Body Memories: Identity – what do I look like (self and other perceptions)

Disclaimer: this is a place of learning, safety, and hope. Take what you want from the post and forget the rest. Maybe this will help you. Maybe it won’t.

*Trigger Warning: This post may contain triggers; read at your own pace*

This is not something I discuss often because the memories are jumbled up – a tangled mess that is filled with distortion. My perception of the experiences will be different from others who have known me in the past or shared the experience.

So I write posts like this with the following caveat:
My memories are distorted and filled with a perception based on negative body image and negative identity. That was then and not who I am now. This story is as factual as possible given the memory holes and distortion. Please read with skepticism.

Anorexia

My anorexia started with disrupted eating patterns and negative beliefs about food, weight, dieting, and self image from early childhood until early adulthood. At first, I internalized the messages from the women in my family – most of whom had weight issues and were constantly dieting – about how a female should look, what she should eat, how much to eat, when/where, etc. in order to be a proper young lady.

I’ve always been short and skinny. My weight problems included gaining weight and maintaining a healthy weight. As a child, that got me reverse shaming – comparisons with other family members saying “oh you’re so lucky you don’t have to worry about your weight. You’re so skinny and you eat like a bird. Wish I was that skinny and could lose weight like you do.” Their “praise” always came at a cost – “Oh you look so pretty and skinny. Why can’t you be as outgoing as your cousins?” or “Look at her; she’s so skinny and pretty. But don’t worry because you’re smarter and have social skills + grace. That’s so much better since looks go away fast.”

Whenever my mom went on a diet, I did too. Because in her mind, we shared a body. So I never saw myself as skinny or thin. People around me did. I always thought I was fat, overweight, and clumsy.

Sometimes, I still feel that way.

The eating disorder started around 5 years old; after the first time I was raped and gang raped. These people liked how I looked and that I was strong and resilient enough to take whatever punishments they handed out. Losing weight was a way to punish myself, control something in my out-of-control world, and punish the people around me by giving them what they accused me of being – a weak, skinny, ugly, dumb, socially awkward child.

Hiding In Plain Sight

Anorexia physically changes a person on the outside and the inside. By the time I hit my teens, I had done enough damage to not be considered “beautiful” or “pretty” anymore. I looked sick and tired and weak most of the time. It was easy for people to ignore me and not take me seriously.

That contributed to the social awkwardness – I couldn’t speak up or have conversations or friends with all the secrets – and my ability to be invisible anywhere at any time.

The downside – once I did speak and get people’s attention, they didn’t/couldn’t/maybe wouldn’t forget me. Or that fact that I was not exactly what I pretended to be to everyone else.

But the experiences leading up to the eating disorder taught all parts of me (because yes, I had already started developing alter personalities by 5 years old) to learn ways of manipulating my body and personality to meet other people’s perceptions of who I was supposed to be. I stayed skinny. My body was thin and bruised easily. I cried a lot and was quiet the rest of the time. It was obvious that I was smart, but also flighty because I had a hard time paying attention and participating in class. Kids didn’t want to be around me because I was too shy, quiet, and weird. Easy for the popular kids to make fun of and use for mean games.

And so, I learned that my survival was based on becoming whatever other people wanted me to be on a moment’s notice.

Who was I? What did I look like in my own eyes?

Young girl: Fat, clumsy, ugly, awful, stupid girl who didn’t deserve to live. Not as good as her cousins or younger brother. Not graceful or acceptable or good at anything. Hates her body. Hates being female. Always being used and shamed.

Adolescent girl: skinny, nerdy bookworm with too many curves and a bad attitude to keep people away from her. Hated herself, hated everyone around her and just wanted to disappear. Boobs too big or not big enough. Butt too big and got too much attention. Skinny in spite of that and always too short. Everyone made fun of me for being too short. Irritable all the time because I couldn’t be myself and show my personality in school. Hated being there and having to find ways to deal with bullies and teachers without blowing my hide-in-plain-sight cover. Lots of temper and anger management issues.

Young adult: ugly, fat, woman who gets too much attention even though she wears ill-fitting clothes. nothing to live for. hates her body and her self. hates her life. ready to die, but suicide doesn’t work. questions the meaning of life when everything hurts all the time, and she can’t even move without pain anymore. Doesn’t want this body. Hates herself and everyone around her. Does not respect anyone or anything. Anger and shame all the time.

Adult in Recovery: plain, sometimes attractive woman with a slender, curvy body she is learning to love, recognize, and accept. Chooses to live and be healthy by listening to and communicating with her body. Working together with all parts of herself, she learns how to change negative relationships and beliefs into neutral and positive ones. Pain is constant, and she doesn’t like her body much because it draws too much attention. But at least she is learning to be, express, and respect her authentic self. This woman has something to live for and values all the gifts in her life.

Adult now: not conventionally attractive, but happy with how she looks. 9 times out of 10, this woman recognizes the face and body reflected back from the mirror. She appreciates and embraces her curves, works with herself and other practitioners to find/utilize effective coping strategies that feel good, are positive and sustainable, and support her healthy lifestyle goals. She lives an authentic lifestyle full of love, laughter, and as many emotions as she can feel, express, and move on from every day. Her body hurts less, and the body memories are finally starting to leave her physical form. But that creates some anxiety and confusion because now her body is changing and looking/feeling/moving different again.

Other Perceptions

If you’ve read past posts, you have an idea of the negative beliefs taught to me growing up. If you’ve read the paragraphs before this one, you also can get an idea of the perceptions others have/had about me.

Perceptions are subjective opinions based on observations and shared information. Maybe that information is factual, maybe not. Maybe the observations are accurate, maybe they are missing vital clues and cues. Subjective means the observations and information are filtered through the individual’s own knowledge base and sense of self; then mixed with existing opinions, biases, information, emotions, etc. to create the opinion.

For many years, I relied on outside perceptions to understand who I was. I didn’t have an identity or a sense of self. My trainers considered me a blank slate with no personality. Peers who wanted to hurt and insult me called me a person without a personality. They thought it was the worst possible insult ever because as teens we all want to be seen as individuals with cool personalities who also fit in with our friend group(s). My mother taught me that we were the same person living in two different bodies; whatever she suffered, I suffered too. Her problems were my problems. Her failures, my failures.

But, not true with any positive or successful accomplishments. They were all hers.

I can’t remember when I decided to stop looking outward for approval and acceptance. Maybe during grief counseling after one aunt died in high school. Maybe when I started seeing the college mental health counselors. Or a college professor/mentor took me aside for a private talk. Or maybe when the police finally broke up the pedophile ring and put many of the people in jail. I was shunned for the last two years of high school because of the rumors and also some popular kids’ witnessing of me as my alter personality at those events.

But people always looked at me and made assumptions. Their perception was always based on first impressions and my physical appearance. It made my life easy because anyone who had a negative response to me was someone to avoid. That worked until I graduated college and had to get a job.

But by then, I had started counseling and was working on the idea of identity and perception. It was a concept I learned in college psychology classes and followed up on in my own time. The mental health counselor at the time taught me how to use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and meditation to work through cognitive distortions and perceptions about myself, people around me, and experiences.

Identity

Identity is a work in progress that occurs throughout life.

Change is constant – always happening, never stopping. People can learn to accept and work with the change or resist/deny/fight the change and struggle in the aftermath as the change occurs.

Who I am now is not who I was in the past. Is not who I will be in the future.

But who I am now is the best version of my authentic self I can be in this moment and who I strive to be as I continue to learn, grow, and become.

It took a long time for me to stop hating myself and all the people around me. It took even longer to learn how to respect myself so that I could respect other people; then earn their respect too. Finally, learning to love myself is a constant practice. It’s easy to say the words, but difficult to do because it means accepting all the parts of myself I like and all the parts of myself I feel uncomfortable about. It means accepting what I have said and done in the past, what I say and do now, and that life circumstances can take away the choices that make me me.

If you were wondering, this is where the meditation practice comes in. Meditation helps me observe my self, my memories, and my experiences through an objective lens or perspective. From there, I can think about my choices and what I could have, might have, or would have said/done/felt/thought differently. And the possible outcomes if something changed.

Yes, that could spiral down into negative or catastrophic thinking. But thoughtful, caring, non-judgmental observation allows me to learn from my past instead of wallow in shame and guilt about what happened. Then, if a similar experience happens again (and it almost always will), I can think back on the past and choose a different path with a potential different outcome.

If it’s the same person and the outcome is the same even with a different choice, then I can say to myself: “I tried something different this time. I made choice and a change. The other person did not change or or react or act different. My change made things worse, but it’s not my responsibility or my fault because I did my best. I can feel what I feel and express these emotions safely; then let it go and move on.”

If it’s the same person and a different outcome, then maybe it was one or both of us who created something that allowed us to create a solution or a compromise or decide to not interact anymore…

You get the idea, yes? Because that works for similar situations and different people or context too.

But these mental exercises and examinations of my self: reactions, actions, feelings, thoughts, etc. are what helped me create a positive identity and sense of self not based on external accomplishments, but internal values.

So when the external stuff gets taken away (i.e. breakup with friend or partner, job loss or change, accident, etc.), I am still me with a stable identity and secure sense of self based on faith, unconditional love, respect, and acceptance. Not just of who I am, but also who each being I meet is too.

That is why I chose the photo of a man and a woman sitting together and smiling for today’s graphic representation. They look happy, healthy, comfortable with themselves, and comfortable with each other.

Thanks for reading. I wish I could add more photos, but honestly, I struggled to find even one photo that worked with today’s topic.

Thanks for reading.