Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘self-esteem’

Confusion in Cymru

I love Wales. I went to university in Cardiff aged 18 and lived in south Wales until I was almost 30 (apart from 8 months in Sheffield while I studied for my MSc, and even then I spent a lot of weekends visiting friends and my now husband in Cardiff!). I met DH in Wales, he proposed in Wales. My daughter was born in Wales.

We moved away extremely reluctantly at the start of 2011 following our bankruptcy and the repossession of our home. DH and I were both desperately unhappy at having to leave but promised ourselves that we would return soon, even if it was only for a visit. Circumstances conspired against us however, and it’s only now that we’ve been able to come back for the first time, having saved up for almost 2 years in order to afford it.

So here we are. I have been unbearably excited for weeks, ever since we booked the cottage we’re staying in. I even cried as I drove across the Severn bridge for the first time in 3 years and in a lot of ways it feels as though we’ve only been away a few weeks. But in other ways there is a yawning gulf between who I was when we left and who I am now. We have an extra child, for a start! DS was conceived and born in England; although this beautiful country was home to DD, DH and I, he’s never seen it before. As well as this I feel like a completely different person, just a shadow of the confident, sociable woman I used to be. My physical appearance, my mental health, my path in life – these have all changed and none of them for the better.

Yesterday we met some old friends, most of whom DH and I have known since university. Although I was really looking forward to seeing them I was also dreading it because I’ve changed so much. I’m ashamed of who I am these days – an obese recluse who only seems able to engage with other people through blogging or on Twitter. In the end it was actually a great afternoon but it brought home to me just how different I am now and how I feel about myself.

This trip, this holiday, our long awaited return to Wales, was supposed to be a joyous occasion. DH and I have both suffered from hiraeth, that heartsick longing for home and Wales for which there isn’t really an equivalent in the English language. I hadn’t foreseen that being here would be so confusing and upsetting, that it would strike at the heart of who I am and how I perceive myself.

I am so unbelievably happy to be here, to have returned home to Wales even if only for a week. I’m enjoying taking the children to places that we used to go and it’s good to meet up with people that DD doesn’t remember and DS has never met. But I’m also sad because already I’m anticipating having to leave again; most of all I’m grieving for the life we used to have and for who I used to be. And I’m feeling all of these things at once.

On being fat – a revelation

I first remember being unhappy with my body when I was about 7. I remember standing in the playground at school and cinching the belt on my dress as tight as it would go so that my stomach wouldn’t look so fat. I remember spending the rest of my school years miserable that my thighs were fatter, my bum was bigger and my stomach was more wobbly than most of the other girls. I remember being at university and feeling like a balloon next to my slender friends. But the stupid thing is that looking back, seeing photos – I was never fat. Not as a child, not as a teen, not as a student. I was built differently but I wasn’t fat.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have struggled with disordered eating and weight gain for many years. My most recent post was about how much I dislike myself. But some of the responses I had to that post really made me think. I had a lot of supportive comments from followers, Mumsnetters and Twitter friends; I was linked to a couple of amazing and inspirational blogposts about being fat and the fantasy of being thin. And as a result, over the last couple of days I have had a bit of a revelation.

Firstly, how I look isn’t the most important thing about me. It doesn’t even come second or third. It baffles me that I have let this define me for so long. As Georgina (the author of the “Being Fat” blogpost I linked to) says “I have fat on my body, but I am not fat – a mere lump of the stuff”. And she’s right. I have fat. I also have muscle, skin, nerves, bones – that just tells us that I have physical form. It says nothing about me, about who I am.

Secondly, my body is pretty amazing. In my younger days before the degenerative disc disorder really kicked in, this body was very flexible and I did a lot of dancing – mostly ballet, jazz and contemporary modern. This body has done bungee jumps, white water rafting, a skydive. It has carried and borne 2 babies. This body has been solely responsible for sustaining those infants until they were ready for solid food, and then continued to supply sustenance for as long as was needed. This body is awesome, despite its structural issues. 😉

The third part of my revelation was that while my body may be fat/big/obese/however you want to put it, it is merely incidental to who I am. I need to stop saying “I am fat” and start saying “I am me”. I am Sam. I am kind, friendly, intelligent and frankly a bit daft. I am a woman; a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister. I am a graduate, a stay-at-home-parent, a role model. I am so many different things that I can’t list them all – why then should I focus only on my physical appearance?

That appearance has to do with the fourth and final part of this revelation of mine. For the last 15 years I have been trying to lose weight. I have followed exercise plans and all kinds of diets. I have promised myself that I will be more confident when I am thinner, that I will be more outgoing and that I will be happy with how I look. I now realise that unless this weight loss comes with a free personality transplant these things are very unlikely to happen. I have wasted 15 years being miserable about my appearance. I don’t want to waste any more time; I don’t want to lie on my deathbed and look back on a lifetime’s misery about a few extra inches.

I need to stop wishing for a body that I am never going to have and learn to be comfortable in the body I have. I do need to eat more healthily and tackle my disordered eating, and hopefully that may have the side-effect of losing a little weight but you know what? If it doesn’t that’s ok.

I am what I am. And I am fabulous.

Do you love yourself?

My daughter asked me this last night as I was tucking her into bed. We had been talking about family and love and she was earnestly insistent that everyone should love themselves as well as other people. I smiled and replied “Of course I do!” and she went to sleep happy.

I lied, of course. Not a little white one either but a big fat whopper of a lie. Some days I loathe myself to the point of repulsion; some days I merely dislike myself. But I certainly never even come close to loving myself. I just don’t want my children growing up to feel this way about themselves and the longer I can hide my self-loathing from them the better.

So what’s so bad about me? To be honest the reasons are pretty feeble. The first one, always top of the list, is that I am fat. But then I have always hated my body and been convinced that I was fat, even when looking back I can see that I plainly wasn’t. However these days I really am. Measuring in at around a UK size 20 I have rolls and flab and looking at my body fills me with revulsion. For a variety of reasons losing weight isn’t easy for me but the 2 main ones are that exercise is difficult because of my back pain, and that my eating habits are disordered to the point of possibly having an eating disorder (I’ve written about this before). I don’t really believe that though – I’m just greedy and have no willpower. My size is my own fault.

Moving on, another reason I dislike myself is that I am needy. I want others to approve of me and other people’s opinions, even those of strangers, matter to me. That’s why the previous paragraph was so hard to write – I don’t want online friends to know what I look like below the neck, I don’t want them to know how awful I look. I crave friendship (after the events of the last few years I have few real friends left) but I struggle to bond with anyone offline, perhaps for this reason.

There are yet more reasons and I can’t go into them all. But off the top of my head? I despise my inability to cope with normal, everyday life when I used to be highly successful at a complex job. I hate what I’ve become & hate that I seem unable to escape this fate. I loathe my anxiety because I know that I am being irrational. I detest myself for not being as good a mother as I want to be, as I had always assumed I would be. In short I am ashamed of both who I am and what I look like.

And yet…

And yet there are things about myself that I quite like. I am intelligent. I have a great sense of humour. I like my green eyes. I may not be as good a mother as I thought but I’m not a bad one either. I like my breasts (even if they do make buying clothing tricky!). I’m not bad at baking. I am a good friend. I care about people.

So maybe I should try to stop focusing on the negatives and recognise the positives. This may sound easy but it is a daunting prospect – even writing down those few good things took me ages. There’s a constant little voice in the back of my mind criticising and rubbishing and belittling my every attempt at positivity:
“You think you have nice eyes? It’s a shame the rest of you is so hideous”.
“You’re a good friend? That’s easy to say when most of your friends have vanished from your life” and so on.

But I am going to try to drown out that little voice and attempt to like myself a bit more. I would hate to see the sadness and disappointment on my daughter’s face if she ever learned how I really feel about myself so I need to change that. I need to learn to like myself despite my faults and flaws instead of focusing on them to the detriment of everything else.

It seems an impossible task but I have to try.

Reflections

I glance into the mirror and pause. A face stares back at me; a face cleansed of make-up, of pretence. A face that is both familiar and unfamiliar to me.

This face looks tired, drawn, careworn. The faint lines at the corners of the eyes seem more defined now, shorn of their cosmetic camouflage. The eyes look lost and blend into the rest of the face without anything to define them. The skin is blemished and naked.

This woman is plain. She looks vulnerable. She appears to only have a passing acquaintance with sleep but too much familiarity with pain; it shows in the tightness around her eyes, a tightness usually hidden from view. The layers of artifice and disguise have been stripped away and she is but a pale shadow of the mask she wears daily.

This woman is me, and yet she is not. This woman goes unseen, hidden beneath the layers of superficiality. She is protected by the painted mask and now, dragged into the light, she seems reduced somehow. She has less presence, less substance, less reality. She is my shadow self and yet she is also my true self. She is that which is hidden in plain sight.

She is me, the me that I permit few people to glimpse. And now, like a small animal dragged in terror from its burrow, she is exposed. I stare into the eyes so like my own and yet so different and then I turn away from the mirror, already casting aside the memory of that wan, tired, naked face gazing back at me.

Why we should pity Samantha Brick, not revile her

Samantha Brick is a columnist for the British newspaper the Daily Mail. She’s known for writing aggressive and confrontational columns that provoke lots of outrage, and therefore lots of publicity both for her and the newspaper. There is some debate about whether her columns reflect her true personality and opinions or are merely provocative parodies intended to increase revenue for the Mail.

Today’s column (I’m loathe to give the Mail traffic but it’s reasonable to assume that you’ll want to read this for yourself) was about women and weight. Specifically how Ms Brick has been on a diet for most of her life and disapproves of any woman who doesn’t do the same. Some memorable quotes from the column in question include:

For three decades, self-denial has been my best friend. And one of my biggest incentives is that I know men prefer slim women. I have only ever dated men who kept a strict eye on my figure. My partners are not only boyfriends but weight-loss coaches. My first love continually reminded me that one can never be too rich or too thin, and my husband of five years frequently tells me that if I put on weight he will divorce me.

…in my mid-teens I decided to lose my puppy fat, transforming myself as I lived, for the best part of a year, on Marmite on toast (no butter).

At college I invented the Polo diet. Eating a pack of mints for breakfast and another for lunch, I could make each one last hours. I am 5ft 11in and slimmed down to a size 8.

As I see it, there is nothing in life that signifies failure better than fat.

Predictably there have been howls of outrage across the internet as both women and men react with outrage, anger, insults and mockery. But does Ms Brick really deserve the vitriol flung her way?

Read the quotes above again. Read (if you don’t mind giving the Mail yet more traffic) the column. According to her own writing Ms Brick seems to seek out controlling partners who reinforce her belief that her worth is measured by bathroom scales and tape measures. At the age of 14 she apparently ate only bread and Marmite for a year – and presumably nobody noticed. At university her disordered eating continued and today she equates fat with failure.

Like many Western women I have body-image and self-esteem problems. However I am fortunate and have no idea how it must feel to assess your value as a woman purely by whether you are able to wear a certain pair of trousers. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must be to know that if your body changes the person you love will walk out on you. That you are only worthy of their affection under certain conditions. That even if it’s not your fault, even if you develop health problems or need medication that causes you to gain weight, you’re on your own.

I had a friend once who was prone to attention-seeking behaviour and boasting about how beautiful and clever she was, how amazing her life was. Then one night she drunkenly confessed that she was utterly miserable, that she was deeply insecure and loathed herself. Ms Brick reminds me of her. Whether she is a caricature, a parody or genuine, she deserves our pity not our insults.

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