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

Masks

When we are young we often want to be someone else, that is anyone other than ourselves. As we become adults we do not always loose this as hide behind masks trying to fit in with others not realising they too are wearing masks. In some ways we also forget who we really are if we are learn at all to accept what lies hidden.
Then we can become so attached to our masks we become frightened someone may see us without it and how they will judge us accordingly.

However, sometimes, if we’re lucky, someone comes along and shows us who we really wanna be, who we should be. The real us deserves our love and apologies for all the ways we mistreat it daily and speak about ourselves as though we should be better to be more normal. What is this normal? There is no such thing as a normal human being as we may share characteristics but equally we do not. We learn more from our differences than our similarities.

We owe ourselves an apology and probably more than one too for feeling shameful of what lies beneath. I threw my masks away a few years ago as learnt those that matter will always see through it and encourage us to be who we really are. Are you ready to remove yours and face the world as the real you? You can do it, believe in yourself and not the masks that you think is. Let go of your fear and step forward into the world as you, the beautifully unique human being you are.

© 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

Technology – 20.18.11

This is not a rant against technology but more thoughts after watching an old clip on YouTube and considering what was said then to what is true of today’s technology. Equally, is today’s technology an escapism and/or all bad news?

Everywhere we go today almost everyone has a mobile/cell phone. Some have them stuck to their hands and stare back at the black mirror to this world where a version of them exists. It is like almost like old computer game The Sims but with better graphics and have more control of the worlds we create. Others hold them aloft to an invisible god as take selfies and hope this god will ensure they get many likes on the assorted social media as they apply filters to portray themselves in the worlds just mentioned.

Mindfulness has become a big thing but yet many do not just stop and look to enjoy the moment as feel the need to have proof they were there at all. Our memories are like movie with only edited bits we remember but yet by taking videos or pictures are we trying to hold on to them for that bit longer? Do we have to document our lives and share them to these worlds…is anyone really that interested in our fiftieth meeting of a so called celebrity or posing drunkenly with our mates when we are over twice the legal age?

Are our lives so vacant or boring we need the justification, reassurance, acceptance or love that come with these worlds? Acts of random kindness feel cheapened too – how can they be so random when it is recorded then shown to others to showcase the deed in action? Do we need these black mirrors of vanity and worlds to justify our being in the 21st century? Looking back at these records of memories are they not more painful or do they cheapen the so called good times, making them seem like they lasted longer than they did?

The word technology comes from two Greek words, transliterated techne and logos. Techne means art, skill, craft, or the way, manner, or means by which a thing is gained. Logos means word, the utterance by which inward thought is expressed, a saying, or an expression. So perhaps technology in this case is a means to present our art and inward expressions of the way we see the world after all. As no two people see or experience life the same way perhaps we can use it to help humanity grow after all and not a step backwards.

© Fi S. J. Brown

The Swan

Earlier this week I tuned and adjusted the white balance of this picture, which I recently took of me with my mobile/cell phone; finding myself looking in the eyes saying ‘yes that’s me‘ and ‘quite a good photograph for a quick selfie.

For a long time an ogerous monster lived in my head that would have said something like this: ‘eww, what an ugly and loveable freak of nature you are, no wonder people point and laugh at you in the street. Delete that at once, nobody wants to see your ugly face on Facebook or Instagram. Don’t bother taking any more selfies, shows your ego is growing. Oh and may break your phone…ha ha!’

Instead another voice came out, the one I use when talking to others with my natural empathy and understanding ways, and not one I have heard myself say to me: ‘You look pretty and happy there Fi. Who cares if you see flaws or things that aren’t right in this photograph, better to knit a scarf than nitpick at yourself for no reason. Anyone that laughs and/or calls you ugly can spin on your middle finger, that’s what it is best used for!

I nearly choked on my own emotion, not for the first time, but this was in a positive way of my own doing to myself. Pondering, perhaps this former ugly duckling has finally seen her own swan-like reflection, and will glide the river of life wherever it is leading her to go. I do not need a mask of chemical colours or a surgeon’s blade to syringe to make me look beautiful; I am me, not an ogre but a swan, and that’s fine with me.

© Fi S. J. Brown

me 2017

My Unfiltered Life

This week I noticed mental health charity See Me Scotland had a campaign on social media called “my unfiltered life“, for which people post a selfie and tell their story. It made me feel proud of each and everyone of them for taking that selfie, as that can be far from a ‘simple’ tap on a phone, and being so open in a way I felt I could not; for I am not someone that likes to say hey look at me but more look at her or him and what they have achieved.

However, it felt like it did when I first saw an ad to post a picture of your smile as part of Yoko Ono’s Smiles film four years ago, which in taking part in led to the ripple effect of accepting, appreciating and loving me. I am also reminded of the photo I took two years ago without my wig, showing my bald head, during the no make up selfie craze, which showed me there was nothing to hate or fear now. I am me, not an artificial, edited or manipulated person but her free spirited, open minded self and rag doll not ogre self.

So yes I have posted a photo on Instagram, and below. However, I do not care one way or the other as did it to inspire others to learn to find acceptance not for personal gain in the hope of a 15 second taster of fame. This week coming marks a couple of personal milestones, major ones that will be on the highlights reel of my life, so makes a fitting addition to them.

Next time you see a selfie, remember it can maybe a simple touch of a phone to you but to them it maybe a whole story you don’t know, so don’t judge but admire the beautiful differences slight changes in our DNA make to create the creatures we are.

© Fi S. J. Brown

me hat

Becoming a swan

Philosophers for hundreds of years have debated what is beauty; yet today any magazine, newspaper or website I open seems to think they know what it is and not always agreeing! However, the images they use are manipulated so much that the average Joanna or Joe look nothing like that and there is nothing wrong with them being how they look. Ironically, even the people in the images look a shadow of these images supposedly of them.

I’ve grown tired of the masks that they say we need to make ourselves beautiful they are but colourful chemicals, which may enhance but do not create beauty. I don’t spend hours doing make up (I next to never wear any) or manipulating images of me I post. As they are me at that moment in time, like the landscapes and nature shots I take, so why treat myself differently from the beauty I see in the world or alter me to be something or someone else?

So this is me on an early Saturday evening in June 2016, pondering from my bedroom window. I chose black and white as I prefer it to colour and at times as emphases not detracts. I have had many nasty and hurtful comments said about me in the past that I wore like scars and boils on my face. However, this is now, the me that doesn’t care; for I know as with ‘the ugly duckling’, a swan emerges and glides off into the sunset, leaving behind the past and on to tomorrow’s whispers wherever they may lead her.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Therapeutic Photography

When I tell my story to others I sometimes mention how I overcame years to decades of self hate, self loathing, low esteem, and general dislike for who I thought I was to how I thought I actually looked to the outside world. For readers that do not know until I was about 34 I used to think I looked like the love child of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Frankenstein’s monster.

I could not look in the mirror, and when photographs were taken of me there were always problems. When I was a pre-teen my photograph from school showed the photographer’s umbrella reflecting in my eyes, it looked like I had mushrooms growing from them, which planted a seed in my head. By my teens I had developed Alopecia universalis, I had no hair anywhere on my body, which combined with bullying and my ultra controlling mother left me feeling like the Victorian freak of old. When in my twenties my eldest brother would continue to point and laugh at me as he had since my earliest days, like many did in the street. When he took a photograph of me, usually for graduation from university, 99% of the time my eyes would be shut; he would find this funny and equally not understand how someone could react that quickly to a flash. I am highly sensitive to many things including light, so yes my eyes seemed to break this rule, and leave me in pieces. I would be called moody as did not want my photograph taken at all, why should I when it always ended up the same way?

By the age of 28 I was having psychodynamic therapy on a weekly basis and had begun using a Fuji camera to take the town I was living in and for fieldwork in Italy. In May 2007 I decided to try take a picture of me with it against some Roman remains, with all the emotions of the past racing to the present combined with thoughts of what do I look like and how do you smile? As my camera was a digital single-lens reflex  (DSLR) I could see immediately the result, which made me jump back hitting the Roman bathhouse with my head and stared at the image it showed for a good five minutes. Was that really what the rest of the world saw when they looked at me? I showed it to one person, my supposed then boyfriend, on my return from Italy. He laughed in my face as he acknowledged it was indeed me. I was scared by what this meant but at the same time I knew the image was of someone deeply unhappy.

It was not until my breakdown and suicide attempt the following year that I began using therapeutic photography in an attempt to see me and begin to repair all the years of hate to perhaps learn to learn to love me for me. Judy Weiser defined therapeutic photography as the name for photo-based activities that are self-initiated and conducted by oneself (or as part of an organized group or project), but where no formal therapy is taking place and no therapist or counsellor needs to be involved. Why use photography, aside from it being one of my hobbies? Photography shows how I actually appeared to others, not the horizontally-reversed image from a mirror or distorted one in my head that I would have drawn. Also, a photograph could let me see parts I would not ordinarily be able to see, e.g. my profile or back, when asleep or in action, or simply being me. Unlike drawings, which are highly subjective, photographs are regarded as non-subjective as fixed in time and space. 

It was not an easy road, even looking back on those early photographs now I can see how far I had to go and come. The first part of me I began to appreciate were my eyes, they are grey-green but appear more grey when depressed, and remembered the old phrase – eyes are the windows to the soul, which I was now beginning to understand. Gradually over the years I saw this woman developing in them that I could relate to and see as the me the world did, she was not a freak or ogre nor was she this glamorous movie star, and you know what I was almost fine with it. 

In 2012, Yoko Ono launched her #smilesfilm, which I decided as I was developing my creative self as much as learning to embrace my full self why not enter a picture of me smiling? I did and in that moment I no longer saw the girl or woman of the past, I saw me in the present moment smiling and content. By March 2014 I had grown so much from that photograph that during the no make up selfie craze for cancer I made a split second decision to post one without my wig as I next to never wear make up as burns my skin if I try and do not see the point in having a chemical mask, I felt like it would be my most honest picture ever and another milestone in the journey. The photograph has 112 likes on my Facebook profile with 142 comments, as well as messages on inbox, e-mail and text, all full of encouragement. I looked at that photograph last month and smiled at what doing that had meant to me then as it does now. 

I do not manipulate images like they appear in magazines, websites and the media, so my photographs are the truest representation of me at that moment. Many of you now reading this take a selfie with a mobile/cellphone several times a day may never understand this journey but others may be where I have been. We are all beautiful in our own way and accepting how we are without resorting to extreme change can be tempting but all they can be band aids over deep wounds. I highly recommend trying therapeutic photography, do not expect results today but explore and learn to love the most amazing person you will ever know, yourself.

© Fi S. J. Brown

 

 

Halloween

It never fails to surprise me what companies pass for as “Halloween costumes”, often using them as a way to laugh at a group of people that are part of society. One I have found over the years repeating is the “mental health patient”. So I decided this year, if you can’t beat them, join them.

This is the result – a picture of me as a mental health patient. Is it what you were expecting, oh no blood stains, straight jacket or crazy eyes. Can you not see the tears I cried for a week when I took this picture? Or the negative thoughts that ate away at me as I tried to enjoy the autumn sun? Also, how many years it took me to smile and take a photograph? This is what depression and anxiety can look like not those costumes you can buy.

We use costumes and masks to hide pain and sometimes the real us. Trying be happy as someone told us to “cheer up, what’s the worst that can happen”!? Personally, I am through with hiding behind them and scared of the stigma of others, they are part of the colours that make me but do not define me. So dress up tonight if you like, but be yourself tomorrow, shine on every day to end the darkness and break down walls of ignorance.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Wabi Sabi Woman

I am a Wabi Sabi woman. I am far from perfect but what or who is? We all have quirks and idiosyncratic ways that give our personalities colour. We are all also fighting to bring down walls and barriers other people put in our way. They also may try to box us in or put walls up but together we can break them. Nobody is abnormal, failure or a freak, how we experience and live this life is different for us all. Pause to reflect the journey so far but not dwell on it and let the roots from that show who we are today. Equally, remembering what and who we are today form the roots of the future, if we’re putting off that choice or decision – do it. Finally, be gentle with ourselves and others, be a light in the darkness not one that switches off the torch.
© Fi S. J. Brown