I recently took part in a photo shoot with two friends, hosted by photographer Sharon Smith, who is inspired by the work of American photographer Jade Beall. It was a magic, empowering and wonderful morning full of support, love and laughter. The photos will speak for themselves when they are ready to do so but I really want to get my words down about the absolutely massive ripple effect of these few amazing hours.
I’d consider myself pretty advanced on my body image journey as well as my own internal one. I’ve embraced where I’m at right now with my body and what I need to do to improve my health, well-being and happiness. I’m taking charge and being proactive. I’m learning to live in a heart centred way and expanding into a very rich and diverse inner world that brings me daily joy and cause for celebration! Life is good. Things are changing all the time. I’m a work in progress and I’m more than happy that way.
The prospect of this shoot didn’t bother me in the least – I was excited to do it and looking forward to it. On the day – especially having watched my buddy jump in first, I wasn’t nervous or anxious – I had no issues taking my clothes off and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Nothing though, could have prepared me for the feelings that came up after this shoot and that continue to ripple out daily for me.
During the shoot we discussed, among many other things, areas of our body where we have scars or issues. When asked what part of me that was, I replied that it would be my stomach I guess, but I was unsure why. I gave it a lot of thought afterwards. In fact, I was reluctantly prompted to it again the next day when someone chose to rub my stomach and ask “how is all this coming along?” (That is a whole other blog post). I started by tracking back my relationship with my body from when I was a child and overheard a relative tell my mother that she needed to feed me up as I looked miserable. I moved through my teens being encouraged to gain weight – my thin body seemed to concern others and make them uncomfortable. I blindly did this until I reached a weight that collected less comment, happy to put up with being the tall thin girl well into my twenties. This was when I started to gain weight unintentionally – travel, way too much good living, age, hormones – I went all the way up to a size 12 (yeah seriously – this was big for me!) in the space of a few years and the comments about my stomach and weight began as did the encouragement to keep trim. I can vividly recall an old co-worker remark and get agreement from others on my looking “better with a bit of meat” on me. I am not sure how I didn’t scream. In hindsight, I was way too gracious.
I attended weight watchers to lose weight for my wedding. Not because I was unhappy with my size 12-ness, but because my sister was going and it was something you did for your wedding – you know, the “happiest day of your life” has to be preceded with months of point calculation and weekly fat shaming! It didn’t last. I do remember deciding that I was much more concerned with enjoying it all than reducing my food to numbers and points. Unfortunately it wasn’t the end of my diet journey…
Through my thirties I continued to diet (and yeah, the comments kept coming about my poor dear round tum). I went back to weight watchers, I tried juicing, Atkins and others I thankfully fail to recall the details of. I’d lose and gain over and over, in a never ending cycle. Then I had my first child and totally took on the messages of “getting back” my old figure (not sure which one!). I discovered Lipotrim – meal replacement shakes and no food. Jesus wept, what was I thinking? I did this a few times too – ultimately losing what felt like tonnes of weight, and slowly putting it back on again. After my second child I ran back to Lipotrim before I started to cop on that the results were amazing yes, but short-lived too and it was more difficult to lose weight each time – it was impacting my metabolism and the deprivation was just not worth it. I was and continue to be very conscious of my daughters’ perceptions of my body image too. How do you explain not eating food to a five year old without it impacting negatively?
Over the next few years l continued to weight cycle and to struggle with ill health – low energy, headaches, mood swings, depression, aches, pains, foot problems, joint problems, Raynauds – all checked, medicated, improved slightly and then returning to their previous status. Weight was blamed on a number of occasions and I was told to lose some. I didn’t believe this was the problem, but I tried anyway – I would have done just about anything to wrestle back some health. After counselling and medication for depression I still felt no better and there was talk with my doctor of upping my doses, I decided it was time to take things in hand for myself. I weaned myself off the meds I was on, did a month of “clean eating” to really wipe my physical state clean and returned to the doctor for a full check-up. I was then diagnosed with hypothyroidism and prescribed a synthetic thyroid medication to take daily. I can remember the doctor telling me the meds were for life, that my thyroid was destroying itself and that I would start to feel better after about a month and that the weight would “fall off”. They don’t tell you you’ll walk away wondering what you did wrong, why your body wants to attack itself or that you’ll end up feeling that you’ve yet another thing to “fix” about your deficient malfunctioning body.
I did feel better after a month, for about a month, but the weight didn’t budge and after three months I was feeling rotten again. There began a constant ebb and flow of up and down in my dosage and very little time when I actually felt well. At one point I believe my dosage was too high and I tipped into hypo – that was when I decided there had to be a better way for this too! I’ve had big chunks of time where the thyroid symptoms are under control by just eating well and looking after myself. Big life events tend to knock that balance totally out of kilter, so after my Mum’s death last year my thyroid health slumped again and I ended up back on the meds and playing upsy downsey with the doses all over again. I’ve stopped now. I’m working with a homeopath friend to take it in hand again and calling on the knowledge, wisdom, self-care and self-mastery I’m working on these last few years.
Why am I putting all this in here? It’s where I’ve been the last few weeks – delving into the stories that got me here – the ones that made me feel either not enough or too much, the ones that make me feel wrong, ill, needing to be fixed. The stories that wanted me smaller, quieter, less than or too much. The stories that saw me believe my body was anything other than wonderful for taking me through this adventure I’m on. The messages that somehow ingrained in my psyche that as a woman, I needed to behave and look a particular way to be acceptable to the world at large. The consistency of those messages has seen me diet in one way or another and striving to stay smaller in any way I could most of my adult life and still end up at a very happy and contented size 16. Do they work? Hell no!
I stopped dieting when I saw Embrace. I knew I would. It made so much sense. I can vividly remember thinking when I saw the trailer that it had the potential to change so many things. That was a few years back now and I’ve yoyo’d on the body image and body love scales too ever since. Mostly I feel very confident in myself and my body – it’s been through a heap of challenges and living and loving and life – and I am very proud of it. I love my scars (caesarean, collar bone plate, numerous scratches, cuts, burns and mosquito bites), the veins that appeared on my legs after carrying two kids, the tattoos I chose to adorn my skin with- these things all show how much and how well I’ve lived. I realised during the photo shoot that one of my favourite body features is the dimples I have on my back. It was out of my mouth before I even knew that was the truth of it – “Please get my dimples in, they’re my favourite bit!” We really don’t think about our bodies in a positive way at all – we want to constantly fix and tweak and make better to get our bodies up to standard. And guess what? That’s someone else’s standard. It belongs to those who stand to gain from our insecurities about our bodies and ourselves.
Since the shoot I delved into what my issue with my beautiful belly is and discovered that in fact the issue is not mine. It was and is always someone else’s issue! It was my Mum’s issue, my aunt’s issue, it was the issue of the lady who didn’t talk to me for years because when she congratulated me and rubbed my pot I said, “Thank you, it’s a beer belly and I had great fun getting it”. It was never my issue. It will NEVER be my issue again. From here on in – rolling into year 50 for me in 2020 I guess I should be flattered to be thought young enough but the overwhelming feeling when this happens me is embarrassment for the eejit who has let those words spill out of their mouth, and compassion for myself that someone else could be so insensitive.
The big thing for me from all this has been reclaiming myself and rekindling the connection I have not just to this amazing body but the connection I have with my heart and soul. Life has a habit of knocking the stuffing out of me and I can take a while to recover. My dad died 9 years ago and it feels like life has provided sucker punch after sucker punch since! It all went a bit wonky and somewhere between raising kids, losing loved ones and trying to find the balance of day to day life, I lost touch with myself – not just switching off the link with my amazing body but with myself too – mind, heart and soul. I do believe it is the way we live – life is too busy to actually think about the stuff that matters and we just get on with getting on. The last few years that’s changed for me and a journey about body image has become an epic adventure about so much more. I remembered who I am. This shoot was the final jigsaw piece falling into place and I can say hand on heart, it feels fucking fantastic.
Last year my mum died. I had watched her diet all her life. She had always been small, petite, slim and so well turned out – heels every day and perfect hair! She’d gained an enormous amount of weight when I was a child and after years of telling doctors that there was something more wrong with her they found two massive tumours in her brain. She survived but was thereafter always yoyo dieting. When I was going through her stuff a few years ago I found a very used, worn out, folded sheet on which she had typed up (on an old manual typewriter) her Mayo Clinic diet – what I guess would later have been called food combining – and the state of the paper reminded me just how often she’d do two weeks of this diet to slim down. When she was doing this diet she’d feed everyone around her instead so it was always a joy for us! She’d have off days – when the food was scarce and rabbit like but Friday was steak day so you could be guaranteed a very happy Peggy on a Friday! She loved food – preparation, presentation, eating it (ironic given her taste and smell was lost to the tumours). She was a tiny force of nature. Her life wasn’t easy but she always made the most of every day. She was a fierce, unflinchingly dedicated mother and we always came first. True to the era she’d grown up in, she put herself on the bottom of that list and bowed to the pressures of a world that just found her more acceptable at a particular size and shape. I didn’t care what size she was. I cared that she was alive, with us, loving us, fighting for us, minding us, supporting us through everything. I cared that our kitchen table was a sanctuary for so many friends and family down through the years who remember her meals and her welcome and her sense of humour. She was brilliant. No one but her cared about her size. What people love and remember about her was her warmth, vitality and spirit. No one could ever make that smaller or better or lesser or more.
This photo shoot has changed my life. I reclaimed my self that day; the Alison that can only be found when the noise of the world is switched off and everything I’ve been wrongly conditioned to think about myself or my body lies on the floor in a heap with my clothes and it’s just me and my wonderfully resilient curvy body. There is a perception for me of being free from the shackles and oppression of a something or someone that needs me to stay small, quiet and subdued in a corner somewhere. I’m definitely not small, I have a voice and I’m definitely not staying invisible for anyone else. If you need that from me you’ll have to move along.
I believe it’s high time that we began to tackle the pressures put on people of all sizes to fit some ridiculously unachievable and unrealistic model of how they should look. The thing that makes me, you, the next person to come along, so interesting is the fact that we are all so diverse and so beautiful both inside and out. The sooner we start sharing our stories honestly and accept not just others, but ourselves, where we are and how we are now without judgment, the sooner we can pave a compassionate path away from fat phobia and forward to inclusivity and connection.
We got together in a garden studio one morning and did some all-embracing, empowering, body and soul reclamation as well as making some truly amazing art! I shed some tears watching my friend pose for her photos – wishing she could see what I see – a powerful, warm-hearted, feisty and beautiful woman. These ladies are good friends of mine. They’re people I confide in and love to spend time with. They are amazingly strong, intelligent, witty individuals whose opinions and friendship I value dearly. I’ve known them both a while but feel like I’ve known them both forever. The day of the shoot though, I feel like I really saw them for who they truly are for the first time ever. And that’s magic. Oh if we could see ourselves the way others see us…
I think we have some idea of the magnitude of what we have done. It’s in the goose bumps on my arms and the back of my neck as I write. It was in the moment I held up my arms in front of the camera and much to my own surprise declared that “I Am Here!” It’s in my liberation since that day from carrying the expectations and issues of others in any way, other than to support them in carrying and dealing with their own load when they need help. It’s in my thoughts when I look in the mirror and have nothing but love and admiration and at the very least, fascination and affection for what I see before me. It’s in the way I ask my body how it is every morning and the gratitude I feel every evening for another day living. It’s in how I hold myself daily. It’ll be in how I continue to live true to myself and how I work to help others find the joy and treasure trove they have access to within themselves. I can only hope it’ll be in how my beautiful daughters continue to grow and thrive true to themselves, capable of filtering out any messages that do not serve to bring them joy and growth. Oh and just for shits and giggles it’ll be in how I respond to you if comment on my stomach size…
Sharon can be contacted through her website at https://hippyandbloom.ie/