- When did you first experience negative body image?
- How did it affect your day-to-day life?
- What decisions have you made as a result of your insecurities?
- Do you have any suggestions to ease the pain for others going through the same negative feelings about their bodies?
- As an adult how have your self images of yourself changed at all?
I can’t remember the first time I experienced a negative body image, but I imagine that it was before my first memory of it which is when I was four or five. I was convinced that I did not belong in my family and that I was not the child of my mother. I thought I had been switched in the hospital. I was in such distress after weeks of this obsession that I told her about it. She lifted me up to a mirror in the hall and said to me: “Just look at that nose. Who but your father’s child could have a nose like that?” in a voice of impatience and annoyance. So I knew I was in the right family, but I didn’t like the idea of having a man’s nose.
I had five brothers and no sisters. When I was 11, my parents adopted the fifth brother, after they went to an orphanage and saw several children including girls. The fact that they chose another boy was more fuel for my negative body image. Ever since I could remember I had been treated as if I was inferior because I was a girl. I had started menstruating when I was 10, and it appalled and devastated me. I had imagined for years that if I somehow woke up with the right taste in my mouth, I would have turned into a boy, and now I knew it would never happen. My first period came on at my brother’s 15th birthday party. I was washing the dishes in the kitchen and I felt so dirty that it seemed the right place for me to be. I wasn’t fit to be in the party with the boys. My body had betrayed me. My mother came in and found me crying, and told me I’d better get used to it as it would happen every month until I was at least 48. I just wanted to die. My periods were so bad and lasted so long that she took me to see the doctor when I was eleven. They talked over me as if I wasn’t there and agreed that I should have no investigation or treatment (even though by then I was seriously anaemic) because that would break my hymen and my husband wouldn’t like it when I got married. (This was in 1956, by the way, not the Dark Ages.) I told them I was never going to get married (I had actually decided this at the age of five) and I didn’t care what some man would think anyway, but they overrode me, telling me not to be silly, so I went on suffering until I was 21 and was able to go on the contraceptive pill, which sorted out my hormone imbalance. I experienced a lot of humiliation around menstruation as well as excruciating pain and loss of blood. How could I have developed a positive body image? Especially as my body turned out not to belong to me, but to adults around me, even some future stranger.
It’s difficult to separate out my body image issues from my self image and my feminism, because the fact was that having a girl’s body affected absolutely everything in my day-to-day life. I was desperate to be a boy, though not for the body parts – my only positive feeling about my body was that my private parts were private. I was made to feel gauche and awkward about my body every day. There were rules about no trousers, no shorts, no Wellington boots, no sitting with legs apart, no sprawling, no running, no farting, no sweating, no smells of any kind; there was the discomfort of liberty bodices, no pockets, and later the horror of a bra and sanitary towels (no tampax allowed, see above). Deportment and modesty were the two gods for a girl; there could be none of the behaviour normal in boys, considered hoydenish in girls. No dashing about, no greed, and on and on. My mother owned to climbing trees when she was a girl, but I didn’t believe her: I wasn’t even allowed to have a bicycle. I had to wear cheap plastic shoes that made my feet sweat, because the boys got through so many pairs there was no money left for me, so I took them off in the classroom at school and got jeered at about my eccentricity and my smelly feet.
My “best friend” from the age of four, chosen by my mother, was a year younger than me and much smaller. She tyrannised me, and mocked me for being fat and eating too much and looking ugly. She had a set of child’s furniture and made me sit on the baby chair, then ridiculed me for not fitting into it. When her mother brought us biscuits my so-called friend only allowed me one, because I should be on a diet. When we went to the seaside she wouldn’t let me ride a donkey because I was too fat. Every time we were together she found some way of ridiculing me, and often carried tales about me. I finally got the courage to go against my mother’s wishes and dumped her at the age of ten, when she told her mother (who told mine) that she’d seen me going to gym at school not wearing my vest. (This was to fit in with the rest of my classmates). There was only one girl who wore her vest, because of her developing breasts, and I couldn’t face the cruel teasing about buds and crab apples that she was subjected to. No-one had noticed mine yet. Of course, as soon as my mother found out about my vest, I had to wear it. Modesty was more important to her than any amount of teasing or bullying.
I was also repeatedly and publicly humiliated by the gym teacher at my secondary school, for having a “fat brown bottom” and for asking to be excused swimming two weeks in a row each month because I was menstruating, and then for being excused games because of asthma. Well, I could go on and on. I am shocked as I write this – I hadn’t realised how all-pervading the attempts to make me ashamed of my body were, and how lastingly affected I was by them. My mother never complimented me on my appearance. Even in my 40s, 50s, 60s, she would greet me on my arrival for a family visit in Canada with criticisms about my body. If my father or one of my brothers did compliment me, she would whisper something like “don’t pay any attention, men always like blue”, or “they’re just saying that to make you feel better”. And that’s if she didn’t burst into tears of shame at my appearance.
- What decisions have I made as a result of my insecurities?
By the time I was 18, I was anorexic. I neglected my body. I had asthma and allergic rhinitis (that nose!) all through my teens and was excused games, and until I was in my late 20s I didn’t do any exercise or eat properly. I smoked and drank a lot until my mid-30s. When I started to do yoga I grew one and a half inches. Actually as a young woman I was attractive and loved clothes, but I could never go out until I’d tried on about ten outfits. Once I’d decided on one, I forgot about it for the rest of the day, but mornings were agonies of self-loathing. I suffered from body dysmorphia, but an odd form of it. I thought I was ugly and deformed in some way that I couldn’t see in the mirror, but that other people could see. I dated anyone who asked me, I was so afraid no-one would want me (I’d been told that often enough). I have been married twice: my first husband felt he was in love with his mother, and could barely have sex with me. Fortunately for me, he left me after eighteen months. My second husband (who I am still with) was unable to have sex once we got married, except very occasionally. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave me, and I couldn’t leave him as my self-confidence was so low and my loneliness too all-devouring. At 60, he remembered he’d been sexually abused as a small child (not that it was a surprise to me), so at least he could no longer blame me for his rejection of me. But the damage was done. Almost all my relationships with men have been ruined by this insecurity about my body. A complicating factor is that because I was looked after as a baby by a very loving father, I have a strong core. I have always believed in myself as a person, I just don’t believe anyone else sees me as I am. It’s a complicated mix. I am still affected by this body insecurity. Now, as an artist I have quite a lot of friends, including Sue Kreitzman, who are trying to change the image of the older woman and the stranglehold of fashion by wearing colourful clothes which express themselves. I am so intimidated by this that I often don’t attend events where I could meet good friends, so I live a rather hermit-like existence. My art has not been as widely seen as it could have been as I am no good at networking.
When I started painting at 40, it wasn’t so bad, as I could disguise myself in “painting clothes”. In fact, all of my clothes are essentially a disguise.
- I wish I’d had useful suggestions when I was younger, but no-one imagined that I needed any help. I would say: as young as you can, find someone you can trust to be honest to talk to, talk about ways to make yourself look your best (and I don’t mean a make-over), find someone who is not over-interested in appearance, but whose advice you respect. Don’t believe everything you see and read on Facebook! I was going to say work on your own style – but I did that, I was very interested in fashion and I succeeded, but it didn’t make any fundamental difference to my attitude. Get yourself a good therapist. I did when I was 24, and she made it possible for me to live with my depression and this disability. Unfortunately it is a disability that is imposed on women and sanctioned by society and we can’t altogether avoid it. Don’t just think of your body in terms of your appearance. I am a sensual person, I love dancing, sex, good food, wine, being outdoors, relaxing … and I spent too much of my life neglecting what my body needs and loves, and therefore have suffered far too much illness. However you feel, eat well and regularly, pay attention to sleep, take regular exercise, do things your body enjoys doing. All this is like money in the bank when you get older. Try not to think “it will never happen to me”, because it will.
- As an adult, my body image has changed dramatically. This is because my body has changed dramatically. I developed Chronic Fatigue at 40, and put on a lot of weight. I now weight almost twice what I did at that age. All the “body faults” that I was so critical of in others when I was young are now mine, and then some. A very humbling experience. At 44 I had an over-active thyroid, which caused a permanent change to my face, eyes, and legs. I have retained fluid in my lower body since then, my face is wide and round, not long and thin, and my eyes are more prominent. While I was having treatment (for two years) I looked like a frog. At 47 and again at 66 I had breast cancer, treated by mastectomy both times. For 20 years I’ve had serious IBS with resulting weight gain and bloating of my abdomen. I don’t like having my photograph taken because I usually literally do not recognise myself, so no selfies! Even if I do, I feel that the person in the photo is a stranger. How could I look like that? However, I have survived all this, and discovered that as I’ve got older, and now turned 70, I can at last give myself a break. Who cares what I look like now? I have a kind of freedom I never had before. My body hurts, it is highly disfunctional though I am not labelled disabled, but I am still here. I live my life and enjoy a lot of it, make my art, have enough to eat, shelter, heating, clothes. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.