional Yasmin*.

“Looking back, I was obsessed with working out in my mid-20s, but I think that was caused by an unhappy relationship that made me question my body image, and I also used fitness as an escape from the stresses of my demanding job.” Now with a supportive partner and stable work/life balance, she tells me that she takes a more relaxed approach to fitness, fitting it in as and when she can.

Why is it that women are told they have to have the perfect body by the time they're 30?
Why is it that women are told they have to have the perfect body by the time they're 30?

I never thought I’d be able to run for more than 20 seconds without being out of breath, but in January this year, I dragged my friend Audrey along to start Couch to 5K with me. At 28, Audrey is the definition of ‘fit’, but when I ask her about her fitness regime and turning 30, she tells me that she’s worried about the future.

“I’m naturally slim now but I do worry that my metabolism will slow down which is why I’m trying to build a positive relationship with fitness now even though I see no physical change. Instead, I’m banking on fitness now to improve my mental health in the last years of my 20s.”

Sarah Jane Lewis, a nutrition and fitness coach, explains a little of the science behind Audrey’s worries: “In our 20s, our metabolisms run a lot higher, and we naturally move more owing to our freer schedules. In your 30s, however, if you are more engrossed in work and you have other commitments, you must make an extra effort to look after your nutrition and fitness.”

My own personal journey with fitness has come on a fair bit since first embarking on it solely to lose weight at the start of the pandemic. I think about the time a few months ago where I completed the Couch to 5k app in my local park and there was no one around so I just high-fived the air. I guess I thought that if I had this big reveal of me having lost 3st by my 30th birthday in October, everyone I know would be adorning me with accolades and praise.

Instead, much like my initial fear of turning 30, overcoming my fear of fitness by detaching the act of moving from the desired outcome, has allowed me to focus instead on simply enjoying the process. 

With this month being the last of my 20s, I’m finally ready to let my unrealistic weight loss goals go. Rather than working towards shedding a stone in four weeks to meet some arbitrary deadline, I’m ticking a box that always seemed out of reach. Do I enjoy exercise? Yes, I can finally say I do. 

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Images: Getty/author’s own

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