Coping Challenges: Body Shaming vs Negative Body Image

Trigger warning: Please take care of yourself and only read if as long as you feel safe/comfortable

Objectification

For most of my life, I’ve been objectified.  First as chattel, then as a sexual vessel, a soldier, a toy, an extension of my mother, a skinny girl/woman, a curvy/feminine/sexy object, a doormat, a “nice girl”, delicate, weak, etc.  People looked at me, listened to my voice, and made assumptions.  Hardly anyone ever took me seriously, and someone always tried to take advantage.

Years of therapy and spending time with positive, supportive people have helped me realize I am more than an object.  Part of my recovery is changing the objectification into a positive sense of self – including positive body image and healthy self-esteem – where people see me first instead of my body.   I used to think that body shaming and negative self-image was only connected to my eating disorder.

Now I know the truth.

That a negative body image and body shaming are separate, but related issues and do not always have anything to do with an eating disorder.

Negative Body Image

I used to hate my body, my face, my appearance.   I blamed my face and body shape as the reason for past traumatic experiences.  So I hurt myself – starvation, self-harm, compulsive exercising, not sleeping, making myself sick, reckless/dangerous activities, not caring for physical or mental health – often and in various ways for decades.

These days, I love my face and my body.  I accept all of its quirks and am grateful to be whole and healthy in spite of the pain.  I dress according to my personal style, comfort needs, and daily tasks.  The colors, the fabrics, the shapes, and the accessories help me feel safe, confident, grounded, and happy.  The textures and weights act as self-soothing and grounding objects.

Even though wearing clothes that fit and flatter shows off my feminine body shape and draws attention, I feel secure enough in who I am to ignore all that and enjoy myself.  Most of the time, I can ignore people criticizing my clothing choices or commenting on my weight changes.

But sometimes, the comments hurt or bring out anger.

Body Shaming

Have you ever been told you are too short or tall?  Maybe your eyes bug out or are slanted?  Your hips too wide?  Your butt too big?  Your chest not muscular enough?  Your body stick-like?  You look too masculine/feminine/boyish/girlish for your age/gender/size?  You are flat-chested or large breasted?  Your man-boobs are too prominent?  You stomach is not flat enough?  Skin too flabby?

Has anyone ever criticized your clothing choices?  Your accessories?  Your posture?  Shoes?

These are all examples of body shaming.  Many of them I personally experienced.  Some I have heard told to people I care about.  Others from comments made about celebrities.  The comments from my parents, sibling, cousins, and relatives are the ones that hurt most.  Second place goes to friends, co-workers, mentors, supervisors, and other people in authority positions.  Finally, the random hate from strangers and people posturing for acceptance were the least harmful.  It’s hard to take people who don’t know me seriously.

What brings this up now?

Summer time means wearing less clothes for one thing.  July 1st is a double anniversary with lots of meaning.  July 4th is another anniversary.  I remember spending most of my summers locked up and away from friends, relatives, etc. except on certain occasions for most of my pre-adult life.

Added to all that, I’ve been talking with my aunts more often to coordinate my 2-week visit back home later this month.  During a conversation, one of my aunts proceeded to body shame me, criticize me, and then act like she forgot I was visiting.  No, I am not sure why she decided to cross my boundaries and talk to me this way.  I could speculate, but why bother?  She is who she is, and I should have expected something like this to happen at some point.

Why is this time more of a challenge than past experiences?

My reaction was different.  My feelings were different.  My perspective had changed too.

Instead of feeling hurt or guilt or shame, I felt outrage like “how dare you treat me this way” and pushed back instead of retreating or defending myself.  My response was simple, non-aggressive, and direct.  Then I told her that these days are available if she wants to spend time with me when I visit.

But I still felt angry.  The anger scared me for many reasons.  Different feelings bring out different reactions and impulses.  Anger tends to bring out my rebellious and reckless sides.  It also clouds my thinking.

During that phone call I realized the body shaming and criticism did not trigger any negative feelings about my body.  It did however knock at my self-esteem a little and bring on some nasty flashbacks complete with physical pain.  I felt defensive and uncertain about wearing dresses again.  And part of me was justifying my clothing choice for the day on the inside.  So I made a plan.  When I realized I couldn’t execute the plan on my own, I asked for help.

That was Friday.

The Plan

Go out for a walk in my neighborhood.  Play with friendly dogs.  Eat good food.  Go home and watch a movie or sleep.  Go to counseling the next day.  Have fun and enjoy my 4-day weekend even if that means spending a lot of time sleeping.  Do some packing for the future move.  But most important: RELAX

Thanks for reading.

Recovery: not wanting to be pretty or beautiful is okay

Busy day tomorrow so posting early…

iris-apfel-1225701

Introduction

When I first started recovery, I did not want to be pretty or beautiful.  In fact, I went so far as to look as awful as possible on purpose.  Words like “pretty” and “beautiful” and “attractive” were my version of four-letter curses.  “Stylish”, “fashionable”, and “trendy” were included as I got older.

Growing up, all I received was contradictory information about physical appearances.

On one hand, it was a good thing.  I got lots of attention and compliments.  My parents got compliments and praise.  People gave me leeway when I got into trouble.

On the other hand, it was not so great.  People made assumptions.  They tried to take advantage of me.  And used my appearance as one excuse for abusing me.

Through the Years of Recovery

After a few years of therapy, I think it was with my second therapist, the anorexia and negative body image coping techniques started to resonate.  And I realized that my aversion to certain words was making recovery difficult to impossible.  I had to make peace with the curse words and what they meant to me.

  • That’s how I discovered three important phrases:
  • Body negative (me at the time)
  • Body neutral (what I strove for in that phase of recovery)
  • Body positive (my future goal)

This is where being an avid bookworm and English major in college helped a lot.  My love of words, meaning, and research provided the tools to redefine what “Beautiful”, “pretty”, “attractive” and similar words meant to me.  Took them from having negative and toxic connotations to positive and healthy ones.

The journey started with accepting that I was “plain” or “bland” instead of “ugly” or “gross” at the time.  Skinny, underweight, bad skin, pale, with acne and rashes, ill-fitting clothes worked.  The real goal was “healthy” and to discover what “healthy” meant to me.  If “healthy” meant bad skin, boniness, bloating, and weight gain, I was all for that.

Then came the time I had to accept that weight gain meant “curvy” and “pretty” and “attractive” because the “skin and bones” look was replaced with “slim and strong”.  The bad skin cleared up as my eating habits improved.  And I realized that I didn’t feel safe in my body anymore.  It, my body, was attracting way too much attention.

Time to Hide Again

I went back to wearing frumpy, over sized, ugly clothes mixed with more fitted items underneath.  Except for pants…because I hated wearing belts and wanted my pants to stay up.  But that was the ONLY criterion – that they stay up.  So of course there are many unflattering styles of pants available.  And I indulged in all of them to hide behind.

Only, there’s only so much a person can do to hide when her backside is not straight, flat, or hipless.  Same with her front when the girls are not small anymore and wearing the wrong size causes pain.  I think that was the turning point,  the beginning of moving from viewing myself as “plain” to “attractive” to “pretty” and my body as “unhealthy” and “skinny” to “slim” to “curvy” and “healthy”.

Time to Stop Hiding

Thus began my obsession with body shape, femininity, fashion vs. style, and clothes that fit/felt good/flattered/reflected me.   I discovered the world of blogging.  That was scary.  So much contradictory information.  So many choices.  And so much frustration because nothing ready-made fit me or my body shape without alterations.  And alterations were a trigger.

I went back to my invisibility cloak for a few years.  But then I realized I was in a good place.  I was safe.  I had friends and connections.  I had a job and was financially independent.  I was strong enough to face my body fears.  I was confident enough to be me.

Most important: I wanted people to see the real me;  to have my outsides match my insides.

Present

And that’s when I decided to discover my personal style.  What did that mean?

I wanted to be viewed as beautiful in a timeless, unique way that only people who are comfortable with themselves can be.

It was time to make my insides and outsides match.  That journey started with visiting fashion and style blogs.  Then it moved on to defining what personal style meant to me and how it fit my values, lifestyle, and goals.

2014 marked the beginning of my style journey.  While I look and feel a lot better about my choices, this one will be ongoing.  As I change, my personality changes, my style changes.

Conclusion

I hope this quote from Iris Apfel helps you the way it helped me.  Before watching her documentary on Netflix, I didn’t realize some of the most important words in my life came from a woman who considered “pretty” less than interesting.

Thanks for reading

Coping Challenges: Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Learning to Love my body again

Background

Part of my trauma came from many authority figures and adult sources making fun of, criticizing, and shaming my body.  The messages about being fat and so beautiful I am ugly and that because of my physical appearance I deserved the abuse dished out to me made me hate my looks.  The way my mother brushed and styled my hair for me; then punished me and criticized me until I failed to style and care for it myself made me believe I couldn’t groom myself.  The insults and shaming that came from being made fun of for wearing mascara and lipstick, and always being told that I’m not strong enough or skinny enough or pretty enough or smart enough to be as good as my brother and cousins took it’s toll on my self-esteem and self image.

I thought the negative self image and body hate had to do with having so many different alters and being anorexic.  Some of my alters are male; some are female.  They are all different ages, and many will never go through puberty – they are child alters or symbolic alters (aka non-human living beings).  And each of them hated the body that houses us for many years, possibly decades.  And back in  the nineties/early 2000s, many people thought anorexia was all about looking and feeling fat and wanting to lose weight.  It’s not all about weight loss.  My anorexia had to do with punishing myself and denying that puberty happened to please others.  It might also have had to do with hating my body, but I prefer to believe that seeing my adult body triggered bad memories that made me feel anxiety, hatred, etc.

Some Challenges

Main point is that I don’t actually see what my body looks like in the mirror.  I see fat, red rashes, cellulite, scars, big butt, wide hips, thunder thighs, bad teeth, and so on.  It took 4-5 years before I could acknowledge that I am not ugly, just plain.  And another 7 years before I could acknowledge my physical attractiveness and stop hiding.  But multiple times every year I get to a point where all of the body hate comes flooding back.  I start seeing a big belly where one doesn’t exist.  Instead of my body, I see one that is wider than tall with a spare tire and fat, jiggly thighs.  I see double chins and yellowed, crooked teeth with halitosis (bad breath) that never goes away.  And not even looking in a mirror, these visions come as I look down at my body.

Then come the critical thoughts inside my head (voices).  The voices bring back memories and feelings I’d rather not face right now.  They always seem to come at times when I feel most vulnerable and stressed out and physically ill.  Also during spring and winter when a) people start wearing less and showing more skin because of the nice weather; and b) people start obsessing about holiday goodies and overeating.  When I get stressed out, I forget to eat.  Sometimes I deliberately don’t eat.  I forget to hydrate or just don’t bother.  And when I do eat, the food is not stuff I enjoy or even crave – it’s food that will ease the obsessions and compulsions in my mind.

And if I lose enough weight, my body automatically starts going into the “she’s starving herself; we need to start feeding off of the available fat and muscle sources, then replace with water (bloating)” response that makes me feel 2x my actual size and about 4-9 pounds lighter than I was before the triggers turned me inside out.

Learning to cope

I don’t have a lot of ways to cope with this.

Mostly I force feed myself using blender smoothies, soups, and savory/sour/slightly bitter/umami flavored foods that are nutrient dense and easy to digest.  I also make appointments with my dietitian to go over any food struggles and anxieties I might be experiencing.  And I stop trying to “eat healthy” or according to any of my past rules.  Instead I try to enjoy my food and eat a variety of flavors.

If I get a compulsion that won’t go away, I eat the food without shame; acknowledge that parts of me did want that food while others did not; and then tell myself that it’s ok to eat certain foods even though they are taboo in my mind or might make me feel gassy or sick afterwards.  The consequences are worth the enjoyment – like with ice cream and cheese and red meat for me.

Sometimes, I practice gratitude too.  This helps with the shame and body hate feelings, but is not something I can do all the time without feeling backlash too.  I remember how thankful I am that my body is healthy and not diseased in spite of the trauma it’s been through.  I am thankful that my body is strong enough to get me to work and exercise without pain and suffering.  I am thankful to have fingers that work and feet that can support me as I walk through life and so on.

And I increase my self care rituals.

Conclusion

I might not be able to stop my body from going into automatic routines that saved me in the past every time, but I can do my best right now in this moment.  So even though I’m still in a bad place where my body hurts and I hate going outside because I keep having to deal with my past, I am working towards coping better and getting ready to enjoy at least part of my day.  Then maybe I can relax and sleep long enough to rest and be ready for the next day.

Thanks for reading