Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Losing weight didn't make me love my body

This post is a little bit different for me because I don't have the answers to this stuff yet — I'm sharing it as a work in progress, a snapshot of where my thoughts and feelings are right now.

I've already written about how I developed a sense of shame about my body and ended up hating my body. And specifically, what I felt ashamed of and what I hated was being fat. So, a little over three years ago now, I resolved to change that; and succeeded. I lost 63kg (139lb) and ended up with a body that sits neatly in the "normal" band on height-weight charts and fits into clothes sized "Small" or "Medium" in most labels. I got exactly what I set out for.

The outcome I wasn't prepared for is that... I still hate my body.

The conventional narrative told in thousands of before-and-after photos is that "I was fat and unhappy, now I'm thin and happy". That's how it's supposed to work, right? And it's unconsciously what I expected to happen.

But it turns out that body-hate, as a learned pattern, has a life of its own that's completely separate from reality. So when I removed the original focus of that hate, my mind just settled on new focuses.

This hate has some very real repercussions on my life, some obviously connected to body image, others not-so-obviously. Some are minor annoyances, some have bigger impacts.

Photos and mirrors
For example, I'm sometimes, unpredictably, upset by what I see of myself in photos or in a mirror. This issue is unsolved and still sometimes hits me when I least expect it. A glimpse of myself in the mirror at ballet a couple of months ago left me feeling down for days, even though I use these mirrors constantly in ballet and barre classes. But just this one time got me and I don't know why.

I'm also still not OK with baring my torso in public; so this means always wearing a rashie at the pool or beach. I've made very slight progress here: I actually went shirtless to an aqua-fitness event a few weeks ago because the environment felt safe and supportive enough.

Trying on clothes
A similar one that I've recently overcome is that for years, I would not change clothes or shower anywhere that didn't have floor-to-ceiling walls and doors, and a sturdy lock. Trying on clothes typically meant buying them, taking them home to try on, then bringing them back to the store if they weren't right. I'm OK with typical change rooms now, but it was a major inconvenience for a long time.

Medical exams
Some effects are more than mere annoyances, like avoiding any medical examination that requires removing clothing; although I did get as far as taking off my shirt in this context recently, so that's progress.

Air travel... what?
And some effects are much less obvious: one of the biggest is that it makes me incredibly anxious about air travel, to the point where I just don't do it. I haven't flown domestically for eight years now, and internationally for fourteen years. As a lover of history, art, language, culture, and technology, I'm painfully aware of how much of the world I have never seen for myself and remains inaccessible to me. Work-wise, I seem to avoid around one opportunity for overseas travel per year. And more recently, my family is going on holidays, having adventures, and building memories that I'm unable to share in. But how is air travel connected to body image?

When I tell people I don't travel by air, they assume that I'm frightened of flying; but the reality is, I'm frightened of airport security. I'm frightened of machines that can show people my body through my clothes (backscatter X-ray or millimetre-wave scanners), and of people who might feel my body through my clothes by patting it down. My greatest air-travel fear of all is that some over-zealous security agent might decide that I'm acting suspiciously (maybe because I'm so freaked out and scared) and exercise their right to strip-search me in some horrifying self-fulfilling prophecy. These fears are enough to keep me confined to south-east Queensland.

What has helped?

Not all of these affect me as much as they once did. The most fundamental piece of advice I can give anyone dealing with issues like this is to get help. I am being supported by a wonderful psychologist and I've also had some sessions with a life coach who has given me some valuable practical exercises and some "tough love".

Over the next few weeks, I want to write about the approaches and techniques that have helped so far:

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