Dec 4, 2011

The Yoyo Effect - Body Image and Chronic Illness

After reading a fantastic Q&A with Catherine Deveny on the Mamamia website about feeling fantastic at size 16 (the woman is awesome so check it out if you have a minute), I'm going to jump on the bandwagon and do a post on body image.  (Or maybe trot after the bandwagon as official 'Love Your Body Day' was apparently on October 19.)

Now, I'm just going to come right out and say that "love" is not a term I've used in conjunction with my own body in over 6 years.  On many levels, I feel my body lets me down, being sluggish and foggy and achey with a slow metabolism, crappy circulation, migraines and a tendency to just give up at inconvenient moments.

In fact, over the last 6 years, I've often felt that my body hates me, and that this is very unfair because it has no justification for doing so (I ate veggies and rode my bike growing up!  What does it have to complain about?!).

Frustratingly, I'm not even allowed to hate it right back.  On the contrary, I have to be very nice to my body, giving it healthy food and expensive supplements and lots of rest; protecting it from chemicals and vigilantly watching out for its every want and need.  It's like a demanding infant that always cries and never sleeps.

Yes, I'm aware dissociation from and personification of one's own body are somewhat unhealthy.

The issue of physical appearance, of course, cannot help but get mixed up with these negative feelings.  To me, the body is a combination of how you look and how you feel, and sometimes the two mingle.  No one feels attractive when they have the flu.

All that aside though, for me, as I guess it is for many women, the issue of body image has always revolved around weight.  According to many commentators, I have the media to thank for this.  Personally, I'd also attribute it to the obesity epidemic, parental expectations and being teased in the playground - but let's stick with the media for a moment ...

Ad campaigns, not so subtly telling us to shed kilos here whilst surgically adding them there, are inescapable.  Images of emaciated women are promoted in ads selling everything from cars to clothing.  Apparently, the best way to sell to a man is to stick a scantily clad stick figure in the general vicinity of the product, while the best way to sell to a woman is to attack her self esteem with unattainable ideals.

Backing the advertising industry right up is Hollywood, which certainly does nothing to dispel the idea that protruding hip bones are attractive.  It started with Audrey, continued with Twiggy and now extends to 95% of women on the red carpet at the Oscars whose bodies appear more plastic and paint than actual flesh and bone.

Don't even get me started on the fashion industry.  We all know the deal there.

In my case though, in addition to this universally experienced pressure to look like Keira Knightly (who is, ironically, attacked in the media for the crime of being fine boned with a fast metabolism), I found that once the CFS kicked in, I had much more pressing reasons to desire a waif-like figure.

People with CFS will often tell you that our bodies feel heavier than they really are, as though bricks have been attached to our limbs.  It's not a pleasant feeling, and in the beginning, the idea that loosing a chunk of weight might ease the daily struggle was one that I clung to.  There was also a vague idea that a smaller body would feel less ill, as though nausea was somehow proportional to mass: the less of me there was, the less there'd be to experience the symptoms.

Loosing weight turned out to be relatively easy as my relationship with food was quickly turning sour.  I had yet to work out the sensitivities and ended up cutting out entire food groups in order to avoid cramps and headaches.  Weight loss was basically a side effect.

In a couple of months, I lost 15 kilos, which may not sound like much if you've been watching The Biggest Loser, but when you're 5'8'' and starting at 78kg, it makes a massive difference to your appearance.

For the better?  I certainly felt so at the time.  I was fitting into more clothes, wearing midriff bearing tops without feeling self conscious and, truth be told, I was suddenly getting a hell of a lot more attention from men - strangers felt much more inclined to serve me first at the counter, open doors, make nice comments about what I was wearing and honk at me as I walked down the street.

Too bad I felt too awful to date.  I may have been happier with my appearance, but without a job or the physical ability to do anything for more than an hour at a time, my self esteem had reached all time lows.  And forget sex.  Feeling like that, I just wasn't interested.

Yes, unfortunately, my body still felt like a nauseated tonne of bricks.

Me, four years ago.
A friend of mine took some photos of me at that time for a uni project, connecting the theme of CFS to fairytales.

Looking back at this, I think I may have gotten a little too thin; for my frame at least.  I didn't realise it at the time, but I've since been told that friends and family were quite worried.  People have said that they considered me bony.

But did I look like the girls in the ads?  Did I look like the women at the Oscars?  Hell no.  Why?  Let me make a list:
  • My bone structure is big; 
  • My torso is long which makes my legs kinda short; 
  • My figure is pear shaped, so no matter how much my ribs stick out, my butt is always comfortable; 
  • My back is slightly hunched; 
  • My ears stick out; 
  • I have gaps between my not terribly white teeth; and
  • After shedding all the weight, my chest was almost non existent (I got really excited shopping for new clothes, fitting into size 10 and 12 of whatever I tried on, only to have a real "doh!" kinda moment when I got to the bra department).  
Me today.  "Overweight"
according to the BMI index.
But does this matter?  Is it bad?  Does it bother me?  No.   Not anymore.  In fact, it was kind of an eye opener.  I spent a lot of my teenage years imagining that losing weight would make me better looking, when in reality, all it did was make me look different.  The BMI index turned out to be crock, and frankly, who even wants to look like a product that's been mass produced?

Unless you're part of the 1% of women who actually have the genetics to look like a model, you are going to have an equivalent list of features to those above; features that no amount of dieting or exercise will change; features that make you identifiable as an individual.  

Most likely, these features are worth emphasising because they make you you, and isn't it better to stand out than to blend in to a crowd?

I once saw a photo of one of the girls from The Hills after she'd got a lot of work done and was horribly dismayed to see she'd removed everything that was interesting about her.  She'd been very  cute before, in a distinctive way, but after removing parts of her nose, hips and chin, bleaching her hair and enlarging her breasts, she was quite forgettable.  She claimed she had done it for herself.  Apparently it made her more confidant.  It was presented as an empowering thing.  Good for her, I guess, but was it really worth the money to look just like everyone else in her industry?  I'd imagine her original look would be more advantageous at auditions.

In defiance of the ideal of a nipped and tucked hollywood starlet with a fake tan, I would like to present a few photographs of women I know, women without surgical enhancements or three inches of makeup, who I have always believed to be very beautiful:

What do they have in common?  Certainly not their size, shape, complexion, hairstyle, ethnicity or physical ability.  Physical fitness is also not a factor.  In person, some are more confidant and outgoing than others.

From my perspective, the only common factors between these women are ready smiles and a personalised sense of style, which would seem to indicate happiness and individuality as the most important ingredients in the recipe for attractive.  To quote the Dove campaign, a mantra of "love the skin you're in" seems to be what is working for each of these women.

Generic "good" looks are boring and expensive to achieve.  Diversity is far more appealing - an ideal we desperately need to reintroduce into the fashion and film industries if we are ever going to convince teenagers that they are not all ugly as sin.

But does this work for everyone?  Could "love the skin you're in" work for me?  My attitude toward my own body is definitely a complex one, as I imagine it is for everyone with a chronic illness, and as I said earlier, the word "love" is not one I can honestly apply at this point in time.

That said, I certainly like having big blue eyes, thick hair and a young face.  I like having natural curves (the cleavage came back when I regained my ability to digest food).  I've got full lips and cute freckles.  I'm also a bit of a chameleon.  Minor changes to hair, makeup and outfit seem to make me look completely different, and that is fun to play with.

I'm certainly not a person who looks in the mirror convinced that they are horribly flawed and ugly.

Loving the skin I'm in may take time, all things considered, but I am glad to say I have well and truly let go of the standard women's magazine ideal.

Getting back to the interview with Catherine Deveny, there was one thing she said, well, many things she said, but one in particular which I think is important to take to heart:
"Choose love.  Choose satisfaction.  Choose you. You are gorgeous.  Someone out there would KILL to look like you."
 I will leave you with some images to think about:

Katie Halchishick - founder of "Healthy is the new Skinny"

Esther Vergeer - Tennis Player
Dove Campaign
Rosanne Barr
Dove Campaign


  1. This is a wonderful blog and very thought provoking! Body image is such a charged topic. Thanks (and you look plenty thin enough to me regardless of the BMI)

  2. Gnomes, your blog is so eloquent, I wish more people would take your genuinely felt truth to nature approach and speak out publicly and more readily regarding a broad range of issues such as this one.

    I hope my following commentary on this particular topic is some what constructive as I have a tendency to ramble. ^_^

    Linking to your blog, I do believe that often the 'importance' placed on body image cannot be truly understood for what it is until you put your hands a bit too close to the fire.

    Why should anyone feel pressured to change or alter their body if not for health reasons or personal choice? Why should anyone feel this need to compare and question if their body is right,wrong or even perfect? And why on earth would anyone want to pass those kinds of undermining judgments which can inflict pain on others?

    There is no doubt our society is driven by money and there are so many things around us that we supposedly 'need' and this makes it even harder for the individual to figure out the difference between what they 'want' and what they actually 'need' to feel whole and happy.

    The world can be confusing enough as it is, why add body image into the equation? There are so many more things in this world that one can place importance on, things that actually warrant the label 'important'.

    We are supposed to be intelligent beings, why is it that a lot of us cant see the forest beyond the trees?

    You know its easy to say and many people have heard this phrase many times over,'that the grass isn't always greener on the other side', but we all know someone, maybe yourself always needs to go there and check it out anyway.

    Industries play on our wants and needs, shrouding them in 'popular culture' benefiting from its lucrative consumption my a thirsty populous and all the while leaving us to try and figure out, what is important? What do I need to be happy?

    I feel one of the major problems of this is that apart from basic necessities to live everyone's needs are different when it comes to feeling happy and fulfilled in life and how do you know what will make you happy? The frustrating thing is a lot of the time you don't know.

    I know that a lot of what I see and read around me are not the absolute truths of the world and I have asked myself at times, 'do I have the strength to be afraid, to stick to my convictions and be who I truly am and love myself even if no one else will?', and honestly most of the time I was too afraid to say yes to myself.

    I realized later in the peace that I wasn't alone in this. Knowing that others were experiencing the same torment and confusion about themselves and their body was a definite comfort and builder of inner strength especially when so many others are much worse off than me, worrying about weather they will even live to see another day.

    When I went to school we did drama classes and one of the most important things I ever learned was that you don't gain any ground by staying in your comfort zone. It was taught to me that as an actor you become better as you step into the unknown even if it is frightening.

    As most of us have all heard before, 'you wont know unless you try, you wont get better unless you practice and even if you fail take what you have learned and try again'.

    The potential inner strength and will power of a person can be a force to be reckoned with and even though I sometimes doubt myself and worry about what others may think of me and my existence,I think to myself:

    As long as I am not harming another living soul intentionally and I keep trying to move on in my life in a positive way attending to my wants and needs whilst trying to stay true to myself. I know I am a force to be reckoned with.

    I believe that everyone has a potential fire within themselves. The hardest part I have found is keeping that fire burning.

    I will end my long-winded comments by saying...


  3. This is a great, eloquent and thoughtful post. Thank you for including me :)

  4. Thanks for the great responses to this! Especially the long affirmation from Anonymous there. Really appreciate it!


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