Yesterday I went to the doctor for my annual check-up. I’m not a big fan of the doctor: you see your weight displayed prominently in front of you, you get naked and have things shoved up your lady bits, and of course, I always have to decide how much to disclose about my mental health. In recent years, I’ve stopped having much of a filter about my eating disorder. I’ll tell my doctor without hesitation. It doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s a nuisance to have to retake depression inventories and explain over and over what treatment I’m getting and that I have a team that’s kept it under control, but in the long run it’s easier than dancing around things.
So I jumped through the hoops that they asked of me and as I was laying back on the table with my body exposed for the doctor, she looked down and asked “Did you do these to yourself?”
It took me a moment to realize what she was talking about. The scars. They’re on my belly and my hips and my legs. I forget they’re there sometimes.
Unfortunately, it’s when I forget that I forget to cover them or explain them. And then they’re seen. And then I must tell the story.
There is nothing quite like being on your back mostly naked with your legs spread while explaining to someone that your self-harm is under control. “Stripped bare” hardly covers it.
But that’s the thing about bodies: they tell your stories even when you don’t want to. Having a physical presence in the world means that others can tell things about you that your mind would rather they not know. This to me is one of the struggles of coming to grips with my own body image.
Scars are stories. Every mark on my body came from something in my life: the scar where they cut me open when I was six, the stretch marks from losing and gaining weight in the midst of an eating disorder, the tattoo I got when I was just 18 and in love with beauty. Some of these stories are ones I chose to tell: when my bones stretched against my skin, it was my choice to tell the world that I wished to be smaller. The ink on my skin is my own story that I put there. Some of these are not the stories I wanted to tell: the scars from where I hurt myself were wishes to disappear, and now they are angry, loud marks that announce me to the world.
Many of us have stories that are announced without our consent, but there are some special difficulties when your body is betraying you in this way. A particularly difficult element of this is body dysphoria. If you feel that your body is reflecting a past that you no longer identify with, telling stories that are no longer your narrative, it can deeply undermine your sense of self, and can mislead others about who you are. It’s hard not to be defensive when you feel you have to explain your body away as something that isn’t true to who you are.
It is the constant struggle between your inner knowledge of self and the outer perception that others have, and the work you must do to reframe your story into bite-sized, palatable explanations. When the stories written on your body are socially unacceptable, you must go above and beyond to make yourself socially acceptable in those lies of omission, spinning of stories, and changes of subject that we learn to perfect.
But there’s also a fear to it: you never know when someone will ask you about yourself, ask you the hard questions. You never know when someone’s face will fall in the way you can’t explain, but you know means they’re writing you off. It’s the impossibility of keeping your secret, even when it’s your deepest, hardest secret, because other people can see it when they look at you. Imagine that: imagine another person being able to look at you and know about your hardest moments and your most difficult struggles. Imagine not being able to choose when to disclose information about yourself, but rather having to always be hiding against discovery.
These are not all my experiences. In the summer I have to watch what I wear. When I was skinnier I had to be careful to show that I was eating around new people. But most of my life I can live without wondering when I will be found out. There are those who have it much harder than I do. When your body tells a story that is personal, you are automatically put into a position of submission, and there are those whose bodies are screaming those stories.
I know that we tend to use what information we have to make judgments about a person, and often that information is immediate and visual. But as someone whose body is spreading lies about me, please don’t listen. I am not my scars. I am allowed to write my own story without anyone else’s perception of my body. I do not have to defend the way I see my body, nor do I owe anyone explanations of my body. But the dialectic is that my body always appears to others, no matter how badly I wish it not to. This, to me, is the challenge of creating positive body image.