Body Image and Me

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

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Do you wear a wig Auntie Fi?

Do you wear a wig Auntie Fi?” This was a question to me from my eight year old niece. She is super observant and sees things many of us wouldn’t at her age or older. When she asked part of me wanted to deflect it, but realised she was of an age that I should be able to tell her, and her sister (aged 7), such things. However, doing so would become the probably the hardest conversation I have ever had.

It was not as though I could take my time to plan what I was to reply, but knew I had to use kid friendly language and not make them upset by what I said, especially as I was meant to be giving them a bedtime story and did not want to cause nightmares. So with a deep breath, I looked her in the eyes and answered her – yes I do and took off my wig.

Both girls came onto the bigger bed beside me as we chatted. What followed with both was like no other conversation I have had about my hair loss, as most of the time previously I could not, or was silenced by certain family members for opening my mouth (even to doctors treating me). Their first questions were not at all childish – why have you no hair, how did it fall out, why does it fall out? Explaining that my is sick body, and likes to kill hair cells like it would kill a disease, which both understood. The youngest was shocked but did not laugh or joke, just sat beside me as though it was just another bedtime story.

The eldest asked me what the proper name for it was and how does it happen, would it happen to her? So I reassured her, and introduced them to the concept of our immune system. In return both showed a compassion beyond their years – it doesn’t look like a wig Auntie Fi, you’re just as beautiful with or without your wig Auntie Fi. I had to stop myself crying at their beautiful and humbling replies. The only time I lied was when they asked if another family member wore a wig as knew she’d make my life living hell for saying yes she does. She doesn’t talk about it, even when mine fell out there was no compassion or loving support, and she later prove to me yet again how vile she can be.

I was explaining how sad it can make me feel, and how hard it is to actually talk about it, with both curled up around me to reassure me as their dad (my brother) came in the room to see if they were asleep. Both explained to daddy what had happened, and this made me break down in tears. The youngest asked if it was tears of happiness to her daddy – he said how brave I was and how hard it was, which made him hug me followed by both girls. Together the girls continued to reassure me, as I hugged them both goodnight, and said how amazing they were.

I decided I’d better tell the other family member as we were all at her house. Her reaction as ever was vile – of course they could tell it was a wig as you badly need a new one (she loves to make me feel bad about myself and be insecure in myself)…problem is she cannot understand it is obvious to her as she knows it is a wig and will always be obvious to her when someone is! Then the narcissism turned up a notch – you did not mention me, you’d better not have mentioned mine! As I turned after saying no, I felt weird – on the one hand I’d been brave, but on the other felt shit from the remarks she’d made, and wondered why I had bothered to tell her. I went to my room and cried aloud. My brother knocked on my door to see I was okay…I said yes apart from those remarks as he hugged me then let me be.

The next morning I awoke to a card from the eldest (see pictures), which she wrote with no prompting from anyone. She said I was to read it when only us in the room, which I did, and began to cry again. I put my arms out for a hug – she does not always give or want hugs – but this time came leaping into my arms and I reassured her once more that she was not upsetting me, and how amazing she actually is. With a big smile she returned to her seat as we plotted that day’s activities!

This all has reminded me that my hair loss is nothing to be ashamed of, and is just part of what makes me, me. If that family member wants to be that way it’s her business not mine. Equally, if children ask questions – being honest with them is best, but explaining in ways they will understand, and they may surprise you with what they do/say next.

© Fi S. J. Brown

The Ogre

There was an ogre that lived
As bald as a newborn baby
But had lived at two and ten years
When she first walked this Earth
Writing formed only death wishes
Laughter tasted of bottle green
Dancing to another’s beat
Crying muted lonely tears
Growing the seeds of doubt
Record needle stuck again and again
Set on fire with self inflicted wounds
Collecting certificates for study
Stuck in laboratories like a monkey
Or was it jail with no key
As the train grew closer and closer
Time froze
Truth from camera lens not glasses
Picasso’s painted woman glanced
As a rag doll developed digitally
Sewn with threads of friendly love
But this was still not the whole truth
And the ogre wanted the final word
Humiliation across a brave new word
From an image cast on a black mirror
A selfie
No laughter came
After over two and a half decades
The ogre had lost the final battle and war
Blinded by the dawn light
Deafened by the dawn chorus
Leaving behind a human being
That is me
Now almost 40
And she is still just me

© Fi S. J. Brown

Alopecia and Me

There’s a balloon on my head or at least that’s what it looks like. How do I explain alopecia in terms that people may empathise with and dare I dream even understand? Our immune system is meant to fight infectious organisms and substances but mine decided over 25 years ago that this includes my hair. Yes, my own body’s defence mechanism went on a friendly fire offensive against my hair cells and killed them.

First it looked like hairs on the pillow and soon there were none left on my head. By none I mean none, at times of stress I have no hairs anywhere on my body that a woman would. However, I did notice little white hairs on my arms on Monday, which some may say but everybody does Fi – well my body hasn’t done so in over twenty years! My hair has grown back once and nearly back twice only to fall out again within a few months so now can hardly remember what it feels like to have any hair at all.

Being bald drained any outward self confidence, the bullying at school left their own scars to make for a vicious cocktail inside of me. Looking in a mirror became a phobia as I was scared to see the freak in my head in flesh and the ogre have physical form. I had zero therapy to understand it all and the doctors were as useful as chocolate teapots when I could see one but even then the control of my life was not in my hands. It is only now I have accepted fully that it is part of me, I will never be able to stop others reaction to it and do not care what they might say or do for there is no cure to reason to laugh at me. I am overdue buying a new wig, I feel like a change…one thing is for sure I’m not going blonde!

© Fi S. J. Brown

The Baldness Ballad

At dusk I cried on hearing the sound of falling hair from head,
By dawn I sobbed as counted the hairs sprinkled on my pillow.
Knowing like leaves in a forest at fall soon there would be none,
Without any send off, funeral, mass, or toast with an old glass.

The inevitable sequel was made but bombed on day of release,
And my immune system blocked any future remakes of its story.
Leaving the me exposed and naked to a judging planet of apes,
With the moon now on my head painted as an ogre in my mind.

For nearly twenty five years the self portrait remained unchanged,
Until I learnt to dance to a new beat and so painted myself afresh.
So the patchwork doll came to life on the canvas and into my mind,
Sitting like Buddhist priest in repose as only fitting for one so bald.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Being Bald

It all started with these patches,
And brown strands on my pillow.
Tears fell like a blues harmonica,
And my words became lost at sea.
At that moment a freak was born,
Not yet thirteen and I was bald.

At school I wore a wig with a band,
And felt their eyes burning in green.
Depression suffocated me inside,
And yet outside no blood would fall.
Scarred forever when the wind blew,
And they laughed at me being bald.

By university it had gone all over,
And no funeral pyre or wake held.
So I grew to loathe how I looked,
And felt I had no human worth.
For who would love such a freak,
And just like an ogre I was bald.

Years passed until therapy begun,
And joined the dots with words.
Taking photographs was some fun,
And then I took that first selfie.
Forced to see my reflection a new,
And saw a woman, scared and bald.

That began the journey to find me,
And remove the ogre forevermore.
Realising the lab was far from me,
And wondering just where did I fit.
As I heard that bird sing in a tree,
And wished to be as free not bald.

Switching test tubes for Biro pens,
And microscope for camera lenses.
I discovered the woman I am within,
And found a rag doll not an ogre be.
Now I accept with kindness and love,
And being bald is just part of being me.

© Fi S. J. Brown