This week is mental health awareness week. In fact, we’re approaching the end of it. It has taken me this long to summon up the courage to contribute.
Everyone who knows me knows I’m usually the first to be on board with any opportunity to shout about mental health. So why the reticence this time? The theme for this year’s week is Body Image. Now, it would be easy for me to write a blog about all the different shapes and sizes of bodies I have photographed. But my usual style on mental health issues is to lead from the front. So I have spent the whole week debating with myself over whether I have the bottle to lay myself (almost) bare on the subject of my own body image.
A friend, much slimmer and in much better shape than me, was having panics a few days ago about the prospect of getting naked in front of a new man. I’m sure we can all relate to that. I know I certainly can. But actually, in the last year, my personal perception of what is deemed to be attractive has changed a lot, as my personal circumstances have changed. (I told you this was going to be a very personal blog). It turns out it has very little to do with my shape and everything to do with how confident and happy I feel in my own skin.
This time last year I was very unhappy in my personal life. I felt fat, unattractive and unwanted. I had basically given up. I rarely bothered with makeup, I didn’t do a lot with my hair and I hid my flab under baggy clothes. I couldn’t bear to have my photograph taken.
And then…something very traumatic happened. My marriage ended. It made me ill and I stopped eating. I lost a lot of weight without even trying. At the time I had an exhibition in Gallery Oldham of mental health portraits. I was sending out the message to the world that I had turned my mental health battles into a positive experience, while on the inside I was falling to pieces.
I sat myself down in the gallery, in front of my own portrait and those of 31 other warriors, many of whom have become friends. Collectively, they gave me a kick up the backside and made me pull myself together.
The first thing I did was to get my hair cut into a short bob. I’d had it long for almost all of my marriage because that was what my husband preferred. It gave me a much bigger boost than I expected. I started wearing makeup again to complement my new hair. I got funky new glasses and I started to like the person staring back at me from the mirror. I began wearing dresses again instead of the leggings and baggy tops.
Next, I got the tattoo I had secretly wanted for years, but hadn’t wanted to risk certain people’s disapproval. It has a mental health theme and it is on my wrist so that I can see it always. I did it for me and sod what anyone else thought. It was unexpectedly liberating (sorry Mum).
A couple of months later my hairdresser friend and I decided to add some pink into my hair. I absolutely fell in love with it. There was no longer any fading into the background for this wallflower. I was developing a very distinctive look and it was doing wonders for my confidence. I got so many positive comments. Only one person disapproved, and it no longer mattered what he thought. From here on in I was going to please myself.
As my confidence grew, I felt more comfortable wearing more fitted clothing. Let’s face it, baggy dresses make you look like a sack of spuds. All this coincided with the curvy girl’s best friend – the wrap dress – coming back into fashion. Reader, I made the most of that. I love a wrap dress.
I’ve always been a curvy girl with big boobs, and often I have been very self-conscious of them. Not anymore. I’m quite happy showing off a bit of cleavage in a low-cut dress. But I do it for me, not for anyone else. It makes me feel good. I threw away all my tatty old underwear and bought lovely lingerie, following a comment from my ex about my ‘big pants’. I didn’t care whether anyone was ever going to see it, it made me feel good.
Still there was the nagging voice in my head that said I was kidding myself, that nobody else would find me attractive. I had been made to feel fat, ugly and useless for so long that I still didn’t really believe anyone else would want me. So, do you know what I did? I put my big girl sexy pants on and I joined a dating site.
I hadn’t dated since before I had children and these days my body bears the battle scars of giving birth to and breastfeeding two large babies. I was apprehensive to say the least. But guess what? I got lots and lots of positive attention and messages. Turns out there are a hell of a lot of men out there who like a curvy girl.
I’m not going to go into the ins and outs (sorry) of my private life but yes, I have been naked in front of a man since my marriage ended. No, he didn’t recoil in horror at the sight of my wobbly bits, saggy boobs and stretch marks. Do you know what ladies? They genuinely don’t care! Well, the decent ones don’t.
I have realised that a bit of confidence, a sense of humour and a smile will get you a lot further than a washboard stomach. And I’ll let you into another secret – most men have just as many hang-ups about their bodies as we do. The whole thing has done wonders for my mental health. Obviously I still have days where I wake up in a black fog, but I know it will pass. I’m more or less happy in my own skin now and that leads on to having a generally optimistic outlook.
So, in conclusion, although there are many aspects of my naked self that I would change if I could, I’m not going to waste any more of my life hiding them and living half a life. I can and I will get naked without feeling mortified in front of other people if the occasion warrants it. I won’t insist on the light being off and…if I ever go on holiday again, I might just wear a bikini. Sod ‘em.
And just in case you think I’m talking rubbish and I wouldn’t dare get my actual figure out….well, here you are for what it ‘s worth. 🙂