Most of us are in a constant process of turning life into stories. In trying to make sense of experiences, we attach meanings, and sometimes impose narrative shapes on our lives. This can be really helpful, bringing coherence, a sense of direction and an understanding of who we are and what we’re all about. Sometimes those stories can be hard to carry.
I have a story about my body. It’s an old story, and I know how I got it, although that hasn’t made it go away. I’ve tested it on the man I’m married to, who finds it silly and clearly doesn’t fit with it, and still it doesn’t go away. Once allowed to take root, autobiographical stories can be pernicious things and bloody difficult to weed out.
The story goes like this: My body is hideous and repellent. It is therefore reasonable to assume that people will respond with anything from dismay to full on horror in any situation where they have to deal with my body. I am painfully self conscious about swimming, and I wear guys trunks and a top these days because of the horror of my midriff to upper thigh region. I struggle with photographs. Some days, just being looked at makes me uneasy. I expect to be judged, and found wanting. I’m passably symmetrical with no extra appendages, and there is no simple physical aspect I can point at to explain why I expect my body to be an affront. There are stories feeding on stories here.
One of the consequences of this is that I find it very difficult to seek affection. Imposing my body on someone else feels like an invasion. I tend to be very passive. It doesn’t help that in recent years I’ve developed alongside this a lot of anxiety issues around feeling safe being touched.
Making physical contact with another person is a profoundly affirming action. It’s a very tangible expression of acceptance, and of finding the other person good enough. I lug my weighty autobiographical story into every situation of exchange, wearing it on my back like a shell. If someone compliments me, I wonder if they are actually teasing me and I’m being slow to get the joke. I was teased a lot about my appearance as a child. I grew up with members of my own family calling me ‘funny looking’ so that story comes along for the ride, too. The boyfriend who was embarrassed by my tattoos, the ex who told me I had no idea how to move like a woman… stories upon stories.
Not only do we carry stories about with us, but we help other people create theirs. Small, throwaway comments, made carelessly or from casual spite can turn into another person’s reality. When I look into a mirror (which I don’t do any more often than I have to) all I see are the stories, and none of those have ever been pretty.