“When I think about body image – issues with body image, that is – the first picture that pops into my head is of an insecure, fourteen year-old girl. Yet here I am; a fully-grown, twenty-seven year-old woman, I’ve got my life together, I’ve got a dog, I’ve got a job, I’m working towards a psychology degree. But deep down, I still carry the same insecurities that I have been carrying with me for most of my life.
This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (May 13 to 19) is all about body image. I might not be the ideal person to talk about body image – I’m not one of those #bodypositivity ambassadors on Instagram, although I do absolutely admire them and wish I could look at myself in a more loving and forgiving way and share full-body pictures of myself in bathing suits, showing off all my imperfections, just to make a statement. But there’s no use in pretending to be something I’m not – I always want to excel at everything I do and show myself in the best possible light and when I look at my body, I see everything I don’t like, all the imperfections, everything I have been reduced to by society, everything that has been oversexualised from a very early age on…
I have always been very self-critical about my looks, be it my weight (I’ve gone from being a chubby child through phases of basically everything from skinny to very big and very recently have lost a lot of weight again), how short I am (I randomly stopped growing at the age of 12), weirdly enough my upper-arm-to-lower-arm-ratio, old (self-harm) scars, a gigantic scar on my thigh from when I had hip surgery last year, stretch marks, body hair… but, worst of all, my breasts. I can’t remember the last time I went bra shopping and it didn’t end in tears or total frustration – because that has never happened. I still remember the first time I ever bought a bra – or rather, when my mum bought my first bra for me. I was 9. It was a C-cup. My body hit puberty really early. I grew up in Austria, where people have no brain-to-mouth-filter and I remember so vividly, what the lady who was doing the bra fitting said to her colleague, when she left the fitting room, because it was basically a loud whisper. She said, ‘Did you hear that? She’s 9. And needs a C-cup. That’s not normal, that’s disgusting.’ And then her colleague replied, ‘The poor child, imagine what they’re going to look like when she’s 20.’ Literally. Well, almost, they said it in German, obviously. So my first bra-shopping experience immediately left me with the impression that I was basically a freak. Soon afterwards, the sexual harassment started and as I got older, 12, 13, 14, and the boobs obviously kept growing even bigger (to what is now a DD, people in school referred to me as ‘the one with the giant tits.’ I didn’t even think it was offensive, back then, but it definitely shaped me, how I saw myself and my sense of self-worth.
Before I went into Psychology, I obtained a degree in Opera singing, did some acting, sang the occasional role every now and then. Usually, I was asked to play a prostitute (and no, I’m not exaggerating), when I asked them, why I had to play the prostitute, the obvious answer was, ‘Well, because of your looks!?’ I didn’t question it back then. I also didn’t turn down the roles, because I didn’t have any sense of self-worth, but I know now that people and sentences like that drove me further down this road of self-loathing that I had been on way too long anyway. Pair it with some depression, anxiety and PTSD and it’s not a nice place to be.
Surprisingly, it took a year-long, physical illness that took away my mobility to be appreciative of the body that I have. Due to an underlying condition I had to have a full hip replacement procedure done. A year prior to that, I was basically unable to walk, what followed was extensive physio-therapy, a lot of pain, a lot of healing, lots of ups and downs. But through it all, my body was doing its very best to heal, even though I had been hating it pretty much all of my life – yet there it was, healing, recovering from a massive surgery, while all my mind was doing, was hating it even more, because it was taking too long, wasn’t healing fast enough. It wasn’t until a couple of months after my surgery, when I started walking with one crutch only and became more independent again, that I realised, how amazing my body was. And I think, that’s when something changed. I started appreciating my body for what it was. A body – the literal thing that makes me me and gives me life. Not a grotesque collection of flaws and imperfections.
Just recently, my therapist told me something about body image that changed how I see things as well. She said that people don’t perceive you as your flaws. They don’t look at you and perceive you as your individual parts, they don’t perceive your legs, or your face, or your boobs only. They perceive you as a whole; your looks, your personality, your voice, the memories they associate with you. And I remember she told me the same thing before, several times actually, and it never made sense to me, because I always thought, ugh, whatever, she’s just saying this to make me feel better. I’m a woman of science – I rely on facts based on research and experiments.
So why do I suddenly believe her? And why do I share this? Because I did a very lengthy psychology project on Gestalt perception at Uni and I learned that according to the laws of Gestalt perception, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is actual research to prove this. So, maybe, if you’re like me, and you need scientific proof to stop worrying others could perceive your body just as flawed as you think it is, this is it. Because chances are, they don’t. How often do you look at someone on the bus and immediately spot a flaw? Because I tend to see the things I like about strangers first.
Maybe that’s something we should practice – focusing on the things we like, about others, about ourselves, in our thoughts, on our way to work, when we look in the mirror. As I said, I’m not the ideal person to talk about body image – I still cry sometimes when I go bra-shopping, but I’ve come a long way. The truth is, we all struggle – everyone struggles with body image, we all think something is too big or too small or too saggy or too whatever. The truth is, those are the things who make us who we are, our flaws, our imperfections and as long as we’re healthy we should try to embrace them.
If you find that you’re struggling with your body image, check out Mental Health Foundation for some helpful links. One in eight adults in the UK have experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image (Mental Health Foundation, 2019). Asking for help is the first step in the right direction.”
– Sarah x
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