I’ve written before about the frustrations of having a mental illness that leaves visual signs on my body, and that it can often feel as if my body is betraying me with its scars or its size. I’ve recently noticed what appears to be a corollary to this and it’s something that gets under my skin (pun intended). For those of us who have mental disorders that result in a physical change, our bodies are used far more often than our own words or mental state to gauge whether we’re ok or not.
This is something that has been criticized for some time now. We’ve heard that “you can’t see whether someone has an eating disorder by their size”. Many people are still convinced that size and weight loss are the indicators of eating disorders. Others are certain that depressed people probably look like vagabonds and don’t wash or take care of themselves. I would hope that we all have enough evidence by now that people of every shape and size can have a mental illness and most of the time it’s utterly invisible.
But there’s another layer of looking at bodies as evidence for mental illness, and this one is more subtle and more insidious. This is the one that comes when someone knows that you have a mental illness and really wants to know how you’re doing. So they pick apart your physical appearance for signs: are there dark circles under your eyes? Have you lost weight? Gained weight? Is there a scar or a cut that indicates symptom usage?
Now of course if you’re nervous or worried for someone it makes sense to try to find evidence of how they’re doing. Where this turns into a problem is when bodies are used as evidence against the person whose body it is. Often, when someone with a mental illness says that they’re doing ok, their body is scrutinized to see if they’re right or not. The individual can’t be trusted to know their own mental state or to truthfully express it to others.
In many ways, I think this plays into the idea that people with mental illness are manipulative or disconnected from reality. For most people, if they said that they were feeling ok, or doing better, or their mood was up, they would be trusted unless there was some glaring evidence to the contrary (muttering, monosyllables, glowering face). Particularly with physical illness, if someone has an injury but says that they feel fine, most people take them at their word. We’ve all experienced having a particularly nasty looking scratch that doesn’t actually hurt and reassuring others that we’re fine. For the most part, they trust us to know whether we’re in pain or not. Even with illness, if someone has some symptoms but reassure us that they’re feeling much better, we smile and tell them we’re happy for that.
Obviously all of us use our common sense to determine whether we think someone is lying to us about their internal conditions, but for some reason those with mental illness are held to a far higher bar than others. Any evidence of symptoms is often construed as evidence that our mood cannot and is not ok, or that things are going downwards. Particularly for things like purging or self-harm, there is a guttural response of disgust and fear to the symptoms that means outsiders are often convinced that it’s impossible for an individual to be doing ok and still engaging in those behaviors (never ever nuh uh). That means any evidence of symptom use is held up as evidence that things are not ok and if the individual says they are it is a lie.
Maree Burns in Eating Like An Ox says “In cultures where identities are read off the surface of the body, one’s physical state is understood to represent both moral and mental health”. There are intersections here with numerous other oppressions: fatphobia, racism, sexism, slut-shaming, ableism (as well as many others I’m sure I’m forgetting at this moment). The problem with assuming that a body is an identity is that no one can ever convince you you are wrong because they must be lying. There is an odd tension in American culture in which we partially dismiss the importance of bodies (we assert that focusing on looks is shallow, we eat horribly and don’t take care of ourselves, we shame people for having sex, and we typically subscribe to a Cartesian dualism that suggests our mind is our self while our body is just a nice carrying case), but at the same time we are convinced that we can read identity and selfhood off of bodies. Fat people can’t control themselves, people with disabilities are lazy, people of color are Other (scary or dangerous).
We don’t see bodies as selves, but we see them as books on which selves are written, clearly and unequivocally. The tension between the fact that we don’t see our bodies as our selves and the fact that we think our selves are clearly reflected in our bodies can make self-identity a serious challenge, but it also serves to undermine the self that an individual might seek to portray or express to others through means that are not the body. And this of course always impacts those who are already oppressed because we are more easily assumed liars.
My body cannot tell you things about my self, my well-being, or my identity. I may have scars, but I am ok. Someday I will openly wear my scars and smile and laugh and be a walking advertisement for the fact that mental health is not visible. Until then, I will just repeat over and over: I’m ok.