The Skin You’re In: Body Type, Image, & Ideal

We come in many different shapes and sizes. You’ve heard of some of them. For men, there are the ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph body types. For women, apple, pear, hourglass, and rectangle/straight. I even found a website that had eight body types for women: straight, pair, spoon, hourglass, top hourglass, inverted triangle, oval, and diamond. That’s pretty extensive.

When I was twelve years old, my family went to Europe to see my cousins in Portugal. We got to spend a week in Paris as well. We saw what my brother termed at the age of 10 “the famous naked lady” (a.k.a. the Venus de Milo) in the Louvre. We saw beautiful paintings, both men and women, both clothed and unclothed, both rich and poor. Even at the age of twelve, I loved how the women portrayed looked so natural. They were different from the women I saw in magazines in the grocery store line, different from the women I saw on television. I didn’t quite know what the difference was then, but I admired the women in those paintings. My idols were not those in the magazines, but the ones painted by Monet, Manet, and Degas’ round-faced, fully formed ballerinas. Thus, I never really wanted to look like Jennifer Aniston or Kiera Knightley. They are beautiful, yes. But, I wanted to be more like the statues lining the great hall of the Musee d’Orsay – natural, comfortable in their own skin, not caring how they sat or lay or stood because their form was being shown as it was rather than how it should be.

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Kids can see beauty in a different way than adults. It’s the innocence. And I don’t want to lose that. I know now that I what I saw in those sculptures and paintings was important, and I’m glad that our parents took us there because it gave me a healthy view of the human body. The human form is beauty no matter its shape and size. A magazine photo editor seems to take away the passion, the texture, the light and soul of the model. But the impressionists, the classicists, and even the moderns show what we would now call imperfection – that passion and soul – the layers of the person inside and out. There was no Photoshop, no airbrushing during the Renaissance and the human body was portrayed as the very essence of beauty.

Even with what I believe to be a healthy view of the human body starting out, the years have worn and weathered my subconscious views of beauty and the way that I look at myself. There have been days when I have, rightly, looked in the mirror and seen a piece of art – a piece of the Renaissance standing before me and inside of me. Even at the age of 16, I wondered why any girl would struggle with self-esteem issues, eating disorders, self-harm, depression, and the like. All women were beautiful and I truly believed that. I’ve never seen an ugly woman in my life. It’s not that I was what the world would call “pretty” – I was just a short girl with curly hair that I didn’t really know how to fix. But, I was content with who I was – happy.

The world is unkind, though. I began to feel invisible, like many teens do, that year. And at the age of 17, I began my journey through clinical depression and anxiety. When you feel invisible to the opposite sex, even for a day, you begin to think differently. I still didn’t feel ugly, but I didn’t feel good, and I started down a road that I’m not sure I could have helped not going down.

I don’t think I really, truly felt ugly until I was halfway through college. I got back from a summer in Nepal having gained a few pounds because I couldn’t jog there and the people fed us so much. A guy friend of mine was talking to me about my summer there, and I showed him how we had to eat with our hands. I thought it was funny and interesting, but he had such a disgusted look on his face and I won’t forget that feeling of inciting disgust on the face of someone who had been interested in me for quite a while. He began to sit at a different table from me during meals, with other girls. Sometimes at night when that disgust in his face made its way into me, I’d leave the apartment and just try to run – more to hurt myself than anything, really. I’d run as hard as I could and then get frustrated that I couldn’t run that hard for very long and then find a corner to cry in. I felt hatred toward myself, toward my body and I wanted to punish it. I remember the first time I went to Wal-Mart after midnight because I couldn’t take it anymore, buying diet pills with the little money I had, looking through them all, reading their promises, wanting them to work quickly. I’d skip breakfast and feel like I was helping myself lost weight, but then I’d crave carbs and eat as much, binge-eating, as I could because I was a tired, sleep-deprived, stressed college student.

There have many different times in my life when I have gone through this similar cycle. A sudden hatred of myself that carried on into a hatred of how I look – watching movies where the female protagonist is both strong and skinny. And so my beauty idols all became bony, tight-faced actresses who have enough money to have trainers and make-up artists and yoga instructors and nutritionists at their disposal 24/7, not to mental people toning, contouring, and editing their bodies both on screen and off screen.

But, I still prefer the female bodies of the Renaissance to the female bodies in the ads. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I can relate to their body type. But, I know from my introduction to them at the age of twelve that this is just not true. I relate to them because they are real. They have genuine bodies, beautiful and healthy. And that’s what I want.

I do have days when I look in the mirror and see a masterpiece. I see the brushstrokes across my face, intricate and detailed and lovely. I see the shape of my body and think back to the Musee d’Orsay. And that is how it should be.

We need to, as men and women, to remember what true form is – and true form happens to be the form with which you were born. True form is who you are – a true, genuine you. Apple, pear, banana-morph, whatever. Each person is a work of art – unique in size, colour, and spirit.

The shape of you and the shape of me is a masterpiece. I am strong inside, but you will never see my bones through my skin. You will probably never even see muscles when I flex. But, the skin I’m in is a skin I want to be in. And I will continue to strive toward that ideal, whether it is the ideal the world has or not.

Friday’s Lies: I can’t control my emotions.

Lie: I can’t control my emotions.

Truth: I have the power to change my thinking; therefore, I am in control of my emotions.

I’ve been digging around trying to find something, ANYTHING, that tells me that I have little (or even no) I'm Too ___. (1)control over my emotions! I like having that excuse – that it’s not my fault when I burst into tears and yell sometimes. But, I just can’t find that article, journal, blog, book, or anything. There is absolutely no research suggesting that men and women (with a fully functioning brain) can’t control their emotions.

Thus, we present to you this lie: “I can’t control my emotions”.

I didn’t even know it was a lie until today. I was going to tell you about the exceptions, but it seems that there are none for the average person. Many factors contribute to making it difficult, and even seemingly impossible, for us to overcome emotions. These can include brain-related trauma and illness, mood disorders, autism, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, deep-rooted anger issues, hormones and the like. But, the answer to coping with and controlling our emotions, across the board, is simple:

We train and retrain our mind to think differently. We think positively and logically. We stop and capture our thoughts. We get in control.

Our thoughts and emotions “aren’t fixed facts; they’re flexible” (Sherman). In his article in Psychology Today, Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D.  tells us that in every scenario, you can, essentially, be your own author. You just need to “tell a different story” in order to “automatically generate a different emotionally response”. Imagine that your sibling has been poking you and you’ve been asking him/her to, pretty please, stop poking me for the past ten minutes. Your frustration is boiling. You are getting anxious and stressed. Your face is turning red and you are getting hot with the type of anger that can’t be described. You’re annoyed. Your story is that you have had a bad day already and your sibling is making it worse. You don’t need this kind of crap.

Change your story. Your sibling is poking you because they love you. This is the only time of day that you get to spend with them. They just want your attention for a minute. After all, you love them as well. Remember when they were born and you felt on top of the world? You take a deep breath and decide that instead of screaming at them, you will poke them back and play with them for the next ten minutes, then tell your mom that you really need to do your homework. Would they please occupy your brother/sister while you work on it?

There is a choice.

Here is an excerpt from a study conducted over a full year and a half, recorded in Neuro Image:

“Aversive feelings such as anger, sadness, and anxiety often disrupt individuals’ attempts at self-control, resulting in impulsive behaviors and decisions. It remains uncertain how this happens. Common sense suggests that people who act rashly when they are upset fail to successfully inhibit their impulses because they are unmotivated or unable to do so. Yet just the opposite may be true: people may fail at self-control while they experience negative emotions because they excessively recruit inhibitory processes” (Chester).

Maybe we simply don’t want to change our emotions so we hide behind them. Our friend did something wrong and we believe we have the right to hold that against them. We inhibit ourselves, not allowing our brain to respond in a better way. The Chester study goes on to show that the more we practice positive emotions and positive thinking, the better we get at it. But, it can seem impossible if we have a habit of inhibiting our positive responders. All in all, “our beliefs and expectations about a person or event or situation directly influence …our feelings (Grohol). Other people may contribute to them, but they don’t cause our feelings. We get that responsible.

Even at the worst of my anxiety disorder, I learned that if I took control and told myself that I was going to be okay on the onset of a panic attack, it was less overwhelming. I could function afterward. And the more that I engaged in this positive self-talk, this self-encouragement, the more I was in control of my anxiety. It didn’t go away for a while, but the more and more I practiced this, the more it went away. It gave me my life back. Why don’t I apply this idea to my other emotions?

My friend and I were just talking about how women are defined by the stereotype that we can’t control ourselves – that we are crazy human beings that can go off at any moment. And all women are, at some point, viewed this way. I know that I am and, I see now, that taking on that stereotype is my own fault. I’m reminded of when I was in high school and all the girls were talking about how their hormones controlled them and there was nothing they could do about how they acted toward others. I remember thinking, I don’t have the urge to treat other people badly just because I’m PMS-ing. And I’m ashamed that I forgot that. Our hormones don’t control our thoughts. Our thoughts are what control our hormones.

We don’t have to yell at our spouses or our families, our roommates or our computer – we don’t have to act annoyed at them – every time we don’t feel well. We CAN control our emotions, so we CAN control how we treat others. It’s something to remember. Something true.

And now that we know the truth, we can be open to a whole new range of possible responses to others and to ourselves (Sherman). And I think that is rather exciting! We can get our lives back – our friendships, our marriages, our relationships with our siblings, with our kids, with our parents. It’s a positive thought, and I for one, think I might hold on to it. 🙂 Let’s write a different story and live better lives.

 

Resources

Sherman, Jeremy E., Ph.D. “Total Control vs. No Control Theory of Emotions: Can You Control Your Emotions or Not?” Psychology Today. N.p., 13 June 2010. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

 

Chester, David S. “How Do Negative Emotions Impair Self-control? A Neural Model of Negative Urgency.” NeuroImage 132 (2016): 43-50. Science Direct. Web. 11 Aug. 2016

 

Grohol, John M., Psy.D. “We Are Responsible for Our Own Feelings | World of Psychology.” World of Psychology. Psych Central, 30 Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

11 Confessions: Living with Chronic Invisible Illness

Someone needs to write this. I wish someone had written it for me. I wish someone had written it for the people I love to help them understand. I wish they had written about chronic invisible illness years ago. Maybe they did and I just couldn’t find it.

Creating (1)Today, I am suffering. So, it seems like a good day to write some confessions. I, like hundreds of thousands of people in the world, live with chronic invisible illnesses. I’m talking chronic fatigue syndrome (myalgic encephalomyelitis), adrenal fatigue, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, food sensitivities, irritable bowel syndrome, and recurring gastritis and UTIs, and many other illnesses that no one sees when they look at you. It’s not pretty to talk about. It’s not comfortable to talk about. It’s not nice to write that I am sick.

For others, it may be different chronic illnesses, things that people on the outside may not be able to see – arthritis, anemia, chronic headaches, or even cancer. These invisible illnesses affect your life like it affects mine.

I get sick a lot, and it’s not easy to always be sick, or to always wonder if I will feel well from one day to the next. Those that don’t know me well probably find it hard to figure out why I’m not always at church events or having to cancel coffee dates. Those that do know me best often get upset that I play it off in front of others. I don’t let on how hard it is. When someone asks me what I did last week, I try and brush it off and say, “Oh, I just sat around like a bum.” I want them to know that I don’t want to be like a bum. The verb “do” is a tricky one, and it’s hard to say what I “do” because everything I want or need to do, I do one day at a time.

More and more of us westernized, stress-driven men and women are being faced with a new sort of illness. It comes in many different and unique forms. It is general and consistent ill health. And it is often invisible.

When I first came to New Zealand (on January 1 of 2011), I was fairly healthy. I lived with a family and looked after two beautiful little girls as their au pair. A few months in, I started having these insane gastrointestinal pains and feelings of severe weakness and dizziness. After the stress of an unexpected conflict, I became almost immobile. By November, I was no longer able to work or drive. I could not function. There was a nice family, and then a house full of people my age who let me stay with them until I had strength enough to fly home to Texas.

After months going from doctor to doctor (from general practitioners to neurologists to gynecologists to gastroenterologists and many in between), they found a few things, but never anything that made me feel better.

I stopped eating sugar, dairy, and gluten for a time and got well enough to teach English for two years. But, I’m back in bed now at least 2 to 3 days each week. I want to be honest about what it’s like to live with chronic ill health because it’s hard for most of us to be honest about.

I hope that, in reading all of this – and these confessions that I give you – you can either find strength in relating to someone else like you, or that you can find mercy and understanding for those who suffer.

What is it like

So, what is it like to live with chronic health problems? I give you my confessions.

11 CONFESSIONS OF LIVING WITH CHRONIC INVISIBLE ILLNESS

1)      I always feel guilty.

The “invisible ills” always feel like we’re letting people down. Lately, I feel guilty for not being able to cook or to do the laundry. Mark has enough to do without taking care of me. I’m truly lucky that he doesn’t mind. But, when I was first sick, the guilt that I had from not being able to look after those two beautiful girls that I was nannying was unbearable. I still feel that guilt. Realizing that it’s out of my hands is hard. The same goes for having to say “no” when I want to do things with friends or family. The guilt comes, and it never seems to go away.

2)      I feel like I am alone.

We feel like outcasts because we just can’t “do” everything that others can do. If I go out for one fun day, it wears on me, and I spend the next day (or two or three) recovering. Those days recovering are lonely days – days that we want to be with people. But they are also days that we don’t want others to see us. We want people to understand, but most people don’t. This makes us even more lonely.

3)      My chronic illness means I often have anxiety and depression.

My depression and anxiety came with chronic fatigue syndrome. Many times, they go hand-in-hand. When we can’t live normal lives, it’s hard to cope in other ways. I can be soooo happy one day, and sooo low the next.

4)      I am almost always in pain.

Whether it’s depression or anxiety, CFS or fibromyalgia, there is pain. There is emotional pain, and there is physical pain. Both are invisible. I am in pain most of the time. Some days I am okay, and on those days, I am so very thankful. But if we seem grumpy or irritable one day, it might just be that we’re hiding something.

5)      Every healthy day is a gift.

My students used to ask me why I was so happy. Part of the reason was simply that I could get out of bed in the mornings and come to work. When I wake up and feel like a normal human being, there is just this immense thankfulness inside of me. Health can easily be taken for granted.

6)      I don’t always look sick.

It may sound obvious as a confession of “invisible” illness, but I want to confess it here. Sometimes when we tell people that we are sick a lot, they look at us puzzled. Sometimes they even say, “But you don’t look sick.” That is true. We don’t look sick. But we feel sick. Even bloodwork doesn’t always show that we are sick. They don’t know what causes chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia. But it is real. Sometimes I wish people could see how I felt. But, they can’t.

7)      It’s sometimes impossible to get out of bed.

Have you ever had the flu? A high fever? That’s how I feel when I am sick. I tried to get out of bed today – and even drove to where Mark was working. This invisible illness hit me, and he had to leave his car there and drive me home. Yesterday, I was probably out of bed for maybe an hour (and that includes going to the bathroom throughout the day). I have had days when I’ve had to be led to the bathroom. I have had days when Mark had to spoon feed me himself. When these days happen, none of us enjoys them. We want to get out of bed. We want to be normal. But, it just doesn’t happen.

8)      I am afraid. To work, to make plans, to have a life.Creating

Fear can easily control the lives of those with invisible illnesses. For the person with anxiety, they can feel completely debilitated in a crowd. They can be afraid to go out for fear of having a panic attack. It’s hard to explain to people that I am afraid to work right now. It’s a difficult confession to make. What if I can’t do it? What if I get sick and let people down? These invisible illnesses often put our life on hold. It’s just not fair.

9)      Exercise doesn’t always make me feel better.

Just today, I was reading that a primary symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome is flu-like symptoms following over-exertion. When I do too much, I am bedridden. The key is to exercise slowly. Very slowly. If we go out for a run to help ourselves feel better, as is often suggested by friends and family, we can put ourselves back for a few days.

10)   Not all doctors understand.

I went to two doctors in New Zealand before coming home, not including a trip to the Emergency Room. One of them told me I just wasn’t breathing correctly. In Texas, I went to at least seven different doctors. I left half of those crying because there was nothing done to help me. My mom and dad (whoever went with me that day) and I would tell them everything, and after a couple minutes, they would start fidgeting. Many people with “invisible” illnesses sometimes feel that we’re wasting a doctor’s time with all of our problems. To this day, I feel guilty when I sit with a doctor. I know that they are busy, and I feel bad. Of course they can’t fix my problem in ten minutes. This means I have a hard time telling them everything I need to tell them.

11)   I feel useless. Almost daily.

Another difficult confession to make. When I feel most sick, I have an almost continuous feeling of uselessness. I feel like I can’t do anything – can’t do anything right – can’t do simple tasks – can’t feed myself – can’t take my medicine – can’t remember to message or text someone back. Without the ability to work or cook or clean or, sometimes, to type, what is there to be useful at?

Those are my confessions – and, I believe – the confessions of many that suffer from illnesses that no one can see. Our conditions, diseases, and illnesses may be invisible. But we are not. Show someone compassion this week. You do not know what is underneath their skin.