The title of this post is the title of the article from which I am citing the excerpts in this post and in the posts to come. I came across “See Yourself Differently” by Isabelle Taubes in the June 2010 UK Edition of Psychologies Magazine. I don’t think that Taubes is breaking new ground in this article, but she very succinctly brings to the forefront the myriad issues which make body image such a complex problem for women. Since I cannot find this article archived online, I will share longer excerpts here:
“The relationship we have with our body is constantly fluctuating between love, rejection and acceptance. Every morning when we look in the mirror, we see something different. If we’ve had a night of tender caresses with a lover, we might see a desirable body. After a bad night’s sleep the mirror is merciless–bags, wrinkles, bad skin…Our relationship with our own reflection is wracked with insecurity. One critical look can make us feel like an unattractive blob, while a seductive smile can reassure us and put a spring in our step.
‘We attach enormous importance to our appearance,’ says psychotherapist Didier Prades, ‘but it’s impossible to see ourselves as a whole. Our vision of ourselves is inevitably fragmented.’ This is why we expose ourselves to merciless examinations in which each body part is scrutinised (sic) and judged as a separate entity: ‘I like my shoulders but not my thighs, the stomach’s all right but my bottom’s terrible…’
‘There is no such thing as a body that can simply be,’ says Susie Orbach, in her book Bodies (Profile). Orbach, author of the seminal Fat Is A Feminist Issue, examines how we judge our bodies by external standards in a way that makes our relationship with them riven with dissatisfaction. ‘Disguised as preoccupation, health concern or moral endeavor, almost everyone has a rhetoric about trying to do right by their body, which reveals a concern that the body is not all right as it is and that the body is a suitable, indeed an appropriate, focus for our malaise, aspiration and energy.’
Our intolerance of what we perceive as imperfections is partly caused by the desire for a slim, firm body, but that certainly isn’t the whole story. Our relationship with our bodies is fraught with difficulty because the image we have of ourselves usually bears no relation to reality.
‘At 16, I felt like a skinny little nobody,’ says Helen, 52. ‘This was basically because my mother constantly told me that’s what I was. Then, just before I left for my first holiday by myself, my father said, “Watch out for the boys! A pretty girl like you–they won’t leave you alone.” I was astonished. After that I started to see myself differently. And naturally I threw myself into the arms of the first boy who paid my any attention. When I look back at photos from that period, I can see that actually I was lovely and not a tragic skeleton as my mother had always implied.’ (Psychologies, 105)
We all have a 16 year-old Helen inside us. This young woman’s mother imposed a false view upon her–“You are a skinny little nobody”. Why? The mother-daughter relationship is fraught with difficulty. I will devote more than one post to this topic, I’m sure. What I want to point out is that, as Taube writes, Helen’s self-image “bears no relation to reality”. Maybe Helen was petite or small-framed, but she was not a “nobody”. As an impressionable young woman, she believed her mother. Later, her father offered her an alternative opinion–“You are pretty.” Perhaps Helen had never thought of herself as pretty, but now that her father called her “pretty” she was going to believe that instead. It’s easier when these alternative opinions come at a younger age, I think. There is less time for the “untruths” to embed themselves in our consciousness. We can see the truth more clearly, and, therefore, choose to believe it more easily.
There is no point to reading this (or writing this) if it doesn’t get us thinking. So, try to remember a particularly influential “untruth” that was told to you when you were impressionable and vulnerable. The first thing that comes to my mind would be a conversation that I had with my mother. I was 19 years-old, and I had recently been diagnosed with a seizure disorder. I was not diagnosed by a neurologist but rather an internist who was not very familiar with anticonvulsants. I was, therefore, overly medicated with antiquated drugs. I was a zombie. One side effect of the drugs was weight gain. My mother had always struggled with her weight. She always thought herself to be fat even though she never was. I, on the other hand, had always been a string bean. I was nearly 6 feet tall by 17 years, and puberty was very late. She had always watched from the shadows with a jealous eye as I wore short shorts and tank tops with no bra oblivious to the world around me. After a month on the anticonvulsants I had gained over 10 pounds, and I felt uncomfortable in my skin. I could feel my thighs rubbing together. My clothes were tight. My breasts were larger. My face was rounder. I didn’t quite look like me anymore. So, I did what most girls do. I cried, and then I went to my mom. She sat down next to me on my grandparents’ couch. She put her arm around me, and I put my head on her shoulder. She quietly hushed me while gently rubbing my back. I shared my feelings with her; it came pouring out of me–all the frustration, the self-consciousness, and the insecurity. As I wiped my tears she said, “I understand, honey. You see, you and I, we just aren’t little. We are big girls. Get used to it.” It was like a bomb going off inside me. She wasn’t comforting me. She had been waiting for this day all my life, waiting for me to be like her (or at least how she believed herself to be)–big. From that moment on, I have not been able to shake the feeling of being “big”. I feel oafish, hefty, large, big-boned, unfeminine even. Men are supposed to be big. Not women. Right? (This is my neurotic self talking here) So, that is one of my stumbling blocks; one of my “untruths” that I essentially agreed to believe. Had there been another person in the room when my mother dropped that load of crap on me who offered another opinion like– “What you are experiencing is a side-effect of the medications that the doctor prescribed. It is not because you have done something wrong. In fact, let’s see if we can get a different medication for you. Until we can change it, I want you to remember that you are a strong, intelligent, capable, and beautiful young woman who is just experiencing a rough time. This too shall pass, and your weight will get back to normal. And, you know what? You’re beautiful no matter what. Oh, and you are NOT big.”–would I have believed it? Yes. That is so much more appealing than the other choice.
Here are a few suggested exercises. Pick a lie. Just one. Write it down. Now, if you could go back in time and tell your younger self the truth, what would you say? Write that down, too. If you feel strong enough, then imagine yourself counseling your younger self. Tell her (or him) the truth that you wish your younger self had learned and internalized. Imagine yourself sitting next to her, comforting her in her pain, looking her in the eye, and speaking true words–words of encouragement and kindness. This kind of exercise can be very healing. Role-play the conversation perhaps. Speak the words of your younger self out loud, and then be who you are today speaking the truth to your younger self. This can be very empowering. If doing these exercises is too painful, then don’t. Sometimes this sort of work needs to be done with a therapist. That’s okay. If you feel like sharing your experiences, then please do. Knowing that we aren’t alone in our struggles somehow makes it easier.