I grew up with a belief that I was not beautiful. I felt like the ugly duckling in my family. My mother and her sisters were very petite, had dark hair and brown eyes. I on the other hand was tall, had blonde hair and blue eyes and was told by many that I had a good ‘solid’ build, a word which I grew up to detest.
When I was introduced for the first time to work colleagues of my parents or people that my parents knew, it was always joked about that I couldn’t be my mother’s daughter and where did I come from, was I adopted as they couldn’t believe how physically different we were. Although I laughed along I was always ashamed by this and ashamed of my looks, height and build. I felt I could never be a woman because I wasn’t small and I didn’t look like the women in my family. I had a picture that you needed to be small and petite to be a girl or a woman and because I didn’t fit this picture I loathed how I looked. I also believed that you could only ever ask for help, show you were upset or be vulnerable if you were small and delicately framed.
When I was 11 years old I fell over and hurt my arm and toes on a school excursion to a water park. I didn’t want to show anyone I was hurt so I hardened my body to not feel the pain I was in. My friend saw the fall and the look on my face and insisted I go and get checked out by the first aid. The first aid man looked at my arm and held it roughly then said, “you’re a big strong girl, you will be okay”. I was angry with myself for showing I was weak and for asking for help. When he said this I wanted to cry, I wished that I was a ‘smaller’ girl so that it would be okay to ask for help and allow people to care for me. But I pretended I was okay and stayed at the water park and played. My friend’s mum offered me a lift home from school but I wanted to prove I was tough so I walked home. It took three days, a very swollen and blackening foot and aching wrist before I told anyone I was hurt. When I finally went to the Doctors I found out I had a broken wrist and five broken toes. Stories were then told at family dinner parties about how tough I was and how I didn’t cry even when I had broken so many bones. I was praised for being so ‘resilient’. I liked the praise so I decided that was how I would be, tough and independent, even though inside I was jealous of other girls who could show they were hurt and how they allowed people to be more gentle with them.
From young I would dress in boys clothing and I acted like a tomboy and became one of the boys proving I could be as tough if not tougher than them. As a teenager, when being a tomboy was no longer acceptable I started wearing dark baggy clothes to hide my body as it was now deeply cemented that I was not okay. Physically I had constructed a body that was tough, hard and I was holding a lot of excess weight. I can now see that this was a form of protection to push people away and not let them or myself see my fragility. There was a pride in showing I was tough and never vulnerable, in this I denied taking care of myself or honouring my fragility for many years.
I didn’t fit the pictures I had created of what it meant to be a woman or of those pictures that we are constantly flooded with in the media. I didn’t feel in any way feminine so there was no way I would even allow myself to walk into a women’s clothing shop for fear of being ridiculed by people in there. I thought they would make fun of me for wanting to dress in women’s clothing when I had a body like mine. When my friends went shopping I would stand in the store trying to be invisible and I even thought they would kick me out or ask me to leave their shop as I didn’t belong in there. I also believed that in life you could only ask for help if you were small, but if you were big then you needed to be tough and do it all on my own.
In high school I attended and boarded at an all girls school. During this time body image was extremely important for many of the girls. Though we all had different shapes, sizes, complexions and looks, no-one was free from hating certain elements of their body. People were on constant diets or get fit programs. Eating disorders, self harm and many other conditions were commonly witnessed in the school though often pushed under the rug and never openly discussed. Girls who were hospitalized for eating disorders were said to have ‘transferred schools’ even though everyone knew what was actually going on.
When I left high school I was sad because I no longer had to wear a school uniform, because although I didn’t like conforming to it, this was my one excuse to wear a dress. I denied connecting to myself as a woman all throughout my twenties, I wasn’t even aware of how much I had shut down this part of me and how ‘hardened’ I had become in my approach to getting through life.
When I first heard about Esoteric Breast Massages (EBM) I never considered I could have one as I thought it would only be for women who were actually like women. I fought myself and all the thoughts that came up around this but decided to have an EBM anyway. I was in my late twenties and with the support of the EBM this was the first time that I had allowed myself to feel my connection to myself as a woman. From here I was able to start to feel a huge part of me that I had denied accepting my whole life. It has been a very gradual learning and unfolding, getting back to how I actually feel under all the ideals and beliefs I have judged myself against. I am still in the process of becoming aware of these, accepting myself and letting go of the many pictures I have.
During this process I started to feel how much I actually wanted to connect to the woman I had denied and to start to honour and express how I actually felt instead of living with this ‘tough’ exterior. On a trip to Vietnam I asked a friend for her support with this. She was someone who inspired me by the way she looked after, cared for, honoured and expressed herself as a woman. Though she was younger than me she was a role model in this area, an area that I had denied myself. Though I was extremely embarrassed I asked her to go with me to get a dress made at the tailors. The experience was excruciating as the thoughts of self-loathing came up. The support from her during this time was really important for me. It allowed me to talk about how I was feeling and what beliefs I was holding about myself that were keeping me trapped in this idea that I couldn’t be or dress like a woman.
When the dress was made and I put it on for the first time, she asked me how I felt. I replied by saying ‘I hate myself and I feel like an elephant in a tutu’; even though I had lost a substantial amount of weight I still held the picture that I was ‘big’. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. Even though I really did want to dress in this way I was more comfortable hiding my body. I realised that because I didn’t fit the picture of ‘beauty’ that I had. I didn’t want to put any effort in as I didn’t want people to think I was trying as a part of me believed there was no hope for me.
This process helped me to take the first steps to reclaiming myself as a woman. There is still more to unfold. Stuff still comes up when I put effort into how I dress. It takes some adjusting to getting used to expressing yourself differently, whether through how you dress or behave. When at last I did start to wear dresses that I wanted to, I was uncomfortable and still wanted to hide. At work when I wore a dress for one of the first times a guy at work said “You look great, why are you so dressed up?” I was unfamiliar with how to handle the compliment and I thought I still needed an excuse to be able to wear a dress so I pretended I was going to a funeral.
At first I felt I needed to ask someone’s permission to start to dress like a woman. It was like society hadn’t allowed me because I didn’t fit the billboard of ‘beautiful’, but then I realized that I wasn’t giving myself this permission because I was so critically judging myself. It was more an issue of whether I accepted myself or not.
I realize it is not about my size, shape or looks, but I detested myself based on judging myself against the pictures I had taken on or created based on the throw away comments of others and the many images I was confronted with on a daily basis which I measured myself against.
I started to experiment with trying different clothes and learning to look after and care for my body and to not let the abusive thoughts have free rein. On my next trip to Vietnam two women in their sixties asked me to go dress shopping with them. They had been inspired by some of the changes I had started to make and they too wanted support. I was shocked by what they were going through. I never imagined that either of these women would have an issue with wearing a dress because they fitted the pictures I had of what it meant to be a woman- but they didn’t fit the pictures they had. One of the women shared that after she got married she no longer felt like she could dress up or take the time to put care into how she dressed. She used to love wearing dresses when she was in her twenties but then she stopped wearing them and now that her body was different she didn’t feel she could wear dresses anymore. Once she got past this hurdle she then had other reasons for why she couldn’t get a dress made out of a bright red fabric she loved, her reason being that ‘women my age can’t wear this colour’. When I asked her what she actually wanted she said she loved the red so she decided to get a dress made in that fabric. And, I must say she did look amazing when she wore it, she looked younger and she was radiating.
It was a great experience for me to see how this woman was holding herself back because of what she felt she had to be or dress like, I had thought by the age of 60 all your issues about body image would be gone. I viewed these women as successful and confident women, so I was surprised to see how they still held ideals and beliefs which capped them. The experience of this woman choosing the red dress then inspired me to get another dress made in a design I really wanted but was unsure whether I should wear. With the support of the practitioners at Universal Medicine I have been able to start to see the many layers and pictures I have taken on and measured and judged myself against that have aided my self-loathing. With support I am learning to reclaim what I want and learn to love and express myself as a woman more and more each day.