Friday, 6 November 2015

Smoke & mirrors: A clear view of body image

Body image is the way we perceive the appearance and attractiveness of our bodies. It's not a description of physical fact, not solid or immoveable, but blows about like a puff of smoke and affects what we are able to see. The shape it takes depends on our individual history, personality, and relates to cultural ideals of beauty that surround us all.

Humans have always celebrated physical beauty, but our reverence for bodily perfection is becoming a big problem. Images of the 'body beautiful' are paraded in front of us constantly - beamed into our consciousness via television, our phones and computers. There's no time out from it. The gap between the physical ideal and what we actually look like has never been greater. Images (and bodies) are altered - creating an entirely unrealistic standard. The internet means were are no longer limited by geographic location - we see and compare ourselves to examples of physical 'perfection' from all over the globe. It's no wonder eating disorders are on the increase.




Ordinarily, outside of my eating disorder, I would have said that I had a relatively healthy body image. I've never aspired to look 'perfect'. I don't go in for lots of makeup, expensive lotions, fancy manicures or blow-dry's. I saw myself as someone who was comfortable enough with their body. Whenever the issue of body image has been raised in treatment, I've been reluctant to accept that I had a problem. My attitude was "Okay, so you say my body image isn't good, and I suppose it mustn't be (*rolls eyes), because I've got this blinking illness. If this is actually true, it needs to be fixed. Tell me how. How do I un-believe the things I don't think I believe?".

In response, my psychologist gave me a task: Avoid the mirror.

For someone with an eating disorder, looking in the mirror can be a serious business. 'Body checks' often become obsessive and ritualistic, done to reassure or punish. The mirror, like the scales, is used as a weapon in the war against the body.

It's not like that for me though, I thought. I don't do much of that body checking stuff.

Except that it turns out I do.

As I lay in bed the first morning after seeing my psychologist, I decided I'd give the task a try. I could at least take notice of what I was doing, you know, just to prove it wasn't a big deal for me.

My assessment began early. With the fog of sleep still hanging over me, I started pinching and prodding flesh. Definitely fatter - ugh, disgusting. Pyjamas feel tighter, I'm sure of it. I checked my hands and forearms; Hmm, veins disappearing; skin looks softer, younger, wait... is it glowing? ...oh god. Disappointing. Then I leapt out of bed and stood at the mirror. Ugh, my arms. See that wedge of fat? Yuck. Oh no, my stomach - the bulge! Seriously looks like I'm five months pregnant. No exaggeration. Then I went to the shower and checked in the mirror there, then out of the shower, checked again (just in case there was a change), then back to my room; check, check, check. No matter what I asked of the mirror, there was only one answer: BIG. FAT. FAILURE. By the time 7.30am rolled around and it was time to wake the children, I had already found one hundred different ways to hate myself.

After one day of consciously trying to avoid the powerful pull of the mirror, and taking notice of the constant stream of abuse, I had a new perspective on things.

Fuck. This is bad. My body image is dreadful.

Still, I had it in my head it was just because of the eating disorder. I hadn't always been this way, had I?

I thought hard about the time before my eating disorder began. Back to my ordinary adult life. I had to put my pride to the side to see it, but it was there. Bad body image. I never let it show or spoke of it, but I felt deeply uncomfortable in my skin. There were a lot of paranoid body checks, attempts to hide or disguise. Dissatisfaction, disordered eating, and obsessive exercise at times. In my mind, my entire adult life is sectioned off according to size: Oh I remember that party, I was x kilos, those jeans were a size x... Yeah that wedding was great, but I remember how fat I felt in that dress, how it clung in all the wrong places... Gosh I was slim then - oh that's right, I was restricting my food and taking laxatives...

Maybe the problems with my body image stemmed from my first eating disorder, at University. It was unresolved and never treated, so perhaps it's just a hang over from that? But what about before this period, when I was a teenager?

I took my mind back to my high school years, and thought of how I felt in my body. What I remembered was shame, awkwardness, and a hatred of certain body parts. I thought my stomach was actually deformed. The school I went to was an all girls school, very traditional. I have loads of great friends from that time, had some wonderful teachers and got a good education. But being all girls and growing into our bodies, there were a lot of comparisons going on. In PE (Physical Education), we were lined up and measured with fat clippers. Arms, stomach and back flesh were scrutinsed, then we were given a 'fat' grade: A, B, C or D. My best friend got an A. I got a B, and I remember the shame and embarrassment.

In childhood too, I had a negative view of my body. I was a country girl, and didn't care about 'girly' things much, except that I desperately wanted long hair (it was cut boy short, and I hated it). My favourite colour was brown. Favourite shoes: brown Bata Bullets. Favourite top: brown sweater. I ran about in gumboots, climbed trees and played in haystacks. I had fun as a child, but I never felt 'pretty'. I thought parts of my body were fat (and that fat was bad), that I was big and boyish. That was how I perceived myself and became my identity. It's interesting thinking about that now - many of my dysmorphic judgements of myself relate to the feeling that I look 'manly' (no-one who knows me would describe me this way). I went on my first diet when I was ten. It was a secret. I recorded everything I ate in a notebook which I hid at the bottom of my wardrobe.

I don't think my experiences growing up were anything remarkable - I imagine many girls have a similar tale to tell about their body image. It worries me though - I have three children, eleven years old and under. I would be really concerned if any of them felt bad about their bodies. Helping them grow body confidence in a culture that vilifies physical 'imperfections' is not an easy task.

It might seem strange reading all this - how could I have not known I had a poor body image? The thing is, I'd never looked my life as a whole before, never added up the separate parts. Negative feelings or experiences of my body were isolated and then buried. I pretended it wasn't there because I didn't want it to be there. It was partly pride, partly self preservation. As an adult, the feelings of self hatred had become so deeply entrenched, the negative thoughts so automatic, that I didn't see them. It was my 'normal'.

After doing this experiment, I started thinking. If body image is a collection of thoughts bundled together to form a belief and a 'way of seeing', then it's possible that it could be changed. I could have different thoughts passing through my head. I don't have to hate myself. 

I would imagine there a lot of people who feel this sense of body shame. Maybe it's the majority of us, I don't know. But it occurred to me, that maybe there are some who don't. There might be people out there who wake up and automatically think good thoughts about themselves, and who look in the mirror and feel grateful and happy to have what they do. Without a body, we have no life, after all. Imagine if, deep down, you felt love for yourself. What would it be like? 



xx

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