“I think perhaps self-harm is something that never leaves your blood.”

Trigger warning for vivid descriptions of self-harm

I think perhaps self-harm is something that never leaves your blood. I no longer think of myself as someone who self-harms; it’s been a long time since I took apart a razor and longer – years – since I took one to my flesh. And yet as I sit here, my cuticles are ragged from tearing at them with my teeth in times of anxiety, I can see the ghosts of tooth marks on my arm where, months ago now, I bit myself so hard I almost drew blood. And it isn’t so long at all since the last time I let myself be overtaken by impotent rage and pummelled myself with my fists.

I have a cut on my hand just now, which was an accident. But feeling the pain as I press on it, and watching the miraculous day-to-day knitting together of flesh, makes me remember how very, very good it can feel to open up your own skin. It makes me remember the pain which can be controlled, second to second. It makes me remember my flesh crying tears of blood. The subsequent empty numbness and shame which is somehow so much better than the feeling that my very veins will explode with the rage and pain boiling inside them.

Sometimes there is nowhere else for pain to go. Sometimes pain has to become real before it can dissipate. When I used to cut myself, when I bite myself, hit myself, it’s a loss of control. And yet at the same time it’s making something manageable. It’s taking a feeling that I can’t articulate or push away and it’s making it into something concrete, a singular moment of pain that I can understand. I suppose it isn’t healthy, and it’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t feel that urge. It’s something you’re not supposed to talk about. The marks can be hard to hide, but you have to try and hide them because people will ask. And the truth isn’t the right answer. When people ask about my old scars on my thighs, I usually simply tell them, “Those are old.” It’s not an answer but it is, and usually they leave it at that. It’s easier when it’s something you used to do. There is no good explanation that doesn’t cause concern and embarrassment all round when someone asks about current injuries. “Oh that? I got angry one day and I bit myself till I bruised.” No one knows what to say to that, and I don’t want to put them in that position. And I know how mad it sounds when I say the words out loud.

Physical pain can be understood and dealt with right away, right in that moment where it happens. Emotional pain can spring up all over again, months and years after whatever caused it in the first place, and you can’t control it. When you cut yourself or bite yourself, it hurts exactly as much as you want it to. The purity of it is gorgeous, cause and effect of pain that can be managed there and then. When you have that pain to focus on, it isn’t confusing and multifaceted and incomprehensible. It is right there. It is real. Sometimes you just need to feel something you can understand.

Just the other day, I stopped myself from biting myself in anger and upset. My arm was at my lips, my mouth was open, and I stopped myself. I didn’t want to. I wanted to feel that pain, that instant moment of release. I wanted my anger to be channelled into something and I knew that, for a moment, it would help. What stopped me wasn’t a desire not to hurt myself, but the thought of the bruises that take so long to fade, and the toothmarks for which there is no adequate explanation. It wasn’t out of resistance to my own weakness that I stopped myself; it was out of embarrassment at being thought weak by others. People don’t talk about this very often. It is the preserve of the angsty teenager, the young person who can’t handle their emotions. Adults don’t lose control like that.

But we do. It is over ten years since the first time I remember hurting myself in anger. I remember vividly the boiling urge, sitting at the computer in my mum’s dining room, and running my long fingernails down my neck, hard. I remember the claw marks and wearing polo necks in June. I remember getting better at hiding it. Because the shame I feel of the fresh marks is still the same now as when I was 14. The way I feel right before I do it is still the same as when I was 14.

I hurt myself a lot less now than when I was a teenager, but the way it feels has never really changed. The boiling, burning desire; the momentary bliss; the ensuing shame. I am someone who can experience pain in a positive way as well. When I have enjoyed being tattooed, or play-piercing, or some kinky sex, it has never been about self-loathing or anger, but about the sensuous experience of controlled pain, and for me that is totally separate from the urges I can experience to hurt myself. Those are things I have done in a healthy state of mind, and not snap losses of control. I entered into them freely, to feel and experience them in a joyful way. When I hurt myself in anger or sadness, it is a totally different thing. There can be a tendency to conflate enjoying some kind of pain with the desire to self-harm, but that isn’t true for me and I suspect it isn’t for many other people as well. The pain of self-harm is almost incidental – it is a lot more about the emotional release. The pain is a tool to control my emotions, not the goal in itself.

I know that this is rambling and perhaps it seems self-indulgent. But I hope that someone reads it and recognises themselves, and feels less alone.

– a 25-year-old woman

“I try to love and respect my body no matter what I weigh.”

My body and I have had a love/hate relationship for as long as I can remember. I remember when I was younger hating my body because it was different than the other girls. I was short and stubby. My mother would tell me to stand up and suck in, so as not to seem so fat. Around third grade is when I realized, I could change the way I look. By third grade, I started off my first course of bad dieting. Eating carrots, soup, and crackers for months at a time. I equated losing weight to being happy. When I lost weight, I felt great. People would comment on how good I looked or how pretty I looked. Eventually, though, I would gain the weight again, starting the whole process over again.

The time that affected me the most, though, was just a couple of years ago. I was a sophomore and junior in college. I was already a vegan, but I decided that being vegan wasn’t enough to lose weight. At the point, I started eating less and less. I would eat a banana for breakfast, gum for lunch, and iceberg lettuce for dinner. I continued to work out. I quickly noticed my body starting to change, but I still wasn’t happy. No matter what the scale told me, I found myself hating my body and who I had become more and more. This sadness oozed out into my everyday life. I found that I couldn’t connect with people anymore. I couldn’t have fun partying or doing random things with friends.

I hit rock bottom when my doctor explained to me that I was ruining my chances of ever having a child. I had lost my period the beginning of sophomore year and had never gotten it back because I was lacking too many nutrients. At that point, I decided to see a counselor.

This was a changing point for me. While you always hear “love your body” and “you are beautiful”, you never really come to understand how reality is distorted by things such as music videos, magazines, the internet, etc. Everywhere around us, we are bombarded with pictures of women who seem so happy. They are thin, tan, and beautiful. Psychologists sometimes like to call it the halo effect. The halo effect is the assumption that persons who are beautiful are perfect. They have great friends, they’re nicer, smarter, etc. That is what I was attempting to do. I was attempting to become beautiful in my body, so that I could achieve this sense of perfection. If I had a beautiful body, then maybe I would have a happier life.

Nowadays, I realize that this mindset was not going to work out. The way my body looked didn’t have to affect my happiness. I could control that. Since that point I saw the counselor and on, I have still struggled with my body. Now, though, I try to love and respect my body no matter what I weigh. I cherish my friends, family, and experiences in life. I understand that I’m beautiful no matter what my body looks like. There is so much more to me. I’m not saying I have all the right answers, but I think I’m off to a good start with my body.

“My body tells a story; not a story of a victim but one about a survivor.”

*Trigger warning for rape/sexual assault/self-harm/anorexia*

I’ve always been slightly proud of my body.

I’m gay, I have a very liberal attitude to sex and sexuality (I actually work in an erotic boutique!) and, while I’ve never thought my body was ideal, I know that I’m slim and I have nice boobs and a nice be-hind. I’m confident and comfortable in my own skin. It ain’t perfect, but it’s the only one I’ve got so I might as well love it.

I was sexually assaulted and then raped. My initial reaction was to not think about it. To bury it in the recesses of my mind and, essentially, run away, made sense.
I became anorexic and started self-harming. This was because these people, who had taken advantage of me, had so much control over me; even now, when I’ve not seen them for years, they control so much of my life.

I used to be bisexual – now I couldn’t consider having an intimate relationship with a man.

Sometimes, I’d be in a perfectly good mood, when BOOM, I’d start to cry, or to have a panic attack.

Starving or harming myself were forms of control: people who have hurt me controlled my sexuality, my emotions, whether I felt strong enough to out of bed in the morning. I had control over my weight and my physical pain.

I had all these scars over me, and I was dangerously thin. I hated my body. I looked in the mirror and loathed what I saw: a scrawny, scratched and scarred girl. Not the strong confident woman I knew and wanted to be.

Through counselling, support from friends, and learning to accept what happened to me, I got better. It took time and there were so many times I just wanted to give up, but I got better.

Through counselling, I learned not to put what happened behind me or to forget about it, but to confront it, accept it, and move on with it. I now see it as something which shaped me into the strong, confident, compassionate, caring person I am.
And that includes my body. I still use bio-oil to reduce the scars, and I’m no longer underweight, but I love my scars. My body tells a story; not a story of a victim but one about a survivor. Someone who was close to death, who cut herself and who punished her body and nearly gave up on everything and everyone, but didn’t.

My scars say: “remember that time, and be thankful for this time”. They say “you’re a strong, confident woman; you’re not that girl any more”. But most of all, they say “well done”.

“All the things I loved in my body before him, and all the new things he made me love, were tainted now by the memory of his touch and the pain of its loss.”

I’ve written here before but I wanted to again because I’ve been thinking about my body a lot recently. My body and mind have both been in flux and it’s been confusing and made me think about a lot of things.

About three months ago, my heart was broken by a man I thought loved me. And heartbreak raised all kinds of issues. Suddenly, my body felt so alone. Alone, and still, everywhere, covered by him. I took to sleeping with my arms and legs wrapped around a pillow, to feel something against me except the emptiness left by him. He was gone, and my body ached for him. Not sexually, because my mind had retreated from sex – from the crushing reality that I wouldn’t be having sex with him any more – but emotionally. All the things I loved in my body before him, and all the new things he made me love, were tainted now by the memory of his touch and the pain of its loss. I couldn’t touch my own body, smell my own scent, without remembering how he had loved it. I still so badly wanted my body to belong to him that it didn’t feel like mine any more.

My appetite faded and I lost weight. I’m thinner now than I was before – not underweight but slimmer. People keep telling me I look really good. I feel ambivalent every time someone tells me that, because I was perfectly happy with my body before and in no way thought I was fat. I feel conflicted in myself when I look in the mirror, enjoying my flatter stomach and then asking myself why I’m buying into that ideal, why I like having a flatter stomach when I didn’t think it was fat before. I still have a big arse – I hope I’ll always have a big arse – but it’s smaller than it was before and I don’t want to lose any more weight. What I see in the mirror varies with my mood. Sometimes, when I feel lonely and unlovable, when – even though I don’t want him back now – I wish he was still here, these breasts seem too small, too saggy, these bags under my eyes jump out at me, this new, flatter stomach is still too pudgy. And then sometimes, when I’m jumping around my bedroom to this song and I’m happy and I’m in my body and I’m feeling like I fucking rock – then I look in the mirror and I know I’m fucking beautiful.

My mind has been so up and down, and my body changing. But I think my mind is on the up these days, and my body finally feels like mine again. I can think of sex now without missing him, I can masturbate and enjoy my body and my mind and a sexual world without him in it. I miss him, or I miss closeness, sometimes when I’m sad. But my body is my own. I want sex again, I want to feel my body against another, I want to enjoy discovering someone.

Another issue this has been raising a lot in my mind recently is that, now I’m single again, sometimes I wonder where I’ll find someone else who doesn’t care that I don’t shave my armpits. I know that anyone who cares is someone I don’t want to be with, but the thought can’t help but cross my mind. It was a choice I made for myself but being with someone who liked it made that choice easier – if I’m being totally honest, it might have been what made the choice possible for me in the first place, although I’m not about to go back on it now.

Sometimes when I’m out in a club and I’m dancing, I catch people staring, nudging their friends to point out the mad hairy woman over there. I love having hairy armpits and, while I can’t deny there is an element of making a political point about it, this is the way I like them. It doesn’t hurt as such when I catch people looking. It makes me a little angry, although I do understand why they look. But it also awakens this socially-inculcated fear that most people find my body disgusting. That I might meet a lovely man at a party and be having a lovely conversation, flirting away, and then reach up to get something and turn around to find him running in disgust and horror from my horrifying armpits.

I know that’s ridiculous. But it’s also not completely ridiculous. The beauty norms of our society make me – I think make all of us – feel the need to justify those things which are “abnormal”. And my hairy armpits are, by societal standards, abnormal. They are an abnormal choice that I’ve made, a choice which is bound up with various implications in people’s minds – dirty, hippie, man-hating… – and even though I love them, I still sometimes feel self-conscious. To put it bluntly, I worry I won’t get laid. Not that I’d want to fuck anyone who gave a shit about my armpit hair – but the idea that someone might find me unattractive because of that one factor of my appearance does cross my mind and it does hurt.

I guess this is all a part of coming back into my own body. It’s partly sexual frustration, partly the normal fear of being alone forever that surfaces when we find ourselves single against our will. It’s a big part societal norms that I’ve absorbed even though I consciously reject them. It’s the memory of shaving my armpits for the first time after some girls made fun of me on the bus to PE when I was thirteen. But I’m not on the PE bus now (thank fucking Christ) – I’m twenty-three now, and I love my hairy armpits, and someone else will too.

I’m so glad to be back in touch with my body. It’s no longer a site of too many memories of happiness gone sour; it’s a site of happy memories to come. It’s a place I’m living in again. I look in the mirror and it’s all mine; it’s not missing anything by not being next to his.

by Hannah

“Some days I think I’m skinny, some days I think I’m fat – but importantly, most days, I don’t care.”

Throughout my teenage years I had all the usual hangups, worrying that I was fat or oddly shaped. I wasn’t, I was a size 12-14 with great proportions – I look back at photos and think my body looked amazing, and that I was foolish for not appreciating how little trouble my body gave me then, but hindsight is 20:20. Four unhappy years at university down the line and I’m somewhere between size 14 and 18 depending where I shop, and the shape of my body has changed, probably forever. This is a story with a somewhat happy ending (although it’s not really over of course – instead of an ending we’ll call it an ongoing), but first I’m going to take a tour of the main issues I’ve had with my body over the years.

Stretch marks

When I first put on weight I was distraught, not particularly at being bigger, but at the irreparable changes my body had gone through – the long, red, angry looking stretch marks that snaked their way up my belly, right at the front, making me embarrassed to be naked even around long term partners and saddened that I’d probably never wear a bikini or certain types of clothes again. Aged 14 I developed long horizontal stretch marks across my back, it looked like I had been whipped, but they’re faded now except in certain lights and I never really cared that much about something I couldn’t see anyway. While the stretch marks elsewhere on my body felt like a natural part of growing, these stomach scars felt like some kind of awful punishment – for being greedy, for being lazy, for being unhappy, for being stupid enough to let them grow in the first place – every kind of self critical thought you can imagine. Weight can be lost and gained and lost again, but stretch marks are forever.

I felt like I’d blown my only chance to have a good body while I was young, before life and age and babies. I felt I could accept those processes of life as normal, but my body felt abnormal. No matter what size and shape my body is in the future, those marks will be there. They aren’t forever in the way that I convinced myself they were though – over time I’ve continued to put on weight and they have continued to spread, but the marks that bothered me so much before are now silver or white, and the new ones are slowly losing their redness too. I find, for some bizarre magical reason that I’ll never understand, that they seem a whole lot less visible and less prominent when I’m aroused – I don’t question it, I just allow it to boost my confidence. And the way I feel about them is that I am just not as bothered by them as I used to be. I’m not totally okay with them, I still sometimes cover them up when I’m otherwise naked and I’m lightyears off being comfortable enough to wear a bikini, but instead of feeling like my life is over because of them, I’m confident that they will change, concern me less, and that I can cope with them in a way I couldn’t before.

Boobs

My boobs are big, round, sensitive, squishy, they slightly sag but are easily pushed front and centre. They can get uncomfortable and sore from lugging them around all day, the skin on my nipples breaks easily, and I have chronic lower back problems that I doubt will go away, but nevertheless I like them as they are. The size of my chest has resulted in a lot of attention, mostly negative and unwanted. People make comments in the street, stare, talk endlessly about it as though it’s a topic I should find interesting, act like I couldn’t possibly know my own bra size, make presumptions about me. The one that bothers me the most is that people presume there’s something ‘obvious’ about you if you have big boobs. Like the size of a body part that you’ve never chosen or determined means you’re easy, stupid, not worth the bother, not very interesting. Sometimes people refer to me as “Boobs”, like there’s no other noteworthy qualities about me. Often my family imply that I should cover them up more, I don’t see the point. Aside from the fact that I pick clothes based on liking them and not how much of my boobs they cover, I don’t get any less comments about the size of them if I wear something high necked, and I’m not going to wear clothes I don’t like just to please other people.

Contraception

I started taking the pill when I was 16, put on weight and had stressful mood swings, so I stopped taking it. When I was 20 I got the contraceptive implant, which coincided with a bad relationship (more on that later), but it also increased my weight, I bled every single day, and the impact it had on my mood was huge, so I had it taken out after three months. I think it’s awful that we expect women to bear the burden of contraception – especially because in the process we have to make our bodies a test site for a bunch of different hormones and their various side effects that can affect our mental and physical wellbeing. I stopped using hormonal contraception because it was upsetting me, and condoms are great anyway. However, I’ve recently decided to go back on the pill, trying a different kind, because my periods are so bad. Testing the pill is a horrible, trying process of weighing up side effects and benefits – at the moment, the benefits for me outweigh the worries. I wish I didn’t have to make those choices, but I do, so hopefully I can find the right thing for me. At the moment, this uncertainty about what unpredictable changes my body might go through is my biggest source of body worries.

Self-esteem

I want to talk about how I’m more accepting of my body now than ever before, but first I’ll need to explain how I reached the peak of hating my body last year.

I’d been in a relationship with a guy for nearly a year when I found porn on his computer. It wasn’t the kind of porn where people have sex, it was the kind of porn where very large women eat food while naked or semi-naked on camera, for men to masturbate over. After finding videos on his desktop, I looked at his internet history and found that not only did he watch videos, he joined pay-to-view porn sites, wrote on forums for ‘bbws’ and ‘feeders’, joined dating sites for men to meet large women where he pretended to be single, and even met up with one woman for drinks. It wasn’t just a sexual preference, it was a fetish. Any confidence I had flew straight out the window, for my body and my mental health.

Both of us identified as feminists and I couldn’t believe he would do something like that – to me, and to the women he was objectifying. I explained how upset I was, and told him my feminist objections to porn, to the fetishisation of types of female bodies for the sake of male gratification, and to the culture of ‘feeders’ – I don’t see much difference between a man encouraging a woman to diet because he finds it sexy, and a man encouraging a woman to eat lots of food because he finds it sexy. It’s controlling and manipulative and dangerous. Whatever size a woman is should be determined by her alone, not male fantasies. He apologised, said he understood and would stop.

I didn’t have the strength or the will to leave him despite how horrified I was, because it made me ill. I felt alone, confused, trapped, anxious, depressed, incredibly paranoid, and thinking about or looking at my body felt traumatic. I double questioned every thought I had. I thought, am I fat, and is that why he finds me attractive? Or am I not fat enough for him and he wishes I was more like the women in the porn? Both options were unpleasant, and made my body repulsive to me. I found going to the shops and being seen in public a struggle, I stopped wearing tight clothes, I became paranoid about what my friends were saying about me, I hardly masturbated and when I did it was joyless, I hated myself and felt alienated from everyone else. I can’t fully describe the levels on which it played with my perception of myself and other people, it’s not something it’s possible to entirely understand and explain, I just know that it scarred deep. When months down the line I found he hadn’t stopped doing it, I knew it was a losing battle and I left him. It took a while, but I came to realise it had never been about me or my body, but about his problems and his issues with control. I was able to finally recognise the way he treated me and the things he said to me as emotionally manipulative and abusive, and I’ve never looked back.

The first couple of times I had sex after that, I covered my body, but I don’t do that any more. I was still in poor health mentally, but the sense of relief and freedom was tangible and it really lifted a lot of the pressure I felt in my head about my shape. I’m sometimes still shocked at how easily I began to be able to look in the mirror, see my body as it is and not want to cry, previously an alien concept to me. It’s not that I wouldn’t like it to be different, I’d like to be slimmer, I’d like my belly not to hang the way it does, I’d like it if I could stop crying in changing rooms when I have to get the bigger sizes and the lights are so unflattering, I’d like a lot of things. But I feel able now to look in the mirror, see what I see, and get on with my day because there’s nothing immediate I can do to change it and it is what it is. There’s nothing wrong with what it is, and anyone who wanted me to change it wouldn’t be worth my time. When I’m focusing on improving my mental health, worrying about my body feels like a waste of energy.

Sometimes, things can pop up which trigger me and put me back in that headspace where nothing made sense anymore and my body felt like a cruel joke. When I see ‘real life’ magazines with stories about feeders on the cover, when I see the TV guide and it says they’re showing “Fat Girls and Feeders”, and sometimes when I see fatpositive blogs and images of large women’s bodies on sites like tumblr, I crumble. I don’t feel that way because of the women’s bodies – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them and it pleases me when women of all sizes take ownership of their bodies and are positive about how they look – but because it reminds me of the men who abuse and fetishise large women for their own sexual pleasure, and how much damage one such man did to me.

But, time (and talking about it) heals some wounds, and I’ve come a long way from last summer when I hid in a tent and cried for hours after seeing a magazine article about feeders at a campsite. When the issue comes up, I can explain my experiences to people without wanting to melt into a puddle. And I have the wisdom of experience to know that I’m stronger than I gave myself credit for, and that what my body looks like is the least of my worries so long as I’m emotionally supported by the right kind of people, including myself. And since I’ve rediscovered masturbation, and the ability to appreciate how my own body looks and feels during it, I’ve had the best orgasms of my life. Some days I think I’m skinny, some days I think I’m fat – but importantly, most days, I don’t care. My body doesn’t haunt me the way it used to. I’ve experienced enough body changes now to know that things are never as permanent as they seem, and worries are never as important as they seem either. Of course there are times when I still berate myself for not looking a certain way, for not exercising or for what I eat, but I find those days are fewer and further between the better my mental health gets and the more accepting I am of my own feelings and experiences. A good counsellor, good friends and good sex mean the world to me right now.

Friends

Recently my best friends and I sent each other photos of our vaginas. It wasn’t sexual, we’re just generally nosy like that and like to compliment each other – we all have great fannies of course. It was a sincerely nice and funny bonding experience. Some people (particularly men) who have heard about it react fairly oddly, as if it’s the last thing in the world they would expect close friends to do. It makes me sad that most men, and a lot of women, are more likely to learn about genitals and sex through porn, with all its distortions, than through honest discussion and learning from friends. No one has helped me to appreciate and understand my body sexually more than my friends – from the friend who gave me my first orgasm, to the friends that tell me their experiences of types of sex I’ve yet to try, to the friends in primary 7 who taught me the function of the clitoris when we experimented with masturbation and reported our findings to each other. There’s no better way to learn about sex, about your body and about yourself, than to have friends that you trust and talk to and share experiences and thoughts with.