CW: Body Image, Diet & Exercise, Possible Sizeism & Healthism, Body Dysphoria
Disclaimer: I’m writing this post in the hopes of clarifying and untangling very personal issues. I’m writing it in WordPress because I think and express better through the keyboard, to an imagined audience, and also because, as always, my experience might resonate with others. You are not obliged to read.
I remember the photo shoot. A few months previously, I had gone through one of my most manic periods, during which I completed two manuscripts. I was just beginning to go public with my Caitlin Ross Series and explore self publishing avenues. The shoot was ideas for a sample cover of She Moved Through the Fair.
It was a cold, grey, rainy day. Later, I would attend a New Moon ritual. I intended to wear this dress, but while I was sitting down, my cat Luna peed on the trailing skirt, so I had to change.
I cannot wear that dress now. I’m too fat. Both things make me sad.
These pictures were taken a little less than a year ago. We were on the way to an event at a tattoo studio in Grand Junction. When I posted them, people commented things like “You look adorable!” and “Beautiful!”
I can see only my large, shapeless arms, my saggy knees. My giant waist and hips. The tiny feet holding up all my bulk, and the way they have flattened and roll in at the ankles.
My reaction is actually a little less extreme than it was at the time. I’m beginning to see that maybe some things about me look okay. Maybe.
This is always the way it goes for me, when I see pictures of myself. The closer I am to the day they were taken, the worse I look to myself. Later, I see maybe it’s not so bad. Years later, I may even see a kind of beauty.
This picture is from fifteen years ago, give or take. Probably a bit more. At the time, I hated it, as I hate all pictures of me at the time. Now I look at it and think, “Why? What made me see this smiling young woman as horrible and disgusting?” Now I look at it and feel nostalgia for that person. For that shape. At the same time, I remember the self-loathing, because the self-loathing never leaves. It infects every present moment. It sabotages every attempt to find acceptance, let alone self love.
At the center of my being, a Greek chorus chants over and over: “Not good enough. Never good enough.” Not just in my body, but in everything. My body is often where the struggle plays out, though.
I’m so tired.
I can point to a lot of intellectual reasons why “Not good enough” is the central theme of my life. Being born into a family that had serious issues with women’s worth and women’s identities and the bodies of people born female. Being targeted as Other for the first half of my life, beginning at a very young age. I can point to those things, but they have no impact on a visceral level. Maybe because it started before I can remember, maybe because the messages came along with a mental illness no one wanted to acknowledge and no one had any idea how to treat–a mental illness I still have trouble believing in, too many days–in my gut I believe the problem isn’t with my family’s sexism or society’s attitudes towards those who don’t fit within narrow definitions of “acceptable,” but with me. Me in particular. My being. There is something wrong with me that can’t be fixed, because fixing it would negate everything I am. This is what I believe.
Or something like that. It’s all very confusing. When I think I have a grip on it, it slithers away, like silk, like sand. Truth is nebulous, hard to pin down.
It’s hard to write this without crying. And yet, it’s also easy. A couple of times so far, I’ve felt tears constrict my throat. Just when I notice them, they slither away, too. Like some wizard has placed a “Don’t See Me” charm on the pain at my core. I touch it, and it’s somewhere else. I notice it, then forget a moment later. I get this must be some kind of defense mechanism. I survive; I get on. I swallow the razor blades and the hopelessness and the burden and the “I can’t do this any more,” and keep going, living with the things I don’t believe I can live with. Probably if I saw that thing behind the spell clear, I wouldn’t be able to.
I meant to write about body issues in particular, and I’ve already veered from the point. I’m so far off course, I don’t know how to get back. That’s the defense mechanism at work again, I suppose. Issues link to other issues, again and again, and before I know it, I’m somewhere else. Somewhere safer, if not exactly safe.
I’ve addressed body issues on this blog before, from time to time. I’ve written about my eating disorder and about body positivity, and about other things. Not much. Not as much as I’ve written about writing, or mental illness. Writing about body issues is apparently a huge challenge for me.
Several times over the course of our relationship, my husband has told me I have a stronger body-mind connection than anyone he’s ever known. We’re about to mark our 20th wedding anniversary, and we were together four years before we got married. This makes him the person I’ve had the longest and most consistent relationship with in my entire life, so I guess he’d know. And it’s true, I think, that I have a particularly strong connection between body and mind. Stress makes me physically ill. Negative emotions manifest in migraines, and digestive complaints, and muscles that set like cement. Mental illness comes out in my body. Which is one reason, maybe the main one, that I developed life-threatening anorexia in high school. One day, everything drained out of me. I’d had a lot of ups and downs before, but until a particular incident (which isn’t important except to my therapist), they were passionate ups and downs. Then passion went away. I was empty and small. Not long after, my body followed suit.
And here, the threads become very tangled. Would my mental illness have taken the form it did if I hadn’t heard all my life that I was fat and disgusting, unlovable and worthless? I don’t know. How much of that was internalized attitudes about size and how much was simply feeling I should be punished for existing in a body at all? I don’t know that, either. And how much of feeling I should be punished for existing in a body was tied to my existing in a woman’s body? Beats me. I do know my inner voice berated me for being a “fat cow” because the idea of worthlessness and the idea of fatness were inextricably linked in my mind. I do know I lashed out at both worthlessness and fatness with extreme diet restrictions and extreme exercise patterns, to the point where, now, considering any diet adjustments or any patterned exercise triggers feelings of being punished.
This is where I meant this blog post to go.
I don’t like my body right now. Trying for years and years to practice some form of body positivity has made no impact whatsoever on this. At the same time, I have never liked my body. Maybe back in the dim and distant past that I don’t remember clearly I did. I think it more likely that I had no opinion then, and when I learned to have feelings towards my body at all, the only feeling I learned was loathing, which became ever more extreme as time went on. It’s still there. Mostly, I try not to feel it, because feeling it is debilitating. I don’t know how to deal with this or overcome it. When I was anorexic and other times I’ve pursued active body modification, I’ve thought being a smaller size would make a difference. It doesn’t. I learned that thirty-plus years ago, and yet, I go back to it again and again. I still hate myself no matter what size my body is.
People who promote body positivity often say “start small.” Start with acknowledging and appreciating the things your body does for you. It breathes. The heart beats. It digests your food, all without your asking or trying. In my case, it carries me from room to room. I can walk. I can stand or sit without aid. My body grows flawless skin and beautiful hair. I don’t have joint troubles, or an immune disorder, or any of the purely physical impairments a person of my age might have cause to expect, that other people my age suffer.
(Now I am crying.)
And none of those things matter. “Not good enough.”
I want–and please note, even the word “want” is problematic for me; it’s another feeling/experience the “Don’t See Me” charm obscures–I want to fit in that green dress again. I want to be able to get my blue, embroidered sun dress over my boobs. After a walk or a couple hours in the garden, I want not to hurt because my muscle tone is so bad. I want to be able to dance more than half a song without getting out of breath and having to sit down. I want my husband to say “You’re a beautiful woman,” and not, “You’re a beautiful round woman.”
I fear all this makes me Not Good Enough at body positivity.
I’m almost totally sedentary right now. I have been since around the time that initial picture was taken. For a while, on my last determined skirmish with body modification through weight loss, I forced myself to make exercise a priority. I walked three miles six days a week and I did an hour of Pilates most days (I’m sure I’ve referred to this before). Now I rarely move. Only recently, since my latest med adjustment, has leaving the house for an hour of gardening ceased to be accompanied by innumerable mental contortions: Can I do this? Do I want this? Am I forcing myself? Is it safe? What’s the point? ad infinitum. Right around the time my last medication manager suggested we try Pristiq and it started working, I just stopped moving. (This may have happened before then, around the time I was last hospitalized.) I’d been following Weight Watchers and dropped almost 50 lbs. It started coming back before I ever achieved the fabled “goal weight,” and I couldn’t track food in the hospital, so I stopped. Then I started eating more. Then I stopped moving except to get up from the couch to pee.
I’m so tired.
How much is Bipolar Disorder and Depression? How much is laziness? Yes, I think of myself as a lazy fat person. I think, “If you just made it a point to move…” But moving for its own sake hasn’t been fun for me since I was seven years old; it’s always a duty. Something I make myself participate in to be less worthless. Even when I was studying dance, yes, I loved dancing, but I also loved the idea of myself as “someone who moves regularly.” I never, ever enjoyed those three-mile walks, and never came to that magic place where exercise transforms from a burdensome commitment to something you look forward to as part of your day. On a regular basis, I cried doing it. How do I participate in joyful movement no matter what size I am when movement isn’t joyful? When it’s acutely emotionally loaded and painful? When I don’t believe there’s anything on the other side of that pain but more pain, and more, and more? Maybe the momentary comfort of sitting on the couch surfing the ‘net on my phone is the best I get.
You know, I believe we opt into the lives we incarnate in. More and more these days I think, “Why the hell did I opt into this mess?” Why did I pick, or at least not refuse, a life so hard, where nothing ever turns out the way I want and I always have to settle for “The best I can get?”
As far as my body issues go, I feel like I’m constantly fighting a war on multiple fronts. I go back and forth between them, never winning more than a skirmish, and never with time to breathe. As soon as I have one under control, shit flares up at another. Try to shape myself to be more what I want to be, maybe succeed for a time,. Then all the restrictions and so called “lifestyle changes” begin to wear on me, and I think, “Hey, body size and weight have no bearing on my personal worth, so eat a goddamned hot fudge sundae and sit down for a change!” Relax into my body and try to accept myself in my natural state, and in a few months none of my clothes fit. Clothes that aren’t simply rags to cover my nakedness, but symbols of my identity. I can’t win. There’s no decisive victory.
I want to wear that green lace dress again, so badly. I want to sit still and watch serial genre on Netflix. I don’t know how to find any kind of resolution.
ADDENDUM: I posted this comment on a Facebook thread, and it seems like I should add it here:
“If you’ll forgive my gooey therapy-speak, I think my core wounding (ugh, that just sounds so pretentious and gross) is around worth and the right to exist, and the fatphobia and sexism got piled on top of that. Both have made it difficult to get to the real issue. And the real issue is awful and painful to acknowledge because of all the gaslighting I experienced around it. So any kind of positivity becomes impossible for me, because I lack any sense of myself as valuable, though I believe in the inherent worth of everything on an intellectual level.
And I think this is a place I was trying to get to in the post, but didn’t.”