All photographs taken by Samantha Searles Photography.
Content notice: Discussion of eating disorders and mental health issues.
When I made the decision to get some headshots done, I had a niggling feeling that I would be displeased with the photos, no matter how they turned out because of my body image issues. After all, I had gained over 60 pounds in the last year due to stress and psychiatric medication. I was even further from the image of the perfect me I still carry around in hopes one day I’ll wake up with different genetics and changed body structure and look like a pop star.
On the day of the shoot, I woke up feeling low. Lately my agitated bipolar depression seemed to slide into a regular bipolar depression and I wasn’t feeling particularly good about myself at the time. But, ever the pragmatist, I knew this had to be done and I needed to do it. So off I went with Samantha Searles Photography to take some headshots.
I had a great time during the shoot. I tried to push thoughts of the finished product out of my mind and focus on genuine smiles and looking like I wasn’t feeling as bad about myself as I really was. After the shoot was over I dreaded seeing the pictures. I tried to tell myself they’re just photographs of me and it was fine and everything was fine, but by now I know better than to argue with my dark thoughts.
When I saw the photos, I went through them in my room, unable to say anything. I looked over each image of myself I saw something I was never expecting to see; I saw me.
For so long I evaluated my image based on what I looked like, how beautiful or ugly I appeared, as if nothing about me mattered other than my appearance. But this time it was more than that. I truly saw myself and I was not a shell to be valued based on my looks. I was a person whose worth is not contingent how thin or pretty I was at that time. I saw a friend, a writer, a poet, and someone who is still fighting for life.
Just about everyone struggles with body image, at some point in their lives. I struggled with it from grade school and that struggle didn’t abbate throughout my adult life. When I got into my teenage years, my body image difficulties morphed into an eating disorder and I began an entirely different struggle. This disorder saw me lose and gain massive amounts of weight, go under the knife for gastric sleeve surgery, and deal with emotional issues through the opposite extremes of binging or calorie restriction.
I learned a lot in these years. Not just about myself, but about how other people and society in general view and treat eating disorders. I will never forget how people congratulated me on my weight loss when I was starving myself, I will never forget how people treated me differently based on my size, I will never forget the progress on my journey of self acceptance or how far I still have to go. But the most important lesson I’ve learned about self acceptance is that you can’t reserve it for when your body looks a certain way or reaches a certain weight. Self love can’t be conditional for it to be truly nurturing.
I believe everyone’s journey to self-acceptance is deeply personal and unique. But this is what I have learned and this is what has helped me. The odds I will ever fully recover from my eating disorder are very slim. But learning to live with it has taught me many lessons about myself, about society, about life, and about loving yourself when you think you’re unloveable.
I’ve been working on a new chapbook called Reġnboga (which is Olde English for “rainbow”). It’s based around color and I’m still in the process of writing. Here is a draft of one of the poems. This one has one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned about body image and self-love.
I painted my lips with monza red and
kissed my reflection as if it was my dearest friend
I walked down streets with a sway in my hips
and a grace to my steps because I was as
close to thin as I ever had been and I loved my body
for its ability to starve
I loved my body. Kind of.
I loved it when its reflection looked most like
women I saw in magazines, women who entertained me,
women who I was told were goodness and light and
when I looked like them, I could capture a tiny sliver of
their brilliance and finally, I could be good, too
but then I did the one thing I wasn’t supposed to do
I expanded and my goodness slipped away with
every dress size I moved up
I ate until there was nothing left but me and then
I ate my sadness, and my shame, and my self-loathing
I filled up on how much I couldn’t stand myself and how
much my moral character was lacking
I used to be so good! Now the canvas I used to paint
monza red doesn’t deserve the decoration
I managed to shrink back down,
I had them cut out my stomach and stitch me
back up so the evil in my body couldn’t seep out
sometime in the recovery room, with one sock
missing, I realized that this might not work and
I could have gone through all of this for nothing
and then I realized something else;
loving my body shouldn’t conditional
I can’t nurture and care for it only when it pleases me
or pleases someone else or fits into a particular
dress or looks nice as a particular angle
hating my body has never improved it, hating myself
has never made me happy, and while I can only control
so much in my life, I can remove my body from target range
and start working on not just loving myself when my self
is perfect, but loving myself when I actually need it
I still wear monza red some days, I still walk with a sway
in my hips, because now I’ve learned that love is not given
with conditions and support is not needed when you’re
triumphing. I will not love myself because I’m thin, I will
not hate myself because I’m not. Because loving my body
only when I’m thin is not loving my body at all.