It’s really lucky I live alone because if someone was within a 20 metre radius of me today I’d quite likely inflict serious physical harm on them.
I am angry.
I am trying to calm down because I need to finish writing this training module and Angry Kat is not exactly the ideal author of guidelines on how create effective therapeutic relationships with young people.
I am angry about several things that are all related to one thing: the body. There are a few key issues which will each warrant a discrete post of their own. I have tried to draft a couple, but they are just angry rants which tend to miss the point so I will come back to them later. Each of them are connected to the contention that our understanding of the body is deeply problematic.
Today I will gloss over some things that have made me want to punch society, but this is really only a segue into the focus of this post, which is to suggest a more constructive way of measuring our own worth.
So the tipping point for me has been that I am really fucking sick of people commenting on my body. Not just the obscene bullshit that men offer when a woman is walking in public spaces (which, I might add, has a whole post of its own when I stop wanting to stab someone each time I try to think about the issue), but also the uninvited commentary from every other source.
It’s the people who tell me I am looking too thin. My best friend is about ready to attack the next person who says this to me: 'All the shit you have going on in your life and people who are meant to be your friends manage to find something bad to say to you? Tell them to, "Get fucked”'.
While I get angry at people telling me I am too thin, I know it’s not about me. I am not actually too thin. Yes, I am at the lower end of the BMI but I am not underweight and I always eat well. Those people aren’t commenting on me being too thin, they’re telling me that how someone’s body looks is of significant importance. And that part doesn’t make me angry but it does make me sad.
The commentary also comes from women at yoga who declare that they’d love to look like I do in our hotpants. I know that’s a compliment. But it kinda makes me feel bad. They’re lovely. Most of them are mums; most of them are older than me. I remind them of this. I remind them that their bodies made babies which is a much greater feat than anything my body's ever done. I point out that their bodies are fit and healthy (as evidenced by the fact that they just completed 90 mins of Bikram yoga). But they still feel like their bodies are not ‘right’. They feel like this because society has told them that the ‘right’ body is long and lean and free from stretch-marks and cellulite and any other sign of use.
Sometimes I want to tell them that some days my body isn’t as healthy as theirs because the medicine for the brain tumor I have makes me sick and faint. I want to tell them that when my abs are really visible it’s because the stress in my life has increased my metabolism to the point that I can eat anything and continue to lose weight. I want to tell them that I try really hard to avoid unnecessary stress because stress makes the tumor grow and if that happens I might lose my vision and my fertility. I want to tell them this not to make them feel guilty, but to demonstrate that bodies that might look ‘right’ aren’t necessarily working right. I want to remind them that they are healthy and their kids are healthy and that that’s far more important than how they look in hotpants.
I don’t tell them this because they won’t make them feel better about their body it will just make them feel guilty. Me telling them this will not take away the fact that every single aspect of society has a view on how they should look and this affects you. If you hear enough times that stretch marks mean you are ugly then eventually, you are going to feel ugly.
Yes, health and fitness are very important to me. But that’s because if I ever have kids I want to be able to play with them. It's because I spent the first 12 months of my PhD walking around campus trying not to vomit or faint because they hadn't yet found a treatment option that my body could tolerate. It’s because when I sit in my endocrinologist’s waiting room I see lots of people with very severe diabetes whose quality of life is dismal. I don’t want that to be me so I do what I can to prevent becoming diabetic. Yes, vanity also plays a part, but my body shape will not be the impact I make in my time on earth.
So I am angry about leering men and people who feel it okay to make comments about my body. I am dismayed that wonderful women feel despair about their very good bodies. I have been wondering why we are so inclined to comment on how someone looks and not on who they are.
Why don’t people use descriptive terms such as ‘kind’, ‘loyal’, ‘virtuous’, ‘courageous’, ‘caring’ or ‘compassionate’ to describe others? I know sometimes we do, but it’s less common. And often when these are the first descriptors of someone it’s a bit of a back-handed compliment. When there is no comment on someone’s physical appearance, with attention to their character traits instead, the implication is that they are unattractive (“She is personality plus” is a turn of phrase we’d all have heard to imply a woman is unattractive).
Regardless of whether they are complimentary or not, when everyday comments are focused on appearance, not personal qualities, this teaches us, and our children, that how we look is more important. But looking good does not make someone a good person. It tells us nothing of a person’s character. So rather than give you an angry rant or to sit here exasperated with the state of humanity, I want to suggest better ways that we could measure our own worth. Maybe doing this ourselves will encourage other to also.
So as I highlighted above, I am writing a training module. I have been drawing a fair bit from a form of psychotherapy called ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)’. I really like this approach to therapy because it is not symptom-focused. Instead of trying to understand symptoms and treating them, it instead focus on helping people to accept that in life, there is pain. Suffering is also a part of life, but the extent to which one suffers is something over which they can exert some control. Another key part of ACT is getting individuals to identify their core values and to then commit to living a life that is consistent with these values. I am over-simplifying, but this is enough to illustrate the general gist. Essentially, ACT teaches people to be better people, and a consequence of this is that their symptoms dissipate.
Russ Harris (2009), who has authored many books on ACT, explains that in order to help individuals identify their values, there is a focus on existential questions such as:
What do you want to stand for in life?
What really matters, deep in your heart?
What do you want to be remembered for at your funeral?
Did you answer any of these questions with ‘How my body looks’? I didn't.
Maybe we should start to describe people by their traits—by what they stand for. I think that when we start to pay more attention to that in others, we’ll start to be more conscious of it in ourselves. When we start to measure our value by who we are, not how we look, we will be much better people living much more meaningful lives.