Archives for posts with tag: body image

Many of us have mixed feelings about having our picture taken. As a person with a history of mild body dysmorphia and anorexia, I have always found looking at photographs of myself challenging – sometimes even excruciating.  I am generally getting more practiced at it.  But even today, while I have to see myself on camera at times for work, my first reaction is always to cringe when I first see a photo of myself. Why? I think there are a few reasons for this:

1: I grew up scrutinizing my appearance because I saw the impossible acquisition and possession of beauty to be my ticket out of a life of subtle oppression, and isolation; and because seeing how much I fell short in this way meant I would be eternally powerless, and alone. So, looking at photos of myself was a loaded practice, that left me feeling torn between despair and disappointment, and the faint hope for a way out of my suffering.

2: For years, perhaps because the stakes were so high, my relationship with the camera would swing between hope and fear. And for a long time, I became so phobic of the camera, that if someone managed to sneak a picture of me, I would so quickly panic and retreat inside myself, that it would appear that there was nobody home behind my eyes. And, I actually was so psychologically shut down, that for a long time, my eyes revealed nothing. It is still eerie to look at photographs taken during those years. At that time, my body was not a home, not a sanctuary. It wasn’t even something I identified as “me.” I felt more like a prisoner of war inside myself.

And even today, I still resist my own image. But it feels slightly different. When I see my own static reflection staring back at me, there is also the fear and the frustration about the very idea that I can be nailed down, that my ever transient nature has one relatively immovable face, one basic shape of a body. I think that in my mind, I am not so fixed, not so bound to the material world. Mainly, I think it’s because I want to be able to transform and grow outside the bounds of my history, my biology. But, I suppose in one sense, I will always just be little, old me.

So having photos of myself is an act of radical acceptance on my part. It is a process of reclamation. I think that the part of it I like the most is the way you can sometimes look into your own eyes and see your own essence, your own life force, staring back. It is validating. And this is relatively new for me; there exist many random photos of me from years ago, where the person inside them is so powerless and afraid – so seemingly absent, that it has always hurt to look at them.

DSC_1899Seeing myself grow into the limits of my own form is a process that photographs can document. It is my hope that if I make it to 80, I will laugh tenderly at the notion that the body that had served me so IMG_5631well and for so long had once been perceived as a prison. It is my aspiration that the person behind my eyes will be so free and authentic that she will be the very picture of inscrutability. After I am gone, all that will be left of her face and body will be photographs. And I hope that her enigmatic gaze will make people wonder – about the mysteries, the wild depths, that lingered for a life time beneath the mischievous glimmer of her eyes.

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It all started quite innocently.  My room mate came home from her work at a café and mentioned that well known Hollywood actress, Christina Ricci, had dropped into the shop – for a second time in the past couple of weeks.  This wasn’t so surprising to me, as I know that the actress is in the city shooting a film, and famous people shoot movies in Halifax quite often.  I also know many of my actor friends who auditioned to play supporting roles in the same film, and I would like to think that I am somehow above being star-struck.  After all, I don’t watch Hollywood movies so much anymore, nor do I usually follow Hollywood media culture, but I do know who Christina Ricci is, and she fascinates me.  Why?  A few reasons.  One: she’s my age.  Two: she possesses an intensity and a courage in the roles she plays that I admire, and three: we both struggled with anorexia at the same time – she in the public eye; myself, only in front of the relatively few people who cared that I existed in my insular, small town fishbowl.  I am morbidly fascinated by this poor young woman’s relationship with her weight.  Years ago, I looked to her as a role model – the subtly defiant Wednesday Adams who seemed far too sardonic and oblivious to things as insignificant as her appearance, to fall into the same traps as me. 

But after curiously looking at recent pictures of her online, what I found threw me for a loop.  As I found myself scanning these recent pictures of her modest frame, I stumbled upon a tweet from a teenaged girl: “I want to look like Christina Ricci, 95 pounds of pure muscle.”  In the same breath, I found an article extoling the discipline Ricci possesses in her exercise and diet routine, and a quote from the actress stating that no matter what she does, she will never look like the average person in a bikini.  Now, think about that.  Of course she won’t.  Everyone’s bodies are on a vast continuum, and she will probably not often in her life, fall into the average category.  But what did she really mean by this comment (if it is indeed her comment)?  Well, I have a hunch that my recovered anorexic brain knows exactly what she meant.  She meant that no matter how hard she tries, she will never look as good as everyone else in Hollywood, that she will never be “enough.”  It broke my heart to read these comments, and more importantly, it broke my confidence.  This is the sequence of events that followed:

I nervously went to the bathroom to weigh myself, sighed, and went to the mirror.  Sighed again.  I have gained weight in grad school – normally not such a big deal to me – but today, the gulf between me today and the slightly more fit me that started 3 years ago seemed enormous.  And 15 or so lbs is not an f-ing big deal.  But I suddenly wanted to look at pictures of when I was 95 lbs, or 85lbs, or 78lbs, my lowest as a teenager- to remind myself of how unhealthy I looked.  And I remembered that I don’t have them.  There is a reason for this.  The reason is not because I looked sick, or because the images contain some sort of anorexia-relapse trigger.  The reason is because they freak me out: I simply was not even present in these photos.  My eyes were vacant.  I had checked out.  In these photos, I was not really looking at the person behind the camera, but at the future reflection of how “not enough” the picture would prove me to be.  And many women can spot this look – the shot where you’re trying to capture the best angle, your good side, where you’re terrified of what the picture will reveal, and are using sexuality and coy bravado to mask the feeling that you are NOTHING without them. 

My first instinct was to look into the future to where I could lose some of this excess, grad school weight.  And then I paused.  I am now in a role of peer mental health coordinator – a position where I will be working closely with many young people whose very culture dictates that they give a shit about how much they weigh.  They are already in the thick of it.  If I lose weight in front of their eyes, particularly if I dip below what I have come to see as my own average, what message am I sending?  I am not meant to be 95 lbs.  Not at all.  And I do not have the excuse of having Hollywood producers breathing down my neck.  All of us are role models.  All of us are examples for each other.  Social learning allows for a spread of both revolutionary ideas, and of subtle, silent oppression.  Every woman who ever lost weight told me they did it the healthy way, that they did it for their health, and for themselves.  Bullshit.  We do it because “health” has become synonymous with an impossible standard of physical fitness, with the Victorian belief that self-control makes us somehow stronger and higher status human beings.  There are sooo many problems with this notion.  One: it is often centered around doing what is socially desirable, and with the homogenous, tall, thin, large-breasted, big-eyed, toned bodies looking back at us from the check-out counter, alongside the high calorie, high fat, guilt-inducing snack foods.  In this social system, we are set up for failure.  Well, I have literally just decided that I would rather fail.  I would much rather fail at being a thin person who naturally isn’t so much, than be one of those who convinces themselves that their countless hours at the gym makes them a better person, that it gives them more control.  Well, what are you controlling, I ask?  Or rather, who’s standard of beauty is controlling you?  Don’t get me wrong, as described above, I have by no means overcome the societal systems I live inside.  I am not trying to say that I am somehow stronger for being able to sometimes not give a shit.  Some days, I do care.  Some days, I feel like my hairy legs and my fleshy body make me an avid feminist, and sometimes, I wonder if people might like me more, if I might have more social and work success if I looked more like the ideal.  This is a question I want to raise to everyone out there: Roughly what is the percentage of self-care that you practice that actually involves self-compassion, and what is the percentage that seems more like a punishment in disguise.  I’m not knocking being healthy.  I’m not saying that in order to be role models, we all have to be perfect according to some other standard of being unaffected by culture or personal mental health issues. I’m just trying to lead myself and others to question the sneaky ulterior motive of the notion of watching your weight in the service of “your health”.