This week is #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and the Mental Health Foundation theme for 2019 is Body Image – how we think and feel about our bodies. This blog is about my experiences with mental health and body image.
Around age 12 I found something in my hair that wasn’t meant to be there. At first I thought I’d been bitten, within a few days there were three of them. I was petrified. Upon visiting my doctor (GP) he confirmed I had alopecia, i.e. hair loss. By the next again week my hair was all gone. The trauma I felt was horrific, but I was offered no psychological help to deal with it, and being British to use the old stiff upper lip to carry on as usual. When I saw a specialist I was kicked under the table by my mum to keep quiet on all. Equally, I had nobody to talk to about it in friends or family, as although my mum also has it, she will never talk about it. My head was already trying to understand my dad leaving the previous year, as well as the changes that a girl’s body go through with puberty. If I tried to ask family I was met with silence. If I cried I was told to go away, as crying only would bring other people down so never to do it.
At school things were little different to home. The majority of my school year took an instant dislike for me, our year size was in the 40s not usual 80s or 90s, and anyone new starting was told ‘nobody is friends with Fiona’. One memorable day, after music class, a gust of wind blew my wig off, and I ran back to the toilet beside the music room to fix it. Only, the queen bitches of my year saw, they not only laughed and pointed but chased me into the toilets. I’ll leave it to you dear read to decide what happened as it pains me even now write or say it aloud.
By the age of 14 I knew I was depressed and suicidal with nowhere to go, and no outlet for the feelings except to swallow them. I looked out of my bedroom window and did not dream only of escape. I wondered if I overdosed on asprin and then jumped if it would kill me, it was two floors down to the ground. I was already not keen on having my photograph taken as most school ones were awful, the mushroom used was often reflected back in my eyes, and made me hate how they looked. With my hair loss all over my body I felt a freak and an ogre. At school I hid many things under my bottle green uniform as forced by mum as well as taking the largest bag you can imagine and doubled as created fear that I would forget something so needed to take all and more with me each day. As I played in various music groups and orchestras as well as sports my bag was like I was off to climb Everest not have a day at school! Yes, this added to the bullying too, but none thought to ask me why I did it.
On my eighteenth birthday I received an unconditional offer to university, my future was away from all of this. Only, my head was still trapped as it had been. Stuck in a little room and finding it hard to make friends. The few times I did go out I was petrified. I thought to myself – they will know that’s a wig, they’ll laugh at you, it will fall off in the pub or if you go clubbing you’ll have another epileptic fit. So I stayed at home and studied, with music being the continued friend it had been through school and allowed me a few escapes from my new cage. The feeling of being an outsider never went away, and how I looked only grew worse as felt everyone else was far more pretty than I was in every way. I was blessed with friends, but one day I was visiting one and hiding in the loo after breaking down in tears I heard his flatmate say about him inviting an ‘ugly bint’ to the flat. I fled the flat in floods of tears, my friend tried to follow, but I didn’t want to be caught. Another time my wig blew off outside my flat in the pouring rain and wind, I caught it but it was covered in mud from the streets. After both I cried my eyes out at how I looked and clearly the rest of the world agreed. I had people shout in the street ‘hey ugly’ and I’d look around, only to be met with laughter. This further made my self image crumble from pieces to dust and would have blown away completely had I let it.
It was not until I was nearly 28 I began therapy, more to deal with issues from family to school than how I felt about myself as kept that under my wig. A woman in December 2006 thought I was mid-40s on a trip to London, which made me think ‘great not only am I old I look almost twice my actual age’!
It was the following year I took my first selfie with a DSLR whilst living and working in Italy against a Roman bathhouse. The image in my head – a freakish ogre, eyes shut as when any picture of me was taken they were shut. And this also was something my brother used to point and laugh at me over, as he took photographs of me after graduating from by then a degree and two masters, and would not grasp how sensitive I am to light or cannot see with one eye! The photograph I took that day shocked me – my eyes were open, and stared at it for ages on the screen – that’s me? That is how everyone is seeing me? I was shaken. By the following year despite therapy things got worse, I didn’t even care now what people thought I looked like as knew I was ugly, a freak, and unloveable. Then the weekend before Easter I tried to take my own life.
In my recovery my camera became my most valuable possession, it forced me to go outside and reconnect with nature through the eyes of a child as I had with my great uncle all those years before. I also decided it was a way to see me, as I tried to find out just who was I? I had such a controlling mum that she controlled every iota of my life at times and knew as I was approaching thirty something had to change. So in some ways I am a hipster who took selfies before mobile phones allowed you to! As I learnt to take and edit images with my camera of the landscapes and nature of the East Midlands, I learnt to use the same minimal approach to editing photos of me until they became over the years when back in Scotland to being just the same process. On returning to Scotland my love of music became as great as it had been since I was a teenager thanks to friends I made. It was like my friend Stephen had hit a gong in my face and the vibrations I felt throughout my body as I awakened both spiritually and creatively. It also let me start to see me through what became a series of lenses – ogre, Picasso, ogre, rag doll, patchwork doll, and finally me.
The major turning point was one photograph I had taken I was me and I was smiling – I thought it was actually a good photograph and pretty good of me. I submitted it to an online exhibition curated by Yoko Ono about smiles. This gave me confidence that I could overcome the self image issues and by then body dysmorphia too. On a whim I took one without my wig, and posted it to Facebook to say ‘so well yeah this is me’ – over 125 likes later it is still my most popular photograph. I also don’t wear a wig in the house (not wearing it while I write this), and even when out walking/photographing I occasionally take it off too. This Easter, 11 years on from the suicide attempt, I explained about my hair loss to my two nieces, which made me realise quite how far I have come.
So what do I see when I look at a photograph now? Can I look in the mirror? I see me, the same image that’s on social media sites, she’s how I look and I’m fine with that. Yes, I shed the odd tear in sorrow for being so hard on myself all those years. I may next to never add chemical colours in the form of make up, but that’s my choice and prefer it that way (burns my skin like too). We can see ourselves through such twisted lenses and minds, but learning about me to focusing on positives about me and taking those photographs helped me to be where I am today. So take selfies, use what lenses you like, add filters too, and maybe you will develop a positive self image too.
© Fi S. J. Brown