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Body neutrality: “Taking a break from Team GB finally taught me look at my body differently”

Ally Sinyard’s body, and her view of it, changed when she became a kickboxing champion. But when she decided to take a break from the sport, she realised the toughest thing would be combating her inner critic…

Falling down the stairs is one of the best things to happen to me in 2019. Nothing says “you need to slow down” like running for a train that comes every 10 minutes and falling down two dozen steps.

And nothing tells you “no, seriously, chill out” like hitting the concrete, hearing the doors beeping and hauling your bloodied self onto the train anyway (the correct answer is: Stay down).

I got myself stitched up, went back to work and was rushed to hospital two days later, suffering from internal bleeding that had caused my guts to shut down, and they were slowly filling up. I spent four days nil-by-mouth, with my stomach being drained through my nosetube. New nickname: Baby Elephant.

When the doctors discharged me, they signed me off work for two weeks to rest at my dad’s - but I had a more pressing question: “What about boxing?”

“No exercise for six weeks, no combat sports for three months. Just rest.”

My response?: “But I’ve been resting… for four days.”

For the past four years, my relationship status had been: savate. Not a new dating trend, savate is a kickboxing sport from France. It’s changed my life, from building my confidence to helping me manage my Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). And it’s also changed my body: I lost weight and went from soft curves to hard planes.

I’m a current British savate champion, on the GB squad and have fought all around Europe, representing Britain at World and European Championships, so taking a break went down like a shit sandwich – doctor’s orders or not.

I spent the first week of sick leave climbing the walls. Before the accident, if I wasn’t working, I was training, fighting or seeing friends. Sitting down for two weeks shouldn’t have been that hard, and I definitely shouldn’t have been crying on my first, second and third day. I should have been grateful, not grizzling.

But I got a grip, and let idleness and boredom turn into curiosity. By the time I went back to work, I’d read three books, completed a Painting By Numbers (what?) and even written some poetry, the first time I’ve written creatively in years.

Six weeks later, I was back to running. I had my sights set on the British Savate Championships, which just so happened to coincide with the end of my three-month boxing ban. I was in the midst of my own underdog boxing movie. Could I make a comeback? Cue a montage of hill sprints, hitting pads and watching old fight videos.

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I’ll save you 90 minutes. Three months after my fall, I fought for and won my first British title. Subsequently, I was selected for Team GB for the 2019 European Championships in Genoa, Italy.

I should have been thrilled, but I was torn. Since my accident, I’d picked up the bits from the cutting room floor and woven them into my film. Yes, I was a fighter, but I’d also fallen back in love with creative writing, I skipped training occasionally to say yes to other things, and I wanted to see more art, explore new interests and be more available to friends.

My priorities had changed. To prep for the European Champs to a level I’d be satisfied with would mean making savate my world. I wasn’t prepared to go all-in like previously, nor did I want to half-arse it. So I turned down my team place and took a step back from regular training.

I had no regrets, and yet, there was still one little voice rattling around inside my head. I knew it well. It was there when I was resting up. It was there when I was weighing up my priorities. It’s been there all along.

Body neutrality: "The skinny-shaming stung, but also felt like validation."
Body neutrality: "The skinny-shaming stung, but also felt like validation."

I’ve had a negative body image for as long as I can remember, and was unhappily overweight between the ages of about nine and 21. Within 18 months of practising savate, I’d lost around 20kg and gained a six-pack. Finally, I had the hard body I’d longed for as a young teen, watching the women of the WWE.

But I didn’t become a beacon of body positivity. It didn’t give me the key to happiness. Savate had empowered me in so many ways that my body image had become irrelevant. It was now just a Thing That Does Sport; the product of hours of dedication, training, dieting, conditioning, early morning cardio and kicking ass.

Caring about how I looked just felt like vanity and I spent little time on my appearance. I finally felt in control of my body – but was I? Obsessed with self-optimisation, I’d continue to train it more and more, lose more fat and consume too few calories until I’d overtrain, rest and start again. I hadn’t had a period in over four years.

And I’m not alone here in overdoing it. Research suggests up to 60% of female athletes are affected by RED-S (Relevant Energy Deficiency Syndrome). “I see my own body as a tool,” a fighter friend told me, when I mentioned writing this piece; “A tool I need to tune and sharpen in order to fight better.” When are you good enough, sharp enough, fast enough?

That little voice of self-doubt has been there at every belt notch. So after turning down my Team GB place and stepping back from training, even though it was exactly what I wanted, I was terrified.

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Well-meaning friends and family would say “there’s nothing of you” as I stood sideways in the mirror pinching skin. Ironically, it wasn’t about how others saw me anymore. I’d come to associate being thin with being a good athlete. And because savate had become my identity, if I wasn’t a good athlete, I wasn’t good full stop – and so the sneaky hate spiral goes.

I knew this terror wasn’t healthy, so I confronted it and looked at my options. I could go back to my previous training regime (nope), put myself into a serious calorie deficit to keep the weight off (hard nope) or look to achieve a more balanced lifestyle and just train my brain to stop caring so much (…oooh, that sounds nice).

Letting go is easier said than done, of course. But being realistic about my own insecurities, I chose to be kind to myself. I exercised when it suited me, hid the scales (pointless without a goal in mind), packed away my tight clothes and did some long-overdue shopping. For the first time in a long time, I chose fashion over function, experimenting with brighter patterns, prints and different shapes. I even decided to grow out my hair.

I did all of these things to avoid drawing attention to my changing shape. In the process, I accidentally ended up becoming fucking fabulous. Oops.

Body neutrality: Ally, after taking a break from savate, with her dad in the Lake District in 2019.
Body neutrality: Ally, after taking a break from savate, with her dad in the Lake District in 2019.

I suddenly felt the power of statement earrings and putting on lipstick. I couldn’t ignore my changing body even if I wanted to – and I didn’t want to. My bum was getting bigger, and I could feel it when I walked. I had hips that swung and colour in my cheeks. I had boob sweat for the first time in years.

Where had this new positive attitude come from? I can think of a few things. Firstly, Hot Girl Summer brought us new series of Glow and Queer Eye, as well as Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You. At a festival, a frank friend asked if I’d recently put on weight. Stunned silence was met with an earnest “because you look so much better for it” and I believed him, feeling embarrassed by my initial horror. Then, I read Moya Crockett on body neutrality and how a night at women’s wrestling changed her view of her body – and my eyes were opened. I’d never heard of body neutrality before.

The wrestlers showed Moya “there is power in feeling neutral about your body, but [also] in rejoicing in it: in using it to project whatever defiantly non-neutral attitude (gorgeous! Intimidating! Silly! Scary! Bold!) you want.” They reminded her that “a person who fully inhabits their body is just as impressive as someone who utilises their mind”.

Moya put words to my feelings, while pop culture changed my whole body language. I’d been neutral and now, finally, I understood body positivity for what it was: seeing my body through my own eyes and choosing to love it.

Just as I saw my hardened body as the product of fighting, I saw my softer one as the product of friendship, well-thumbed books and becoming my own boss. Who says that one body is better than the other? Society is never going to agree while the people saying “good riddance” to the Victoria’s Secret show argue with those who slam Lizzo’s latest nude selfies. If you want my opinion, the more diversity we have in the media, the happier we’ll all be in our own skin. Representation matters.

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That goes for the ideologies around body image too. Body neutrality and positivity have both served me at different times. With BPD, I spent years feeling chronically empty. In recovery, I wrapped myself in cotton wool and found a level of safe, stable “contentment”; I cried once in 18 months (season one finale of Flowers). Now I’m more stable, I want to pick off the cotton wool. I want to be more open to new experiences and feelings. I want to keep getting more fabulous, grow like a sunflower.

I also want to fight for GB again next year, and I’m determined to find a better balance. I’ll work smarter, not harder. Do it because I love it. Maybe this new attitude means I’ll never be a World Champion, but then maybe I just don’t want it enough. I don’t care about being the best. I have nothing to prove to anyone. I’m an amateur, a “lover of” and I’m finally happy – loving me.

Images: Getty, Ally Sinyard

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