*These piece was later published on www.health-e.org.za under the title ‘Silencing the Critic’ for my column on mental illness, Through the Looking Glass
At the time of my manic episode, I was a tiny, energetic creature. I am rather short and small-framed to begin with, and when I was at the Elizabeth Donkin Hospital, I could have weighed no more than about 46kg. This changed when I had ‘stabilised’ on my medication and left the hospital. Anyone who has been treated for bipolar will tell you that the initial side-effects of the medication are unpleasant. You feel lethargic and unresponsive. Your appetite increases and you feel a constant need to devour food, and as you do this, the pounds pack on. When you brush your hair, chunks of it sometimes come out in your comb. You glimpse yourself in the mirror and feel disgusted by what you see. It does not help that this is often compounded by the depression that usually follows a manic episode. So your sense of self-loathing becomes even further entrenched. This is no easy thing to shake.
We are bombarded constantly with images of what the supposed ‘ideal’ woman looks like, what we should aspire to be. An entire empire of fashion and beauty houses rests on us desperately buying into these images. They tell us the same thing over and over again. You are not good enough as you are. Your lashes are not long enough to hold a lover’s gaze. Your lips are not full enough nor juicy enough for another to want to kiss. Your legs are not smooth enough for another to want to touch. Of course, they do all this because we’re ‘worth it’, right?
And it is not only in advertising. In the television shows we watch, the female doctors and lawyers, the policewomen, so often, they too, are thin and pretty, and when they need to, know how to look good in a tight skirt and a pair of heels. So I don’t think I’m alone when I look at my arms and see flabby turkey wings…Or when I sit in a bikini, hunched over, and am repulsed by the rolls… I am nothing like the tall, skinny 20-something models who make it all look so effortless.
But I have decided to overcome this. I have decided to love my body uncompromisingly. It is capable. It is healthy. And it speaks an intimate language all its own. What more is there to celebrate daily? Because of this decision, when a friend put it out there that the university was looking for models for 2nd year art students, I volunteered readily. It was something that, two years ago, I could never have imagined doing. But the time had come. No more would I be held back by silly insecurities, by the so-called imperfections that various industries had insisted would limit me and hadn’t.
So that morning, I showed up and was presented with a table (my ‘perch’) surrounded by pairs of young, eager eyes and ready bits of charcoal. As I moved from one position to another, I became less and less concerned with the bulge of my stomach, with the fleshy bits of my far-from-toned arms. I became more interested in creating shapes for the students, in providing something for all the students in the half-moon circle to draw. As the hours progressed, I began concentrating solely on the contours of my body, and what they had to offer the students. When I looked at their 10-minute renderings in between sittings, I was amazed at how much dignity and poise the human form could contain. I gave no thought to the parts of my body that were a little chubby here and there. I saw beauty in their work, and I saw nothing but beauty in myself because of what they had drawn.
I will forever be grateful to these students. No doubt, it was a relatively ordinary morning for them. And I can’t even say I made the best model. There is growth to be had. I am not yet as comfortable in my own skin as I could be, or as relaxed as I could be posing in a roomful of people. But through their work, through this experience, they have aided me greatly on my journey towards self-love.
So (if I may be so bold as to make a suggestion) where you can, learn to silence that self-criticism when it arises. When you look at yourself in the mirror, rejoice in that slightly crooked tooth, rejoice in your freckly nose, rejoice in the wonderful contours of your body. There is art, there is magic, in these small things. You do not need foundation to hide behind. You do not need modern-day corsets to conceal your curves and alter your body shape. You do not need to feel overburdened with guilt every time you enjoy a hot slice of cheesy pizza or a piece of melt-in-your-mouth chocolate. Dipping into your purse to support the industries who have told us otherwise will not make you happier. It will not find you someone to love.
It is a cliche, but some cliches are such because they have some wisdom in them. The more you celebrate life with abandon, the more you celebrate yourself with abandon, the more others will be drawn to your joie de vivre. It’s as simple as that.
Featured image : Comfort, sculpted by Italian artist Maria Gamundi
Charcoal image: Courtesy of art student Micaela Scholtz