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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Music – a definition

Music is everywhere and everything. It teases the ears with hypnotic rhythms that send us into a trance and waves of sound that make every cell in the body vibrate. Keys that define moods, major and minor, with chords that bring the sound together as one. Words that make us repeat them like parrots and take them to our hearts and soul as though written just for or about us. Every instrument paints in its own unique colour, making masterpieces visual not just aural, and opens our eyes to new journeys that words alone could not do. Vocals do not need synthetic additions, they’re an instrument in their own right, and lose their true emotion when become one with machine. Together it makes a special something that can lift our spirits or make us cry, a therapy and medicine that’s not a luxury but necessity for surviving life.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Mental Health Awareness Week (2017)

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week worldwide, so excuse my little essay that follows. For it is a chance to start those conversations that for some are so difficult to begin we do not know how, and need to listen actively with an open mind that does not judge or laugh back. We all have good days and bad days but when those days seem to merge into one grey mess it can be hard to find the courage to ask for help as do not know who’s hand will grab ours back and those that will push us under to drown us. It is often through surviving through the thick fog we discover our true friends that will always have one hand there for us and the other with a tea/coffee to give with us; sharing experiences and a slice of cake and laughter as realise we do that thing too.

For some the image from Hollywood movies is still very much how they see someone that has any mental health condition, yet the truth it can happen to any of us at any time and we look no different to anyone else. We cannot just ‘snap out of it’ as events can leave scars that may not be visible but inside are ripping us apart days to weeks and months to years later, reliving those times again and again without them ever stopping. We may also have a brain who’s chemistry is out of sync, so need medication in order for it function, just as we may take insulin for diabetes. Finding an outlet such as writing, painting and dance can also help us, but others turn to alcohol and/or illegal drugs, as sometimes we just want it all to stop with a full stop/period.

Going to therapy is a way to express just how we feel, words aloud can be scary and ring on in our minds after we have said them. Letting in a stranger can feel as invasive as brain surgery, which is why a qualified therapist is a must. The current UK general election has even been discussing mental health provision, at a time when many services have been or being axed already perhaps this should have been considered first. Health should not have to be split into health and mental health as adds to the stigma; medicine should be holistic covering body, mind, and spirit as everything is interconnected. We are all human, we all experience this journey uniquely, and we are all loved and appreciated, just remember that. The past is gone but yet still may hurt us, the future is unwritten but we can choose a new path; yet we live in the now, we can support and be there for each other today, and we can end this old stigma on mental health for good.

© Fi S. J. Brown

A little something for World Health Day

By the age of 7 I knew there were tears in not just my eyes but my tummy too. I was sad from school and things that even now feel like razor blades self harm if dwell on them. I did not understand what they meant.

By the age of 14 I knew these tears meant I was depressed but had no outlet for them. Turned away if talked to family and a school guidance teacher that did not understand the wounds bullies leave behind.

By the age of 21 I knew I was an outsider looking in on the world and felt I did not belong. The music that helped so much in my teens now felt like they sang of a life I would never know and forbidden entry to.

By the age of 28 I knew therapy was a must and began to admit openly I had depression. A scary label but it would not define me as a person and would not let the stigma scar me as memories had before it.

By the age of 35 I knew the image inside my head was wrong, I was not an unloveable ogre or Martian that observed earthly activities. Depression still lingered but it was never going to make me take my own life.

I am approaching 39 with optimism. The tears in my tummy are still there but no longer sting as they did. The ogre is vanquished forever to be replaced by a rag doll, made from parts of my story and sewn in love.

Today is World Health Day, which this year focuses on depression. It does not mean someone is crazy and should be locked up. Nor does it mean walking on eggshells around them. Talking is good, listen never judge.

© Fi S. J. Brown

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

Tori’s lyrics

10 years ago the lyrics of this song and many others by Tori Amos haunted my ears and tears would fall from my eyes when I heard her sing as each one felt like I could have written them myself. Lines such as “I got the anti-Christ in the kitchen yellin’ at me again” made me think of my mother who I then called ‘she who must be obeyed’, as I was frightened of her, nothing I did was right if did do not do things her way but now know she is a narcissist and need to carry on being me regardless; “I hear my voice and it’s been here, silent all these years” as I  started having counselling to try make some semblance of why I felt my life was painted in monochrome and saw myself more like Princess Fiona the ogre from Shrek than the princess, through a journey that was just as rocky as any shore with no lighthouse in sight, not realising I am the lighthouse; and “So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts, what’s so amazing about really deep thoughts” not realising how powerful they are and what a gift they can be to inspire others. Now life I see as multicoloured and multi-sensory, grateful for the special people that make me laugh and smile for being in it and the importance of living mindfully. Today is Tori’s birthday, so a timely reminder to myself of all I have overcome and remind others not to give up, making that first stepping stone today is possible as things do change for the better.

© Fi S. J. Brown

 

 

What you don’t see

This week is Depression Awarenesses Week, which this year is focusing on #whatyoudontsee. As open as I am with acknowledging I have depression on social media it is not as look at me but more a listen to me not judge or mute me.
By writing about my experiences it helps give them a voice of their own that can be heard by others and thereby lose the power they try have over me. Another reason is the stigma many of us with depression (and other mental health illnesses) still suffer from and it is about time that this taboo was shattered for good. A final reason is not everyone has a voice or able to talk about depression, so I am trying to open doors in order that people feel welcomed not judge or mocked.
To anyone reading this that thinks that depression is abnormal, consider this; if I asked everyone of my friends to make a cake I would have a variety of cakes with no two being exactly the same, each one is representative of the individual that made the cake but none of them would be abnormal. In the same respect we are all shaped by our experiences, traditions and beliefs. Imagine wearing our neighbour’s underwear every day as we both live in the same neighbourhood or feeling the odd one out at family gatherings despite sharing genes. Equally, we may share the same experiences but how they impact upon us varies, and sometimes we cannot “just get over it” as the trauma is still deep even decades after the event(s) may have occurred.
When the black dog calls, it is like a dog barking constantly at me from the garden until I give in and let him in. Then he licks my face all over till it is wet, but in reality these are my tears. In the past I would sit in silence for days as not even my favourite music that got me through my teenage years would bring me comfort. However, now I get out my pen to write or put on my walking boots armed with my camera to go for a walk, sometimes take a piece of clay to make my feelings 3D, other times I go to one of the many musical instruments I play to let them become a song and also cooking or baking as help me focus on the present moment, especially making bread by hand. So for me finding coping mechanisms like these as well as loyal, loving and trusting friends is what helps so I do not give up and remembering there are stars shining and ringing even when it looks pitch black outside.
© 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

 

 

B.I.A.

I’m like the pieces of a broken glass vase,
So many shards that there is no glue to fix.
I’m dizzy from all the circles walked,
And the games from the amphitheatre,
Not able to escape.

I feel like all the paths ahead are blocked,
Filled with more false starts and wrong turns.
In the forest of my mind,
I’ve been looking for an axe,
To find where I belong.

Tired of jumping hoops and skipping beats,
As I try to play life by the rules,
Bitten by bugs growing in number at my feet,
And strangled by words in tears.
But believe it again echoes on.

I’m just the outsider watching the world,
And it seems like I’m forever to be sat in the wings.
I never wanted to be a leading lady,
But at least wanted to be on the script.

How many would walk a mile for a day in my shoes,
With a ball and chain that interrupts the rhythm.
Feeling like a bird who wants to fly,
But there is nobody to set her free.

Tired of jumping hoops and skipping beats,
Looking for a break but not in sanity.
Drained so that my battery is always red,
Why can it not be green like in nature,
With birds echoing believe it again.

Tired of jumping hoops and skipping beats,
Time to skip with hoops and jump to beats.
Rising like the phoenix one more time,
Burn down the trees and find that path,
Whilst singing believe it again.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Art and mindfulness

Look around you, what is the closest piece of art you can see? It maybe a copy of a painting as your computer or phone’s wallpaper, it maybe a tapestry on the wall, a photograph framed of a memory, which now all that remains is that solitary image, a vase made of glass or clay with flowers freshly picked from the garden, a doodle drawn while talking on the telephone last night, the mug that holds the now cold mug of tea, or a piece of music on YouTube. Art is everywhere and anywhere around us, fighting for our eyes attention before letting the other senses join in the party. We all live in our own museums and art galleries of our own device and curation.
 
Now imagine you came from a distant future, try to see through the eyes of some futuristic persona, and look at the piece of art you chose again with fresh eyes. Each one is full of unique colour, shape, purpose, texture, age, and design. Note in your mind or write down what your piece of art has. For example: I’m looking at cross stitch that hangs in the middle of my bookcase, which has my name and birth date upon it, but there is a flaw in the A as one x was stitched in the wrong place. Also, the child does not look like me as it has blonde hair and I am a brunette. Finally, I look at the flowers of pink and purple falling like rain from the sky that match the umbrella or parachute I’m attached to as I come to land in a gap between four houses.
 
Works of art gather meanings beyond the surface because we give them one; sometimes trying to understand the mind of the artist that made, but it could also be something that we have added sentimentality to, maybe it is an every day object that we do not look at beyond the function of it, and occasionally it is seen as something disposable as was only belonging to that one moment. By considering seeing them with eyes of the future we see new meanings that they may have otherwise never had, as the way we see them is based past and not what they mean to us now. We get so used to seeing the every day around us, they lose their original stories and why or how we chose to have them. What would archaeologist of the future think?!
 
This is like seeing our problems and/or issues, by seeing them with fresh eyes we can see them a different way and see how they impact on us now. For example realising the abuse we suffered as a child occurred twenty five years ago, but acknowledging the amazing things we have done despite this pain and beautiful person we are that would hurt nobody. Equally, it maybe a regret for not taking an action, which we feel may have brought us happiness and/or success, but remember we have things in the present that also make us happy with their own successes. Be focused not just on the present moment but appreciating what we have now is what matters.
 
© Fi S. J. Brown