Tag Archives: identity

Changing my body story

The body story I have had for most of my life goes like this: I am fat and unattractive. I am fat because I am lazy and greedy and don’t try hard enough. I make a fuss about pain. I would have more energy if only I did/ate/thought the right things so it’s really my fault I’m not doing better. That body story has gone with me no matter what I’ve done, or how hard I’ve tried. It is not a story I started out telling myself, it was told to me and I internalised it.

I’m working on changing that. It is not an easy thing to do, because the story is so embedded, and there are other stories tangled into it – that I should not expect love because I am fat. That no matter how good I am, it will never be enough to offset how unattractive I am. Pre-teen me was told that no one would ever want me because I was so fat. I don’t think I’ve ever really got past that, even when it’s repeatedly been proven not to be true. It haunts me.

My new body story takes into account some truths about my body. I’m very hypermobile, which means I hurt and injure easily, and I hurt a lot. It re-casts my historical pain not as fuss making, but as a real issue. Hypermobility often goes with fatigue, and everything taking more effort. I can re-write the stories about my laziness as being about limitations in my body, and not lack of trying on my part. My poor co-ordination in childhood – only marginally better now – probably also wasn’t a lack of effort on my part, but a consequence of the hypermobility.

I can tell myself new stories about how child me tried their best, but had problems.

Hypermobility has implications for the soft tissues, including the stomach. I’ve always had a dodgy digestive system which suggests that the soft tissue issues are in my guts as well as around my joints. I’ve always had trouble building stomach muscle or getting my middle into a shape I’m happy with. During pregnancy, my middle expanded to an alarming degree. This would make sense if I have weaker tissues to begin with. What if the stomach shape that was the source of so much childhood shame wasn’t about fat, but about the state of my muscles? Dieting never changed it. Starving myself never changed it. Exercise routines, regular swimming and other such efforts have never made much difference either. Trying to get my stomach to be a more acceptable shape has been a life-long obsession. What if it’s not because I’m greedy and lazy? What if something else is going on?

I am trying to tell myself new stories about how this might not have been some kind of personal failing on my part.

I’m also becoming aware of a thing. When the first port of call is to stigmatise fat and shame the fat person for being morally inadequate, there’s no looking at causes. There’s no asking what’s going on in their body and how that might be managed, dealt with, or how they might be more kindly supported in getting on with life. No one (including me) asked what was going on in my body because it was so obvious to everyone (me included) that my greed and laziness were to blame. That my body did not change was proof that I must be too greedy and lazy to really make the effort. Even as a teenager on the slimfast diet (remember that? Replace 2 meals each day with special milkshakes) I did not get to be the right shape. I did get to be very tired and had lousy concentration.

Putting down a story that has dominated my entire life isn’t easy. But, it does help having a new story to replace it with. A story in which I do not have to hate my body for the accident of how it is. A story in which it is not my fault. A story in which I do not have to think of myself as a ‘bad’ person. And if my body is not an expression of my moral failure, it becomes that bit easier to ask people to accept me as I am.

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Clothes, poverty and identity

Sighted people read each other visually, and that means for most of us, how we look will have a huge impact on who other people think we are. People will judge you if you don’t look clean and smart – neither of which is always easy if you’re dealing with extreme poverty. If you are presenting as poor and you don’t look poor enough to the people judging you, that won’t go well for you, either. Many social groupings expect people to conform to visual standards – you have to look the part if you want to belong.

Like many people, I grew up wearing hand me downs and clothes from charity shops. I did not get to choose how I looked, I had to wear whatever would do the job, and fitted. In my mid teens, I started taking scissors and needle to clothing in the hopes of finding something that felt like ‘me’.  I was seventeen when I bought my first new dress, with my own money. I liked how that felt.

I’ve never had much cash to spend on clothes, and I’ve mostly bought in sales and I still buy second hand, and I do a lot of upcycling. Being able to choose how I’m going to look is something I really value. I feel more in control of my self, my body and my life if I can choose what I really want to wear rather than having to make do with what fits. As a tall and broad person I’ve struggled to find second hand clothes that fit. It is not a happy thing having to wear clothing you despise because that’s all that fits you.

I’ve talked to other people about this and I know it isn’t just me. There’s an emotional impact in being able to choose how you look when you’ve grown up, or spent much of your life unable to do that. While we’re talking about the impact of fast fashion on the planet, I think we need to talk as well about how the long term experience of poverty can impact on people’s clothes choices – and not in the best way. When you have very little control over your life, cheap, throwaway clothing means you do have control over how you look. Not wearing things until they are ragged means not looking poor. It takes a certain middle class confidence to wear worn and patched clothes – if you’ve got money and don’t need help, you won’t encounter the same problems around this.

To deal with the impact fast fashion has on the planet, we need to identify and deal with the things that make it attractive. My guess is that control is a really important part of this. It’s a rare thing that you can control with very little money, and that might give a person with very little joy in their life an emotional boost. New clothes give people confidence and help them feel better about themselves, and unless those needs are met in other ways, fast fashion will remain attractive.


Limits to second hand sourcing

In a recent blog post about clothing I mentioned buying second hand, and inevitably didn’t say a great many things about the limits of second hand shopping. In the effort to reduce the appalling impact of the fashion industry on the planet, many people are committing to only buying second hand clothes. It’s good if you can – but not everyone can, and that needs talking about.

If you have an average sort of body shape and proportions, then second hand clothing is a lot more realistic. If you are unusual in any way, the chances of walking into a second hand clothes shop and finding an item that will fit you, is not high. If you need a specialist shop to source things that will fit you, second hand shopping is a limited option – you might be able to do a little bit online now and then.

If you have a minimal wardrobe either to save money or as a green choice, then if a key piece of kit becomes un-wearable, you will need to replace it quickly. You might not be able to afford to wait until something turns up. Equally, if you walk or cycle for transport or work outside, there will be key pieces of kit that you can’t manage without and you won’t reliably be able to source second hand. Greener living choices will inform what kind of clothes you need.

Second hand shopping takes time. Not everyone is time rich. Other greener ways of living are also more time intensive – walking for transport, handwashing your clothes, shopping on foot, growing your own veg, cooking everything from scratch… these things all take time. Finding suitable clothes in charity shops takes time. You might not be able to do all of it. Not being able to find the time for some greener activities because of the time it takes to do other green activities is not something to feel awkward about.

Not all new clothing is created equally. If you are supporting artisan creators, fair trade sellers, handmade creativity, local independent shops, locally sourced materials and the like, this is very different from buying cheap, throwaway fashion.

I potter into charity shops often enough to have a good idea what to expect. It’s rare that I see anything I like and that would fit me – I’m fussy about clothes and only buy things I’m confident I will want to wear for years to come. Inevitably, a large percentage of what’s in the shops is that bland, supermarket stuff that does nothing for me. Clothing is an important form of self expression, and for many of us is how we create and express identity. Wearing stuff that doesn’t feel like you, is miserable, and thus not sustainable. It would be good if more people who can afford to bought more of the good quality, handmade, original stuff and then sent that on to the charity shops!


Food and identity

What we eat is part of our sense of self. For anyone who has made a significant food choice either to protect their health, for religious reasons or for environmental ones tends to feel very invested in that food identity. Food choices can play a big part in your cultural identity and may inform who you spend time with.

Food impacts on our bodies in all kinds of ways. What energy we have has a lot to do with what we eat. Our diets shape our bodies and other people’s assumptions about who we are as a consequence of our bodies. To be in poverty, malnourished and consequently overweight is an experience that will get you blamed for your size all too often. The assumption that being larger goes with being lazy can have huge impacts on a person’s life, most critically around how the medical profession responds to larger bodies.

What we put into ourselves impacts on our mood, and our perceptions. Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, processed food, raw food, empty calories, wholefoods, things that suit us and things that don’t all shape our experiences of living in a body. How that works also depends on where we are in life and what demands are being made of us.

We make our body chemistry from the food we take in. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so looking at the foods that encourage progesterone and estrogen production. Information online suggests that western diets may cause or aggravate many of the menopause symptoms, so I’ve been poking around in this. I’ve radically increased my fruit intake, amongst other things. I feel better in my body in ways I had not expected.

I’ve struggled with my body ever since hitting puberty. I don’t feel properly female – the only time I did was when I was pregnant. I feel out of kilter with my body but not so out of kilter to think I’d be any better off as a chap. My flesh has never felt easy on my bones. I’ve experienced it as a disconnection and a wrongness I have inadequate language to describe. However, in the last six months or so with a diet that supports female hormone production, I’ve felt better in myself on this score.

I spent my teens through to my thirties with a diet that was either inadequate, unsuitable, or both. I knew this at the time. In recent years I’ve been able to afford to eat whatever I want to eat, and there’s been no pressure to do otherwise. The more I go after the food that works for me, the more easy I feel in my own skin. I’ve still got all my androgynous psychology, my thinking hasn’t changed at all, but my experience of my own body has shifted, may well still be shifting.

Identity can be such a changeable thing. Who I am if I eat a lot of fruit. Who I am with, or without coffee. Who I am if I’m not mostly living on cheap sources of carbohydrate. Who I am if I am allowed to choose what I put into my body. Everything about us exists in relation to what of the world we are exposed to and what options we have, and how our experiences shape us.


Labels, power and identity

Labels are certainly useful when it comes to finding people you have stuff in common with. The Druid, Pagan and Steampunk labels have served me very well in that way. When we give ourselves those labels and seek other people who identify with them most of what happens is good.

Naming things is essential if you want to talk about them. Finding descriptions we can agree about isn’t always an easy process, and the more personal and emotive the things that need naming, the harder it gets. When people are on an even footing trying to find language to communicate, the inevitable bumps in this process are, I think, largely worth it.

However, labels can also be stuck to people as an act of power-over. To have the power to label someone is to have the power to over-rule their self identification and replace it with your own terms. This may be backed up by notions of being ‘academic’ or more informed or having authority based on your job, or other forms of seniority. However, when you take away a person’s right to name themselves and put a label on them, you reduce their power and assert your own. When that happens, the basis of the authority needs questioning.

Labels can also be refused and taken away. There’s always someone keen to say who isn’t a real Steampunk, Pagan, Druid, Briton, Jew, to tell disabled people they aren’t really disabled… to tell people they don’t look poor so they can’t be working class, that their gender identity doesn’t exist… It’s nasty stuff. As many of those examples flag up, it’s not just a name you lose when this happens – it may be state aid, the right to self expression, safety, and other essential things. Miss-labeling is so often where we start when we intend to strip people of other things as well.

If we aren’t on an equal footing when labels are being ascribed, then labels are something that are done to us. Politicians calling refugees migrants is a case in point. That’s a re-labeling with massive consequences. Think about the kind of language used to label the LGBTQ community, or the habit of less inclusive Christians to insist that all Pagans are Satanists. Miss-labeling tends to disappear something of who you are and replace it with who you are assumed to be. It can be anything from annoying through to life threatening, depending on the context. It’s definitely not something to take lightly.


Soft and fierce

One of the best things about being able to sum up who you are is that it gives you a fighting chance of finding people you can identify with. The word ‘Druid’ has served me well over the years. So has Pagan, green, folky, and steampunk. However, there are aspects of who I am it would be really useful to be able to explain to people I’m closely involved with. The lack of language is frustrating.

All of the words available to me carry a lot of sexual connotations. In the contexts in which I need some words, those sexual connotations would be more trouble than help. It’s hard even to talk about the kinds of relationships where this is an issue because the language simply doesn’t exist. As a bisexual person, I don’t automatically have a bunch of people I can be friends with where sexual attraction could not be a thing. I have a capacity for very deep and emotionally involved friendship, going far beyond what people generally mean when they say ‘friend’. That lack of language to even talk about who I am and what I’m offering has tripped me up repeatedly.

Over the last week I’ve been reading a book of essays – Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. I read it out of curiosity and a desire to understand more about other women. I did not expect there to be anything much in it that related to me. I have a female presenting body and a fluid/queer/androgynous sense of self and little enthusiasm for trying to make the overtly female body I have better express what goes on inside it. I learned a lot from the essays about ways in which other women deal with their masculine and feminine aspects, and that was good.

I came away with one phrase, found in a femme essay. ‘Soft and fierce’. It’s the shortest identifier I’ve found that communicates something of how my inner spectrum works, what kinds of contradiction I am and perhaps what to expect in dealing with me. It’s not a conventional identity label, but it is something I can add to my personal dictionary, and maybe even use. It’s a term I can carry to remind myself that I can be a real and authentic person without having to fit neatly into any of the more conventional identity boxes.

In my experience, the majority of people have very narrow ideas about who and how we are allowed to be in relation to each other. I’m bi, and pan-romantic, emotionally plural and physically faithful, I’m a bottom except when people need me to be a top because really it’s all about the service. I’m too scruffy to be conventionally feminine but too female bodied to be the genderqueerness I feel and anyway, I’m not sure why that genderqueerness is best expressed to other people by minimising the female aspects. I don’t know enough genderqueer folk to know if that’s really somewhere I belong, or not. I like ‘queer’ as a term because it’s short and evocative, but for people who have no queer language of their own to deploy, it’s not that helpful.

Most of the time, I can just let people make of me what they will and I try not to worry about it too much. The trouble has been the people who got too close in the friendships that were not as straightforward and who did not know what to do with me. More often than not they read as sexual things that are not uncomplicatedly sexual when I do them. My track record in recent years has been better though – not because I have the right words but because I’ve dealt with kinder people, more willing to make the effort to understand.


Gender identity questions

On plenty of occasions, I’ve encountered people saying they have legitimate questions about trans issues. Most often, these come down to fears for female safety. There is certainly an issue around the scope for predatory men to temporarily adopt trans identities to invade female space. Toby Young – an infamous and vile creature who for reasons that make no sense to me has had some high profile UK jobs – admitted to dressing up as a woman to go after lesbians. However, there are a great many questions I don’t think we are asking, and should be.

Are we doing enough to support diversity in sexual expression? Are we looking after our effeminate boys and butch girls and allowing them to express that way, or are they under pressure to conform to hetranormative standards?

How much gender normalising do we do with children? Are girls who don’t like pink and passive toys being told they are boys? Are boys who like sparkly things being told they are girls? If some young people are being pushed towards trans identities it isn’t trans folk doing this, it is hetranormative pressures from the adults nearest to them and I think we should be talking about it. Historically, telling a child they were behaving like someone of the opposite gender was a scare tool designed to bring them back in line. How many people have been persuaded they don’t belong as one gender because others have told them they’re not acting like a ‘real boy or ‘real girl’?

Pushing people towards a gender change can be a way of pushing them towards heterosexual conformity. I’ve seen it suggested that in some countries, trans is considered preferable to queer because it holds up cultural beliefs about gender. We should be questioning this.

I’ve seen people question the kinds of gender stereotyping trans women seem to go in for. I’m not seeing enough people asking why that might be the case, and what the link might be between performative femininity, and access to support. I am seeing a lot of trans women talking about the pressure to perform femininity in these narrow ways. I think we should be asking questions of what kinds of hoops trans folk have to jump through, who the gatekeepers are, and what kinds of ideas about gender are in the mix here.

If you believe the right wing media, a person, even a child, merely has to suggest that they might be trans to be rapidly operated on and plied with hormones. We don’t spend enough time asking trans people what their experiences are, or listening to the answers. How long does it take to get an appointment at a trans clinic? How many clinics are there and how far do you have to travel to be seen?  What do you have to demonstrate to be taken seriously? To transition, a person has to live as the gender they consider themselves to be, for several years. This includes using a name that is not their birth name, and all the technical problems you can imagine might go with this. What support is there? What help? What legal protections? We’re not asking enough of these questions.

One of the key issues with transitioning is that it reduces suicide rates. The one question I don’t see anyone asking is what else we could do that would help reduce suicide rates. Surgery is not attained quickly. It’s not available on demand. There’s years of process here. What could we be doing in other ways to reduce the suicide rate for trans people? What is it, specifically about the experience of being transgender that has people wanting to kill themselves? How much of it comes down to the behaviour and attitudes of the rest of us? What can we do, individually, to help the people around us be as comfortable as they can be with themselves?

How many people could have happier, more comfortable and viable lives if the people they dealt with simply accepted them as they are?


Shopping for a sense of self

Many adverts encourage us to feel that their product will help us ‘discover a new you’. Some do it explicitly, others by showing us the joyful, rewarding lives we could have if only we switched to their tampon brand, their skin cream, their shampoo. If you are feeling lost and dissatisfied, purchasing your identity can be persuasive. Buy this coffee to have a kitchen full of attractive friends. Buy this soft drink so your kid will have a social life.

This diet. This brand of clothing. This holiday destination. This credit card… Of course when we buy them, they do not magically transform us into beautiful, successful, satisfied human beings with shiny kitchens. Unsatisfied by ourselves, we remain open to the next suggestion about the trainers, deodorant, make of car that can save us from ourselves.

Alongside this, we are persuaded to buy things for the kind of person we want to be, or want other people to believe we are. We buy the yoga clothes and the pilates ball. The frozen smoothies, the exercise bike, the DIY stuff, the cookery books for fancy dinner parties we will never host. The massive table for the fantastic dinner parties we will never host… And the things we buy do not transform us into a domestic goddess, or a sleek athlete, or anything else.

We keep consuming. We keep buying things we do not need, and that do not make us happy. We keep buying the idea that we could become the people we wish to be through our purchasing. Alongside this, we buy into the idea that our brand choices are a good expression of identity. If we wear a designer label, it means something about who we are. If we pick tango over pepsi, it’s an identity statement. Adverts are loaded with messages about how your buying choices represent you, and give signals to other people about who you are. The most basic social needs we have for love and friendship will be answered by purchasing the products that draw the right people to us.

The more unhappy we are, the more vulnerable we are to these cynical manipulations. The more energy and resources we put into trying to buy a sense of self, the less we are investing in growing something on the inside that might answer all these needs. The more obsessed we are with purchased surfaces, the less able we are to look past them and see the human beings around us.

 


Fake it until you make it?

Faking it is a complicated practice. You may find that wearing a fake persona some of the time can be very useful – as a way of dealing with the public, or with colleagues for example. A certain amount of fakeness can be necessary for achieving a professional demeanour. If it works for you and enables you to get things done, then fair enough.

Playing a role, or roles you think other people want you to play, can be exhausting. Presenting as the person you think people want you to be, because you feel that your authentic self wouldn’t be acceptable, is pretty grim. I’ve been there, and I’ve done it. I’ve tried to be nice, and helpful and kind and co-operative with all comers. I’ve also failed utterly at this and found it left me feeling miserable and isolated. I am better off dealing with people who do not need me to be mostly working to please them. I guess a certain amount of this may be inevitable in life, but the question of how much you can stomach is an important one.

If you feel (rightly or wrongly) that you true self isn’t acceptable and that you must fake your nature to get by, it can be soul destroying. It can lead to bitterness, and resenting the people who don’t have to fake it. Behind the pleasant persona, a person can be burning up with rage and frustration. This can become an array of things. It might lead to the cognitive dissonance of narcissism, with the tension between persona, and feared worst version of self becoming the basis of dreadful behaviour. It can be a way in which oppression is piled onto the oppressed, too. If you are not allowed to function as a complete person with your own feelings and needs, this can add weight to other abuses. The pressure on the oppressed to ‘act nice’ is a way of keeping people down, and powerless and silent.

Faking it for the benefit of someone else may well be a very bad idea for your own wellbeing.

I think it all works very differently if you want to be other than you are. Pretending to be a certain way helps build habits and patterns of behaviour, and most of what we do is habit. Wanting to live a certain way by faking the habit until it becomes your normal life is a reasonable way to get things done. Faking attributes and virtues that you want to have, until they truly become part of who you are, can be a good way of making change. There’s an interplay between who we are and what we do. The person who wants to change who they are can get a lot done by changing what they do in-line with what they aspire to be.

I’ve done this around the issue of patience. I was not a naturally patient person. I’ve spent a lot of years faking it. I’m a more patient person than I was. I feel good about this because it’s a change I sought.

Our first responses aren’t always our best ones. We can react from experience, from family stories and cultural norms to think, feel and do things we don’t like. There’s nothing inauthentic about wanting to change. If the change is really about you, then you’ll feel good about making it, even when it gets challenging. If the change is about appeasing other people, it may always chafe, or make you miserable, and it probably needs questioning. Unless your nature inclines you to hurt and harm other people, you shouldn’t need to fake an identity for the sake of those around you.


Playing a role

We all play roles in our lives in deliberate ways. We have work roles, family roles, social roles, community roles. Where we take these on consciously and deliberately, they can be wholly functional and useful. However, we can also occupy roles that other people have cast us in, and we may unconsciously play out roles we’ve created for ourselves. When this second kind of role playing occurs, it can make a sense of authentic self, and forming genuine relationships very difficult.

One of the things that makes playing a role problematic is that those of us doing it will assume what we are doing is normal and reasonable. We seldom come to this alone. We may be playing the role our family, or our culture has ascribed us. We may be replicating stories handed down from our ancestors – and not even the most recent ones. If we think what we’re doing is the only thing a person could do, we won’t notice it. Recognising that roles have been given and people are expecting each other to play them can be difficult.

Roles become a problem when they have rigid boundaries and do not allow us to grow or change. Roles like victim, aggressor, saviour, martyr, doormat, useless one, the problem, the one who is always wrong… are relentless. You can’t be a complete and happy person when stuck in one of those roles. Often these can come in clusters – a family cluster might give you one saviour parent, one martyr parent, one useless child and one problem child, for example. We can spend our lives playing that kind of dynamic out and passing it on to the next generation.

People who cast themselves in specific roles – the victim, the one who is always right, the one everyone must love – need other players to compliment their role and maintain the story. Victims often need both aggressors and rescuers. The person who is always right will need scapegoats who are always wrong. People often don’t realise that they’re repeatedly playing out the same basic story and just drawing new people into the supporting roles.

Over the next few blog posts I’m going to be exploring ways of looking at the stories we might have written ourselves into, or unwittingly been drawn into, or cast in from birth. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and challenging core stories about who we are and the roles we play can be deeply uncomfortable stuff. We may not like what we find, and dealing with it probably won’t be easy. So, bring cake and blankets and be patient with yourself if this is a relevant journey to take.