The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is body image, a topic that many of us have likely self-quarrelled with to some degree or other.
And if you’re like me, it’s an issue that will have long roots reaching far back into your earliest memories.
I was a tender five-year old dreamer and I remember feeling shame for my body. I was told I looked like a boy, much to my chagrin and my proclamation to the contrary. I was wearing a cute sleeveless tunic dress in blue with flowers. My hair was a pixie crop, the way it’s described for girls, and it was white blonde against my very tanned young skin, much like other white British children living in the South China Sea. The reason my hair was short was because I’d taken a pair of scissors to my own long hair and decided to give it a trim right at the top. Perhaps I just wanted to be a hairdresser! My mum still regales this story, with the only option being an all over crop. I don’t remember anything about that, I just remember how someone made me feel because of the way I looked.
That would become a pattern in my life, and a great source of shame, discomfort, self-loathing and internal distress. It would play out in overeating and hunger, in isolation and anger, resentment and loathing for my own body.
Let’s face it, we’re complex creatures
How we view our relationship with our skin, muscles, bones and hair is complex. It will change over the years and it will likely impact our mental health, both positively and negatively. When you look at a stranger on a bus, walking down the street, at a running race or at the gym, what do you see about their own history of their body image? Are you so worldly to understand what they’ve lived through up to that point? If they were to look at you, could they guess your story?
Have you ever had those dreams of utter shame as you wander into school or your work only to realise you’re not wearing any clothes? The very thought of being seen unclothed no doubt unearths deep shame for many of us.
We’re taught to hide our bodies, even from ourselves, as manifests in our dreams. My partner, Tom, is subtle on broaching this subject; he’s working on it, and I’m still prudish, to say the least. He’s reminding our kids that he’s confident in himself, and unashamed of his body. If they can grow up to not feel the same shame we were encouraged to nurture, what impact could that have on their mental health?
- Pride in themselves?
- Acceptance of the physical difference between themselves and others?
I’d like to think so.
We cannot share our body image with others the way we do internally, it’s our own point of view, it’s personal and it’s a journey we’ve silently lived our whole existence.
And it is only ourselves who can shape that view into a positive, compassionate and loving form. If we’re waiting for others to constantly tell us we’re beautiful, we’ll always need that. If we can learn to believe that we are beautiful ourselves, with all of our lumps, marks, misalignments and uniqueness, then we already are.
Mind how you think, your body hears you
I once believed the magazines, that to be tall, thin and pouty-lipped, I’d be beautiful. Only my love of sport didn’t mix well with not eating, and the less I ate the more I hated myself because I was miserable. I understood hangry and runger very well. So I ate more, fearful that I would faint on the netball court. When I did sport, I felt strong, and whilst I was strong I didn’t need to feel beautiful. For me, being strong came with bearing a heavier weight of body in order to gain a lighter weight of mind.
As I aged I took stock of how looking strong was important to me. If I wasn’t fit, muscular and lean, then I thought I was failing society, and everyone could see it. Now, how much of those thoughts were driven by society and what we are exposed to day-in-day-out in media, marketing and merchandise? Was I putting myself through the body gauntlet for myself, or was it for others’ approval?
We’ve all yo-yoed, trying to strike the right balance of weight, dress size, shape and feeling healthy, and it’s bloody hard work. It’s hard work because it’s what we focus on: how we look.
Some days you’ll love, some you’ll love less
Have you noticed the fine line between experiencing joy without thinking of your features, and stifling that experience of joy because of over-thinking those very same features?
I’ve certainly experienced many times a loss of joy in my life because I could not help but worry about what others thought of my face, hair, butt, legs, eyes, lips, nose, skin, fat, muscles, bone structure, and teeth. Being comfortable in our own skin goes further than what we wear, it affects where we go and what we allow ourselves to experience. If we could feel free enough to be in our element whatever the situation arises, how differently could we handle those moments?
I’ve been hit with my fair share of failures, in love, career, relationships, money and health. I can’t say it’s any worse than any other, but these are my failings, my losses and my burden to cope with. When my mind was struck with a breakdown in 2015 (it wasn’t the first time), I let go. I let go of strength of body, because I could not hold it together in my head anymore. I was then diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Faced with the cruel realisation that I didn’t know myself, I no longer knew what my mind or body needed.
After my diagnosis it was six months before I returned to sport to find myself again, and find joy in being myself. I allowed my body some grace, it wasn’t the shape I wanted, but it was surviving and I worked with that. I focused on mindful running, taking my camera out on runs with me and photographing the things that caught my eye, made me smile, made me feel connected. Without obsessing it, I built my body back into a runner who ran from Land’s End to John O’Groat’s and back again (LEJOGLE) because I’d built trust, love and compassion for my body. I meditated with Transcendental Meditation daily, my diet was wonderful food, I wrote my gratitude list each day and cultivated a sense of helping others as being more important than my own display. This seemed to be the cure!
But when I returned home from that adventure, I wasn’t the same. My mind was still moving, my body stayed still. The old thoughts, negative noise, bitterness about my abilities, my worthiness and my body began to creep in again, and I fell out of love with my body whilst I pleaded with it to perform to the standard I’d envisaged for myself. As the months crawled by, and my physical health deteriorated for some reason, my mind was again in tatters. I could not love a vessel that allowed my mind to suffer.
Of course, I had it the wrong way round. My mind needed the work, my body just needed some compassion, it was falling apart after all.
I’ve battled with being myself, doing things for myself yet expecting others to snort and snigger because my self-worth was so low. From playground snipes to today’s social media hounding, being true to yourself can require a lot of courage.
And that moment when you feel light enough in your heart, strong enough in your mind, and free enough in your spirit to just be yourself, is a blessing. It may not always be the case, and personally, I’ll take those moments when I can. Who needs the pressure of keeping up appearances or living for the sake of others’ sensitivities?
How bad will it get before you see how strong you are?
The day my front tooth broke off allowed a freewheeling of inner turmoil. It was irrelevant whether I could run, or whether I could fit into my size ten jeans, I had no front tooth. I may as well have been handed my teen acne and my spare tyres back. I felt hideous, ugly, a failure, a fright to look at. The sum of my thirty-seven years had come down to this. A toothless grin.
What I didn’t realise was that an infection that had persisted in my gum above my root-canal filled tooth for five years was simply the ash cloud of a volcano. Very quickly all of the maladies I’d been dealing with for months culminated in a moderate/severe form of ME (My-al-gic En-ceph-a-lop-athy).
I believe that my woes and wins about my own body image that have persisted, been thwarted, resisted and returned have all impacted my state-of-mind, my level of happiness and my outlook on my situation. Yet through it all I’ve still persisted with being me, myself. I’ve lost a front tooth, but I still smile. I’m dealing with a chronic illness, but my heart is as passionate about environmental and humanitarian causes, creativity and learning all the same. I have to remind myself that I must still do what I do, and work around my new situation. Granted, I can no longer run, or go for walks, climb mountains or ride my bike, but if I can nurture those parts of me that do still work, it doesn’t matter how many teeth fall out.
Now that any notion of a strong and fit body can no longer be entertained—being strong has always been a major factor in my happiness and wellbeing—how is it possible for me to accept myself?
How can I be body kind?
It’s ironic that such an issue as body image has been highlighted for this mental health awareness week, I admit, if only for my private situation. But I imagine I share this with many others. The loss of fitness, strength and even mobility has caused me to question who I am.
I understand that to accept this loss of self I must look to my mind: nurture it, gently hold it with love and care, speak to it with honesty and compassion, give it time to find a harmony with these new conditions. But, as strong as I feel I should be, I am vulnerable to catastrophising, and can accept that I will also be looking to others for guidance on learning to love yourself after a life-altering situation.
But how can we grow to accept ourselves?
There came a point in my life when I simply had to thank my body for holding me together. It had carried three strong children into the world, pregnancy being the only time I did not care for how I looked but instead I cared about the quality of the fuel I nourished myself with.
Those same pregnancies gave me stretch marks, loosened my abdomen skin, and thinned my very fine hair. But they also allowed me an insight into healthy eating that I hadn’t known during my entire childhood and adolescence.
It’s true that the remarks about my body that stretch back the longest have left the deepest scars, but by looking after my body, with food and nutrients, my skin with clean products (Arbonne had literally saved my skin), my thoughts with meditation and mindful adventures, I began a shift in my acceptance of my body. I also began to take responsibility for it, without berating myself for having days where I couldn’t live up to my own expectations.
I’ve mentally flogged my body more than once for not looking the way I expect only a superhuman would. I’ve cursed it and hidden it and wished it weren’t mine.
When these moments of disquiet and fear pass, I see it in a different light. I’m more gentle with how I speak about my shape, my curves and lumps, my colouring and my texture.
I’ve hated my body, my appearance, many times, because of external pressure. When in reality I’ve come to learn that it was all internal pressure on myself.
I chose to hate myself, because I didn’t realise that I was allowed to love my body unconditionally. I was allowed to accept it with all its differences. Even with all its misadventures and illness.
We’re complex beings, and our relationship with ourselves is by far more complex than we allow ourselves to understand when we begin to take notice of it. For that, surely we can forgive ourselves, and surely we can learn to be body kind.