It’s a strange experience to notice growth in yourself. I don’t like to think of myself as being on some kind of journey, to me that just reads as something sugar-sickly sweet, something that happens in movies with defined endings where the main character appears in voice-over at the end to make a call back to the chaotic start. But I do often think in terms of movement. Not necessarily always forwards, but things never stay the same, sometimes they get worse, sometimes they improve, sometimes they change beyond all recognition and sometimes we find ourselves in familiar territory, but we are always moving.
The funny thing is that sometimes this movement is only noticed after the event.
And so it was that I was driving into therapy last week listening to the latest episode of Terrible, Thanks for Asking (and I can’t work out if that’s nothing to be concerned about or emotional risk-taking!), and I realised that something big had shifted, not loudly or with great fanfare, but subtly something has changed. It’s an episode centring around beauty, identity and loving ourselves – I won’t say much more because I don’t want to give spoilers and you should all go and listen, but it made me realise just how much some things have moved for me.
My view of beauty and body image for most of my adult life has been negative towards myself, and cynical to those that put stock into these things. As I’ve written here in more detail, this was largely a protective measure. I was in an environment, especially in school where my body was mocked, misunderstood and medicalised, and my identity and sexuality linked to it in very toxic ways. In the early 2000s there wasn’t the same level of disability identity politics there is now, and the true social media revolution was still in it’s infancy. This left many (though not all) disabled people of my age very isolated in terms of having anyone to really find common ground with when it came to disability. It’s a lonely space to be in when you’re in a school of several hundred students, and the disabled contingent is less than 10 – and of course, there’s no reason why you should have any real connection with them on that basis alone. So, as I write more about in the post mentioned above, I dealt with this prejudice and ableism by not pushing against it, but by making a concerted effort to remove myself from situations and people who would push that prejudice. Note: This is not the same as dealing with the prejudice. And so, unwittingly, I took that prejudice, and internalised it in a way that only became clear to me in the last eighteen months or so.
In 2016 I finally recognised that for me, the way I looked and the way I appeared to other people actually mattered. I realised that I had (and indeed still have) a strong instinct to say “Those who judge you for the way you look are shallow and not to be taken seriously”. But what that had become over years of self-loathing was “Any thought that YOU have about your appearance and the way you look is shallow and not to be taken seriously”. I was denying a part of myself that was in plain sight for anyone who looked at me, they were still making judgements (good, bad and neutral) but I wasn’t allowed to have any kind of judgement. I’d taken the phrase “It’s what’s inside that counts” in an all or nothing way. I’d reached a point where any thoughts of what’s on the outside were shallow and judging – and not for people like me.
It was a frightening thing to realise that this was not enough any more. The stares, pitying looks, condescension and subtle ignorance of me now hurt in a new way. I could no longer brush them off as ignorant people, or people just having bad days. Years of tolerating this stuff had worn away my reserves of patience, I was angry at the prejudice, realising how much of it there was, and a dark part of me at the back of my brain realised that for all I truly believed about beauty being internal, that there was another side that I could no longer ignore. I found myself looking in the mirror and seeing something (not someone) misshaped, grotesque and freakish. Even though I knew that I had many great qualities, I still wanted to be seen positively in the external sense as well as the internal. A thought that I’d have previously dismissed as shallow vanity was now something that was clamouring loudly in my brain.
So, the thought was there. And it was loud, it was persistent and it did not go away. And when I started going to therapy in January of 2017, this view of my body was one of the things that I wanted therapy to make this not be happening! It was uncomfortable, didn’t mesh with my identity and upbringing and I didn’t understand it. One of the biggest benefits of my long-term therapy around disability has been the opportunity to pick apart my processes so that I can see now, not only where some of the thoughts I have arise from, but also how much stuff I’ve internalised. And for me, once I understood that, I was in a to start looking at what to do about it. This was real movement.
And then in May of this year, just when I was starting to figure out a plan (or at least a trajectory) of how to deal with some of my negative body-image issues, as well as possibly addressing some extremely toxic internal monologues about how unwanted I was, the puzzle pieces that I’d very carefully laid out so that I could look at them, were completely rearranged.
I found myself in a romantic relationship for the first time.
Now before I go any further, I want to make very clear, that I’m absolutely not saying that my shift in perspective on beauty, body-image and how people look at me is solely down to this. It isn’t. But it is in my story a key shift, a massive movement. I’d been able to lay out the origins and gain an understanding of my dissociation and dissatisfaction with my body, but this new relationship has given me something key in this area too – a way of challenging those beliefs. I have found it impossible to hold all of those beliefs in this relationship, because the ideas that I’m profoundly unattractive, grotesque and freakish simply don’t fit any more. At least, not all of the time, and that will continue to move.
This is not to say it is plain sailing either. I vividly remember sending my girlfriend a video of me performing with a quartet, which ended with me walking (in my customary CP lurch) back to my seat. And I genuinely had the thought of “Do I have to explain this one?”. These negative views of both my own body and how society more broadly responds to beauty are longstanding and will not completely disappear, but there is movement. I now have both the origin story of these views and the direct challenge to them. And that is enormous movement.
And previously I’d have viewed this as a pretty shallow way to get the change. I don’t now. One of the things that Gigi talks about in her episode, is how self-love is a radical act and I realise that one of the ways that I (and many others) have torched our own self-love, is to downplay it as vanity if it’s to do with our bodies, or self-indulgence if it comes in the form of taking time for ourselves. I’m still learning not to do this, and it’s an ongoing process, but it’s one that I’m becoming steadily more secure in. I still have days when I can’t glance in a shop window in case I see my lopsided reflection, but there are now some times, when I can look in the mirror too. My body, and my disability are no longer tied together quite so tightly, I can grow to love the one, without disregarding the other.
I remember at the start of the year, I was having a mental blip and saw one of those lists of self-care tips that you can do pretty immediately. One of these was “take a goddamn selfie!”. I did this, and then looked at it again and deleted the picture from my social media. I’d like to think that now, that goddamn selfie would stay there regardless. Learning self-love is complicated, but sometimes I have moments when I can look back and see how far I’ve come.