It’s not until I started doing therapy that I acknowledged how many body and self-image issues I was carrying on from the past.
I used to believe that I never had a hostile relationship with my body -It’s just a body, I thought, and I was convinced that everyone was simply giving too much importance to their physical dimension.
I never understood the obsession with self-care, the dieting, the intense sport activities, the endless tools one had to employ to conceal the features they were given at birth. Is your hair wavy? Straighten it. Is your hair straight? Curl it. Is your skin too dark? Bleach it. Is your skin too pale? Tan it. Are you too curvy? Fast. Are you too thin? Wear push-up bras, shaping lingerie, or simply inject something under your skin.
It looked to me as if beauty was a side job that came on top of the trite mantra that already ruled all the other aspects of my life -meritocracy. You simply don’t get to feel OK in your body, you have to earn that privilege. Sometimes I felt like overdoing myself and engaging in this act of continuous undoing, but most of the time I was just not taking good care of myself.
Partly for laziness, partly because I didn’t feel naturally endowed with beauty, partly because repeating the adage that the cult of the body was superficial, and I was too profound of a person to care about it made me feel like I still had some room for my small daily rebellions, I started very early to treat my body as a container of my truest identity, and nothing more.
A cause of it is that I felt that my body only brought me problems, and there was no ground to have a joyful relationship with it.
I was born with a hip dysplasia, which is a rather common and corrigible malformation occurring in newborns. However, bracing is required, thus a baby with dysplasia needs more physical support during the first months of their life.
If on one side this induced an extremely protective approach in my parents, on the other hand my sister was experiencing feeling neglected, and over the years these family dynamics fossilized into patterns.
I would get stuck with the idea that my body was weaker than others and that I couldn’t be autonomous; the overprotective attitude of my parents would at the same cater for those feelings, and reinforce them; my sister would retaliate her frustration for having been emotionally neglected onto me, by being moderately aggressive towards me; my parents would intervene to protect me and punish my sister, occasionally not shying away from firmness.
I would often feel caught in between the desire to react, to protect myself, and having to pass my suffering under silence, or else my sister would make the expenses for my reactions.
And at the same time, behaving as freely as my sister did would alienate the love of my parents, so I had to keep on performing the role of an extremely docile child, whose body was nothing but a little more alive than that of a doll. It didn’t matter that I was being teased by my sister, or that the overprotective education I was receiving was shattering my confidence in my own body, as long as enduring this pain would allow me to keep my loved ones close.
Unfortunately, during the years other medical incidents added up and led me to believe that, since I was unbearably ugly and defective, I had to work harder than anyone else to be loved.
When I was four, they had to correct my incipient form of strabismus. When I was six, they found out I had scoliosis and flat feet. When I was ten, I needed to be monitored because there were signs that my puberty was beginning “too early”.
I had to wear braces, glasses, and countless other gadgets, that were not contributing to make me look any prettier in the long run -just weaker, weirder and uglier.
All along, I was hearing that I looked bad more often than I heard that I looked good. Or at least, that is all I could focus on.
My family and acquaintances were constantly pointing out that I was fat, and that if I was not even able to lose weight, at least I should make an effort to make everything else look presentable.
Was I really going to keep my frizzy hair? Wasn’t I really going to do anything about all that body hair, the pimples and the cellulite?
For how long would I continue wearing short skirts, colorful shoes and patterned shirts, when I wasn’t by far beautiful enough to afford them? Was I really that oblivious as how much my self-expression was making me look ridiculous?
At least I had the decency to give up on practicing sports. I was mature enough to accept that I would never be enrolled in a ballet class, which I wanted so badly to attend, because even according to my relatives I was too fat.
I avoided the sea and the pool, or covered up when going there with a group was really unavoidable. I reminded myself that I couldn’t flirt with guys, if I wanted to spare them the shame of being in any way associated with me.
If I had to partake in games or dances, I would make sure to immediately make a fool out of myself, so that my own self-deprecation could shelter me from the hurtful remarks of others.
In my teenage years, at the same time in which my peers were starting to overcome their insecurities by performing beauty for the male gaze, and receiving in return love or its surrogates, other events happened that definitely convinced me about the impossibility for me to be loved.
When I was fourteen, I started attending high school, at a Gymnasium that had a reputation for its “tough love” methods (i.e.: blatant bullying).
I was often really stressed, not only because I needed to keep up with school requirements, but also because attending a school in a different city was an occasion to experience a different version of myself… probably less weak, and less gregarious.
During that period, I started having some weird muscular spasms when I woke up, that got more frequent and stronger over time.
I immediately tried to downplay them, stating that I was probably just having poor sleep quality, because I didn’t want to admit to myself that once again something was wrong with me and I needed help.
After I involuntarily broke glasses and perforated my ear during one of those spasms, I came to terms with the fact that I had to see a doctor.
At the beginning, it was unclear what was causing me such distress. My family doctor suggested it might be a psychological problem.
So I was sent to the studio of a developmental psychologist, unsure about what was really going on. I was overall a well-adjusted kid, and I couldn’t pierce through the mystery of his clueless questions. “Why do you always wear black clothes? Are you really that sad?”, or “You can be frank with me. Are you acting up? Are your parents being too strict with you, and you feel a need to rebel against them?”.
He was indeed trying his best, and in hindsight, I think he was sincerely trying to make me feel normal when it looked as if I had given up on simply being a girl of my age. But it soon dawned on both of us that the cause of those muscular spasms was once again a flaw of my body.
Before closing our working relationship and leaving for another city, the psychologist addressed me to a neurologist, with the suspicion that I might have some mild form of epilepsy.
A few months and several EEGs later, I was diagnosed with focal cryptogenic epilepsy. I started taking some medication, that made me a bit sleepier and hungrier than usual, with the promise that it might be just a temporary disturb that would disappear growing up.
Of course, I was not thrilled at the idea of once again having to fix something wrong in my body, but at least I had given a name to those worrisome spasms, and the medication helped the people around me to forget about my condition for a while.
Nonetheless, I was often met with pity and excessive concern by my relatives, who saw my epilepsy as yet another clue that my health was poor, and that my body had betrayed me.
Together with the diagnosis of my epilepsy, I also received some advice that in retrospect looks horribly inappropriate for the age that it was given. I was immediately told that, if I ever wanted to get pregnant in the future, I should consult my doctor first, as my medication could cause the appearance of spina bifida in a baby.
Back then, having been raised with a Catholic background and seeing myself still as a child, I was terribly grossed out by this perspective. I remember that, in that moment, the disgust towards my body firstly creeped in. Not only was I defective and sick, but I also had to abandon any dreams of intimacy with a man for the future, because it was now my responsibility to prevent my body from causing a new life problems. I could never forgive myself, if I gave light to a newborn who would grow up to experience their own body as a burden.
I think around that time I took the resolution of never having children in the future.
I now understand that it was not up to me to determine whether a baby, born with or without malformations, would experience their own body as a burden. But somehow, that sense of shame for not being perfect stuck with me, and it contributed to make me terrified of sex for a long time.
I spent my teenage years trying to be perfect at least in those domains that I could keep under control. I was an excellent student, a dependable friend, a conscientious sister and daughter.
Ascertained that I couldn’t aim to unconditional love, I worked really hard to earn acceptance in all my social circles, also when this meant putting other people’s needs above mine, and ignoring my desires completely.
Despite I desperately longed for romantic relationships with guys my age, I was too afraid to connect with them and experience rejection, let alone sleeping with them, so I curled myself up in the belief that I was better than other girls, that I could wait instead of wasting my body in meaningless flings.
Simultaneously, I was aware that these lies were a pathetic intellectualization of my unworthiness, and I still occasionally tried to increase my value, so that someone could finally notice me and rescue me from my loneliness.
When I was seventeen, I decided that I could make a last effort to stop being so fat (which I really wasn’t, and even if I had been, it doesn’t today look to me as an unforgivable sin). Given that I couldn’t subject myself to the ridicule and do sports, as a birthday present I asked my parents to pay for the prescription of a diet by a nutritionist.
The doctor prescribed quite a strict and unexciting nutrition plan. When no one was looking and I knew I had committed even a small mistake, I would sabotage the entire thing, by binging enormous quantities of food at great speed, only to be filled with regrets immediately afterwards.
But made exception for a few blow-outs, the diet immediately gave signs of success. I lost 8 kg in a very short period of time, and in school many peers had started noticing and complimenting me about my improved looks.
For the first time in years, I had a glimpse of what it was like to feel beautiful. I purchased new clothes, cut my hair, and rejoiced at the lesser quantity of space I was occupying day after day.
Sadly, the feast didn’t last for long.
A few months in the new diet, more anomalies in my body started to appear.
Probably because of the drastic cut on fats intake, I had amenorrhea for six months. Once again, I pushed as far as possible the impelling urgency to see a doctor. I told myself that my body was just adapting to the new regime, and it would automatically catch up after a first phase of irregularity.
That was not the case. Eventually, I visited a gynecologist, who didn’t spend long time investigating my history, but focused rather on the symptoms that were presented to his eyes.
My whole reproductive system looked like it had completely shut down. My ovaries were covered in micro-cysts, so the fastest thing to do was for him to diagnose me with PCOS and prescribe me birth control, which I took for over ten years.
Only ten years later, investigating on the complications generated by the birth control I was taking, I would find out that I never had PCOS, but most likely went through a phase of reaction to the lack of nutrients in my body.
I remember that being diagnosed with PCOS felt like yet another failure to me. I felt hopelessly inferior, in my cage of malfunctioning female body, and I remember actively wishing that I was born a healthy male, so that I could have avoided the ordeal that a girl has to go through to save her body from constant scrutiny.
Whenever I engaged in my hobby of writing, all the characters I identified with were male, secure and free. I had started to hate my own womanhood, which I knew was an identity I couldn’t escape from, if not in the fantasy of my own creations.
I eventually gave up on the diet, and offered myself the end of high school as a temporal deadline to finally turn the page, and once more try to be someone else when I would begin university.
For that new chapter of my life, I had one clear objective in mind. If I were to give up all the insecurities about my body, probably finding a boyfriend would help -whatever it took to maintain that relationship.
I pursued a relationship with a guy that was by six years older than me, attracted by the incongruity between his older age and his younger spirit.
I am grateful for many aspects of that relationship, that lasted three years and ended with the discovery that he was cheating behind my back. I learned the rudiments of being in an engaged relationship, at times I really did feel appreciated, I lost some of the shame I had around my body and for the first time experienced it as a possible source of enjoyment.
But that relationship was not meant to be. For the most part, my boyfriend was emotionally unavailable if not careless. He had too many personal issues that became cumbersome guests in our relationship.
It was also my fault that I was desperately trying to make work a compatibility of expectations that simply wasn’t there, and I was trying to turn my boyfriend in a person that he couldn’t be.
I let too many of my boundaries be crossed and fall in that relationship. I ended up feeling unseen and used, and in retrospect, I feel that by treating my body as a mere container, I allowed other people to do the same.
Cutting that relationship coincided with possibly the most revolutionary event of my life.
Immediately afterwards, I was to leave my hometown to go study in France, where I would stay for four months.
It was the first time I was living away from my family and my friends, in a context where I only had myself to take care of myself.
At the beginning, it was a disaster: I was constantly eating badly, drinking too much and falling sick. I was just listening to impulses that felt good in the moment, without thinking too much of the consequences.
But at the same time I started noticing the shaping of undisclosed desires in my head. For example, I wanted to stop eating meat, do sports, be outdoors more often, alone with my books and my thoughts.
I finally had the time to bring myself on dates, not reporting my desires to anybody in order to align if they checked with their own, and I was starting to giving myself the permission to be gentle with myself.
I could sleep more without being judged lazy, I could wear as much or as little makeup as I pleased without being mocked, I could leave my hair frizzy, I could eat sweets without a particular occasion. How inebriating that freedom was!
Quite early on, I also met my current boyfriend, with whom it was love at first sight.
Starting to go on dates with him was radically different than the lukewarm connections I had in the past.
Probably because things just happened, and I wasn’t in the mood to think too much about it, I could open up to a deeper sense of acceptance and intimacy, unbothered by the necessity to perform my femininity according to predefined standards.
To my surprise, this spontaneity resulted in his proposal to move somewhere else together. I couldn’t believe that being myself could ever bring me anything good in life, and yet here I was, about to turn my life around again with a man that had fallen in love with me, and that I also loved.
I didn’t think twice, when this proposal came on the table. I realized that for the first time in years I was given a lucky hand, and I should just trust my guts and go along with it.
I knew in my heart that I was used to failing, so a sad ending didn’t sound scary; but maybe, for a change this time things could go well, and I had nothing to lose.
A few months later, my new life in Berlin began.
What started as a provisional break in the course of my life, soon became my new life. I realized pretty early that I was not going back to my hometown.
I started working, making friends and settling my habits in Germany.
After the first phase of excitement faded out, and difficulties began, for a long time it felt incredibly bewildering, to no longer have all these voices in my head dictating how I should act and look.
My life was finally and completely up to me. I no longer could count on the Super-Ego of my past, which started to look so far both in space and time.
Without anyone that required me to prove my worthiness, I paradoxically began to feel lost.
What was I to do with all those choices, that suddenly looked available to a girl that never even dreamed of making it out of her tiny village? How was I going to show up for myself, and trust that I was being loved unconditionally, when I felt that I didn’t have that likability in me, and I was instead coasting by in life as an imposter?
I had to misuse that freedom a lot, and see my loved ones standing by me at the end of it all, before I could start seeing that I had been loved all along.
I started going to therapy for other reasons, but the reflection on my body became a central theme of it.
At that point, I was still so detached from it that I panicked, when in the middle of a calm sea all those past traumas started to resurface asking to be looked at. I had never thought that living in such denial of my physical dimension was not normal.
After a year of therapy, I smiled when I caught myself retrieving some forgotten pleasures, completely out of the blue. Who was that woman waking up earlier to go run in the park? Was it really me, that woman buying herself fitting clothes after decades wearing baggy pants and loose hoodies? How could it be me, the woman booking multiple medical consultations to check whether a medication was still serving me or had become obsolete?
Yes, after years of not noticing any benefit nor from my birth control, nor from the regular neurological check-ins that hadn’t revealed an anomaly in years, I was able to take that leap of faith.
Looking at the most recent exams, I wanted to trust that maybe my body was able to be healthy even without all those medications. I explored routes that I had not considered before, did my research, consulted several specialists and simply expressed my desire to take a break from all the drugs.
To everyone’s wonder, my body started working on its own, and even doing better, without all that excess of pills.
I don’t deny my past, and I am aware that those diagnoses are part of my history, and that as such I have to keep them regularly monitored. But to see my body responding to that therapy, and finally functioning on its own, it felt like a powerful re-appropriation in the here and now.
Starting last year, I have started doing sports regularly. I also have tried to eat more mindfully, which is not something I always succeed at. When it still was possible, I was going to clubs to dance quite often. I make it a point to talk to my reflection in the mirror sometimes, and list features of my body that I like.
I haven’t had any remarkable boost in confidence, I rarely feel particularly beautiful or desirable. But it’s a start. There is a tremendously reassuring power in simply acknowledging that I don’t have to change anything about my body to deserve respect.
A couple of weeks ago I had a deeply cleansing experience.
I decided to look at pictures of myself from the past, dwelling especially on those that have always been harder to watch, because they were associated with a moment in which I remembered suffering, or because they didn’t portray me in a particularly flattering fashion.
Amid feelings of shame and sadness, for the first time I perceived a strong sense of tenderness.
I was looking at pictures of an insecure, clumsy, bashful, yet lovable, kind and very pretty girl.
For the first time in years, I was able to let go of the judgment on my looks. I just reached back to a deeper sense of gratitude, for having persevered through an oppressing feeling of inadequacy, and not having lost my grace in the process.
There she was, the old me, so similar to who I am today and yet so incomplete. She was in the middle of family and friends portraits, or even alone, in somewhat cringeworthy selfies. She was surrounded by the brightness of love all along, even if she couldn’t see past her short height, her wide hips, her coarse hair.
Had she taken those leaps of faith earlier, and stretched her arms, she would have found plenty of arms ready to embrace her, and that at the time were probably too busy going through the same false projections.
When I look at these pictures now, I feel sad for the experiences of joy I denied myself, trusting that my destiny was determined by bodily changes. I feel sad for all the times I didn’t see that I had an opportunity for a positive relationship with my body, like the one I have now.
Nonetheless, I feel lucky that striving through the pursue of control kept me alive, enough to let go of the illusion of control, and accept everything that I am and I have been.
This story, as unevent is the reason why I research the body so obsessively today, in my drawings and in my writings.
My creativity stems from the urge to integrate those experiences that I missed or that I lost, with the compassion I have found towards myself.
I don’t care if this drawing is ugly or if people don’t like it. It’s mine, and it originated from a deeper part of my soul, which I live to protect and celebrate only for myself.