On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 3: What DO You Look Like?

“To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.”

― Simone de Beauvoir (1949)


Confidence. A word loaded with so much meaning. We ‘have confidence’ in something. We ‘take someone into our confidence’. We’re ‘self-confident’, an aspiration held up to us as one of the pinnacles of success. To be self-confident means to be go-getting, to present ourselves as someone dynamic who can perform without fear of feeling that we’re anything other than sure that what we attempt will succeed. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating, but not by much, and certainly not in these over-mediated times when self-exposure through social media has created a world of selfies, of being able to edit one’s photos so that the skin and body look perfect. To watch ‘beauty gurus’ on YouTube, who all of course look amazing (possibly through filters and good lighting and editing) in order to learn how to become one’s ‘best self’ who is ‘living her best life’. If you do all of these things, then you too can aspire to greatness, and supreme self-confidence will be yours.

So why doesn’t that work (not that I ever take selfies – never mastered the ‘art’)? Why do women (and increasingly men) think that they’re not good enough? Why do I feel (since this is about the fictions I’ve created around myself) that I am old, ugly and fat, despite losing almost 28 kilos since my diabetic diagnosis about ten years ago? Why do I have so little self-confidence? And why is it so many of the women I know feel, if not exactly the same then similarly?

For me it started young (what doesn’t?), when I hit puberty to be exact, a difficult time in anyone’s life, an in-between time when one is either child not adult. I was always a skinny child, and then, when I was around thirteen my body started to blossom. I grew, as women do, breasts and hips. And I was told, by my no doubt terrified-that-I-was-becoming-a-woman father, that I was ‘getting fat’. I absolutely don’t believe that he acted from any sense of malice or meant any harm – my dad would never knowingly hurt anyone. I honestly believe he was afraid of losing his little girl, because I was very much a Daddy’s girl. But that was inevitably happening, and so, in his eyes, breasts and hips meant I was growing away from him. That I would become prey for other men’s attention. Men who did mean me harm. Men who would take me away from him. But words stick. Words have power. And words cause wounds. Given that my mother was stick-thin all her life, it sounded to my ears, and looked to my eyes – film stars, pop stars, models (Twiggy in the 60’s, for example – name speaks for itself, right?) that women should not have curves. That women should have figures like washboards. Non-sexualised. And ultimately (because in the other ear I had my mother, also terrified of my growing up, that men ‘only wanted one thing’ and that ‘nice girls didn’t attract male attention’) I decided that my curves were dangerous. That everything to do with being a woman was dangerous. And so began my forty year habit of yo-yo dieting. Dangerous thoughts lead to dangerous habits, right?

Just the other day, I read a story written by a lovely young woman. She has anorexia. She starves herself. She works out relentlessly until she drops. She purges. When she’s not starving herself she restricts to 600 calories a day. Her periods have stopped. She has developed lanugo(downy hair) on her body. All because of a body loathing that borders on horror. She looks at other, ‘fashionably attractive’ bodies, and wishes that she was like that. It has taken root in her brain that she needs to aspire to and attain perfection, so that she can have the self-confidence to present herself to the world. She says that her anorexia is about control. Control over how she looks. Control over herself and her world. It’s heart-breaking.

I was never that restrictive. Not dangerously so. Nonetheless, this was what my diet was from when I was sixteen onwards, until I left school at eighteen. Note that during this period I was not having school dinners, which I often used to reject anyway, and which just increased a phobia of certain foods, which I still won’t – can’t – eat, or even look at. Breakfast: A slice of toast, with a scraping of butter or margarine, and maybe some milk. Lunch: Three Ryvitas. A small hunk (maybe an inch square) of Edam cheese. An apple. Dinner: a small portion of whatever my mother would cook. That was it, pretty much most days when I was at school. I’d ‘allow’ myself more food at weekends (I was very fond of a Sunday roast, for example; and fish and chips from the local chippy on Saturdays); but generally, I restricted. I got down from nine stone (I’m five foot three inches tall) to under eight stone. And even then I felt fat. Repulsive.

There are some feminists in the body positive movement who say that ‘fat’ is not a feeling, that it is a state of physical being. That those of us who say we ‘feel fat’ are being oppressive to and dismissive of women who actually are fat (that’s a precis of the ‘argument’). That attitude makes me angry, because it’s dismissive of those of us who are (unfortunately still) body-loathing. So I absolutely disagree with their assertion. Those of us who have been fat (at my heaviest I was obese), ‘feeling fat’ is absolutely a thing. Feeling fat is being constantly aware of every curve, real or imagined. Of knowing every bit of extra flesh on your body. Feeling fat is believing that people are looking at your body and judging it negatively. Feeling fat is wearing body-hiding clothes rather than enjoying your physicality because nice girls don’t want to attract attention from anyone, because a mature body means you’re prey.

So I was under eight stone. I left home to do my nursing training. I was free, except I wasn’t, because I was (as you’ve probably gathered if you’ve read any of my posts) alone and away from home, and therefore had to look after myself. I had never done that before, never so much as made my bed (!), let alone cook a meal. I felt chained by my freedom. But I learned to cook, and my restricting became over-eating in a surprisingly short space of time. I didn’t put on much weight – my job was too physical and demanding for that – but I put on a little. And surprisingly I was okay with that. I mean, it was only a few pounds, right? Right. I had a couple of boyfriends (not at the same time), and kept them at arm’s length, like a good girl.

And then I met the man who was to become my husband.

My ex had (maybe still has) his own issues about his own body. He was naturally skinny. He thought that other people should be skinny too, especially, given my experience as both his wife and the mother of his daughter, female bodies. So although he enjoyed his food, and although we went out for many lovely meals together, he was constantly scrutinising my food intake and my weight. Was quick to notice if I put on weight, and comment on it. ‘Do you actually need that?’ (when I wanted a cheeseburger once, just as one example). ‘You’re getting bigger’ (on regular occasions); and ‘You’re so fat’ (also – especially towards the end of our marriage – a regular thing) and, ‘Do you really think that suits your body shape?’. So I started restricting again, mostly eating tiny portions, cutting out fat, sugar, for months on end. This was before I had my children. Funnily enough, when I got pregnant all that stopped, and I LOVED my pregnant body – maybe because I always thought it was what my body was for. Afterwards though….

Any woman who’s had children will know that, unless you’re quite lucky and absolutely determined to get back into shape, you’ll never be pre-baby shape ever again. I’m not making excuses, but my stomach, always rounded, has never recovered from two pregnancies. What with that, and the horrific post-natal depression I lived through after the birth of my son, I restricted again. Would feel (and sometimes be) sick if I had to eat even a small square of a sandwich. And so it continued. I restricted food on and off for over forty years in the guise of dieting, because that sounds ‘better’ than ‘restricting’, until I realised that it was enough.

So I stopped and just ate. And ate. And became obese. My self-confidence dropped to an all-time low, and my body loathing increased. But although I hated what I looked like, I didn’t stop eating. I ate pretty much whenever and whatever I liked, despite the remarks it earned from my ex (who, I might add, joined me in my snacking and never put on a pound!). I guess it was another form of eating disorder that went by the name of ‘comfort eating’. By the time my ex left, I was four stone overweight and well on the way to Type Two diabetes, which is often associated with something called metabolic syndrome, a set of conditions that includes insulin resistance, raised blood pressure, putting on weight, which leads to more insulin resistance, which eventually leads to T2 Diabetes. Many of us who develop metabolic syndrome are apple-shaped, potentially the most ‘dangerous’ body shape because of where we store fat – around our waist. I’ve always had a big waist, even at my thinnest. The tendency to metabolic syndrome is one of the reasons why not everyone who’s fat or obese gets T2, and why some of us do. But that’s digressing a little.

So I developed T2 at around 52 years old and the low-carb eating phase began. Now low carb eating actually is super-sensible for people with T2. Some people make it a lifelong change, because of course, carbs – whatever they are – are at their base sugar. So I low-carb’ed and lost, as said above, 28 kilos. It was the only time in my life I’ve eaten for my health, and it really helped my insulin resistance, and my blood sugar levels are in the normal range now.

But my body image remains poor. I won’t diet anymore, because I know that’s not healthy, but I’ve put on around eight pounds over the years, eat pizza and pasta and drink wine, and the body horror is coming back. Right now I feel out of control. Because my mental health has been so poor over the past year, and increasingly poor over the past three, I’ve lost any respect for the body that I worked so hard for when I lost all the weight. I know I have to get it under control because I’m again very aware of every single bit of fat on my body; and especially now I’m older, I feel more unattractive than I ever have. Other people tell me I’m slim, I’m still attractive, but, with no disrespect intended, it doesn’t matter what other people think, because the emotional brain doesn’t listen. The emotional brain goes back to every hurtful, damaging word that’s ever been said. To reiterate what de Beauvoir said in the quote above  – “To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.’ But if you’ve never had that body confidence, how do you learn it?

It’s something that even at my age, I need to discover.