Sometimes I get so stuck in what I used to look like, what I used to be like, that I cannot find any appreciation for who I am today…
Recently, it was very difficult to hear a loved one saying, while looking through old pictures, “That’s what Tamara looked like before she got really sick. Wasn’t she beautiful?” Not that I don’t say these very words myself, a disclaimer so to speak, letting others know I haven’t always been heavy, puffy-faced, pale, fill in your own negative adjective here:_________.
But this time, I wasn’t the one to point out my “different self,” it was my husband. And I know, in my mind, that he was saying this with pride, letting someone who has only known me post-sickness in on what I looked like in a healthier state. In fact, he most likely was just mimicking my own words. But, all my heart heard was, “she used to be beautiful.” Translation: I am no longer beautiful.
And as I am writing this, I realize I perpetuate these stories. Because I don’t want to appear less than (or more than, in regards to my weight- LOL!), so I make excuses. I act as if I already lived my glamorous life. Or even more so, that given just a little more time, I’ll get back to my “old self.” “Just you wait and see!”
But that’s not humanly possible. For any of us. Each day we wake up, we are a newer version of ourselves. We move forward, not backwards, in time (or so we hope!).
This attitude doesn’t just pertain to the ill. Comments like these are recycled in the media and in our communities as we disparagingly remark on the aging… a “condition” that occurs in each and every one of us, no matter how hard some try to stop time. We talk wistfully about our youth… our past selves. Or we make side-comments like, “Wow, she has really gotten old.” Or even worse, “What’s up with that grey hair; why doesn’t she color it or something?!” Like aging is something we should fix instead of celebrate.
And let’s face it; the majority of us don’t recognize beauty in ourselves in the moment. It’s only years later as we longingly talk about our youthfulness/healthiness, that we shower ourselves and others with high praise.
Looking at it in this light, who’s to say we’re not missing out on the beauty of our present selves, by keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the past?!
In a stunning sermon by Rev. Tina Simson on the topic of “Fat Ankles and Personal Dragons,” she states, “We do this often… make fun of our own bodies; we talk about them as if they are a distant relative we wished lived somewhere out of town.” She goes on to reflect, “Hidden just out of sight is my flawed self-image that is fed by our culture and its unattainable singular standard of beauty. But also, I know it is fed by me as I critique and doubt my own self, my strength and value… only because by body doesn’t conform.”
So, I realize that this shift in attitude towards those of us who have been “transformed” by illness (and all of us who haven’t discovered the fountain of youth yet) needs to start with me. I need to refuse to keep on feeding that dragon!
First, a note to the friends, family and caregivers of someone who is chronically ill:
• It’s okay to reminisce, but try to avoid the words “used to be.” They only denote that we are no longer a whole person as we are… today. Try instead to recognize all the positive traits that you see in us, in the present. For ex, “______ amazes me with her/his strength and resilience.”
• For intimate partners: look for all the things you still find beautiful about your mate. Tell your partner, tell others, and most importantly, tell yourself. We all miss things that once were, but by dwelling in the past, you’ll also be missing out on what’s right in front of you. Perhaps we don’t look the same as we did when you first met us, but what are the things that make you pause and feel lucky that we’re still together? Practice falling in love with me all over again.
• This may sound contradictory, but it is okay to also celebrate my beauty and strength of the past. Just, please don’t get stuck in the past. Perhaps marry a reflection on how beautiful I look in this picture from 8 years ago (or the career I used to have), with a complimentary comment about me today.
And for my part:
• I will try to stop putting myself down; stop being a bad example of all the ways I don’t want you to act.
• I will focus on all the ways I am a success today. I may no longer be participating in a daily, more traditional job. But I don’t sit on my laurels, either. I’ve reinvented myself and found ways to engage in my life, in new and different ways. I am an artist, a writer, an editor, and supportive wife, friend, sister and daughter. I am a survivor.
• I will focus on one thing I love about myself, today. It can be an external or internal attribute. I will fall in love with myself again (or perhaps for the first time). Today I looked in the mirror and realized I love my hair… not only do I like my current haircut (hurrah!) and the thickness of my mane, I love what it represents. Just 4 years ago, I had lost 75% of my hair; it was see-through thin, stringy and kinky. But as my body healed from the trauma inflicted upon it, so did my hair. It is a shining symbol of my resilient nature. Give yourself the gift of celebrating the beautiful person you are.
• I will engage in activities that lift me up instead of drag me down. Instead of sabotaging my self-image by trying on clothes I know won’t fit me, I will take a yoga class that reminds me of the beauty and strong attributes my body possesses.
These exercises are not only for the benefit of our own self-worth, it is an important shift in societal attitude we are all responsible for. Studies now show that girls’ self-esteem peaks at age 9 (!) and goes down from there and that 80% of children (boys and girls) at 10 years old are afraid of being fat. Let that sink in for a moment.
Together, we can start to re-shape the current mentality of our society. Let’s celebrate the diverse tapestry that makes up our world… all the different colors, sizes, shapes, abilities, ages, and gender orientations. Do we really want a “Stepford Society” after all?
More thoughts on body image: