Friday, January 7, 2011

With my image in my eyes: My story of my body

Trigger Warning For Eating Disorders, Diet Talk, traumatic events related to sexual assault and verbal and physical abuse, and Fat Hatred

Recently on Tumblr, I began following a tumblog called "stophatingyourbody" (link here I've been feeling happy and relieved reading all the stories of young women coming to terms with self esteem and body image issues, declaring their love for their bodies in a world that actively encourages self-criticism and disciplining of women's bodies.
It began working into my brain's gears on how my own body image issues affect me, and as I thought more about the topic, I wondered how my disabilities affected my self-image and outlook on my body and beauty. This post is the result of that. It's not particularly elegant, but it is my story. I feel that it is particularly important because when I googled "autism self image", very little came up on the issue of women's bodily love and how to nurture it.
I've noticed a lot of people, really, people who should know better, think that women and girls with autism don't suffer from the same issues with bodily image issues that neurotypical women and girls do. They think that we are immune to messages from the media, comments whispered about our appearance, and expectations to fulfil a certain measure of feminine beauty.
But autism is not my only disability, and autistic women and girls do not live in a vacuum. Many disabilities intersect, and today I'd like to talk about how, when it comes to body image and beauty, some disabilities of mine aren't all that invisible.
Along with autism, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which manifests itself in overlapping ways with my autism: Repetitive, ritualistic behaviour defines much of my daily existence, in little ways which mean the world to me, but go unnoticed by the casual observer. If I were to describe all the little ways my world is different due to my rituals and compulsions, we'd be here all day, so I'll skip it. However, I will not deny that this attention to detail and need for order and symmetry has affected my relationship with my body image and aesthetics related to beauty. More details on that later into this post.
Another disability which makes an impact on my life and outlook is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which manifested during my teen years due to a combination of things: Childhood physical abuse due to my own father's struggling with his Vietnam War PTSD, several episodes of sexual abuse from several perpetrators throughout my preteen and teen years, and severe emotional abuse coupled with threats of physical abuse by an adult in my life with lots of power over my life. PTSD has probably changed me more than my other disabilities, simply because, unlike OCD and autism, which have been facts of life since I was a child, this is all new to me. Even though it's manifested since I was a teenager, it was only recently that I learned to recognize it for what it was, give it a name, and decide to do something to cope and contend with it. Part of my personally prescribed therapy with dealing with PTSD is to talk about how it's changed me. The sexual assaults in particular altered my body image and how I interacted with people romantically and sexually.
So, in the words of blogger shark-fu: Shall we then?
Autism and OCD mean, at least as far as I can tell, that compared to neurotypical individuals, I have a greater attention to detail and can pick out irregularities in patterns and notice minute things amiss with the naked eye. Before puberty, this meticulous outlook was directed primarily at external forces: The water was too cold, the glass beads had curious streaks in them, or the book's pages didn't add up to a perfect halves when you opened the book to its centre, there were more red berries than blue berries in my bowl of fruit, or my peas are touching the corn.
But after puberty hit, I developed new anxieties about my body, combined with the trauma of losing my father to cancer and experiencing several sexual assaults left me feeling a new hatred for my body. I felt like my body was weak and vulnerable for being assaulted and violated in this manner. I wanted to hide, to become invisible. I didn't want to face my assailants, which proved difficult, as the assaults were something I kept to myself out of fear and confusion.
My method of avoiding those who hurt me took many forms, but they changed my eating habits: One assaulter was a student at my school, so I took to skipping lunch almost entirely, or eating it hastily so I could leave early to avoid him. This meant frequently coming home hungry, and fixing myself a late snack to compensate for the lost meal. One of the others was an adult, a "friend of the family" who frequently did home repairs at my house. To avoid him, I often went out of the house to get ice cream, or fetch some gum or candy at the corner store, or go to McDonald's.
This did more than comfort me while fearfully avoiding contact: It caused the assaults to stop. I grew plump and the tormentors quickly lost interest in me. However, it opened up new problems with my body, because my weight gain (Of about 40 pounds, according to a doctor's note I read later in life) did not go unnoticed by my very image-conscious mother. She was greatly angered by my weight gain, and I can vividly remember her calling me "fat as a pig", bullying me about my food choices, and making mocking "suck suck" noises whenever I drank a glass of milk, calling me a "fatted calf" for my affinity for milk.
This caused a deterioration to my self esteem, and I was plagued by guilt for not living up to my mother's expectations. I began worrying constantly about my size, a topic which I had never given consideration before. This was further aggravated by my classmates at the time, who also noticed my weight gain and were malicious about it, making nasty comments about my body just loud enough for me to overhear.
For the first time in my life, I began seriously contemplating my looks negatively, and obsession began creeping into how I looked at my body. I began putting a thick film of mineral oil on every drink I consumed, which acted as a laxative. I took long walks in the heat while wearing baggy black clothing, which maximized sweating. On these walks I would bring a portable CD player and headphones so that I could distract myself from the sensation of sweat running down my body. I obeyed my mother and watched TV while pedalling an exercise bike. And my picky eating from childhood returned, limiting my diet to blueberries, dill pickles, and lots of iced tea, supplemented with occasional bites of chicken and lots of sprouts soaked in Italian dressing. I also took to giving up my lunch time at school, out of fear of my mother's anger if I ate, and I spent my time pacing the halls instead, counting steps and memorizing the details of tress on campus and trying to remember the Latin and Hawaiian names of the various plant life.
The results are as you might expect: My obsession made the weight come off, but it did not fix my newfound fixation with my body's imperfections. If anything, it amplified them. The comfortable layer of fat which guarded me from unwanted contact was gone, and I felt naked and vulnerable without it, but I was still not yet perfect enough. Also, around that time, I got a boyfriend, my very first. He adored my physical features, but he was extremely judgemental and nasty to me in other areas, meaning that I lost even more weight because I was so fearful of his criticism, and succumbed to stress related starvation. At that point, I went down to about 155, which is far too light for someone of my height and build.
I stopped consuming the laxative mineral oil after a few months, when I noticed there was blood in the toilet. That shocked me enough to get me to lay off of it for good. But my hatred of my body continued in self criticism. However, my mother had let up on the criticism, pleased with my frail new build. Whenever she saw me, she would greet me with a cheerful, "Hey skinny!" meaning to compliment me. She took me clothes shopping, always talking about how pretty and skinny I was. This did not help my self esteem, I instead reeled inside, angry that she was obsessing over my body, feeling naked and triggered, because she was using the same syrupy, simpering language that my adult molester had used towards me. It sickened me, and I felt dizzy and frightened whenever she did diet talk or used the words "pretty", "lovely", "slender", or "skinny" at me. So I lost even more off my body, stressed like never before, feeling constantly violated by her words and my boyfriend's criticism of me.
But it all came to a screeching halt upon my first full on panic attack. I ended up in the hospital, and went on anti-anxiety medication. The medication put some meat on my bones, and beefed up my appetite. I went from consuming olive oil and water with tomatoes to eating full meals again. So I went up from 155 to the 200+ zone, where I remain today at 230. The weight gain however, angered my mother again, and when I came home for the summer, she screamed at me for being so fat, screeching that I was going to die of diabetes, and that I looked disgusting. Her screaming finally cracked something in me, but instead of having a panic attack or a meltdown, I stood up and told her I wasn't going to tolerate her being so awful to me anymore. Since then, her and I don't talk much, and we have a strained relationship. Just thinking about all the awful things she said about me makes me "fizzle" where I have to hit something, and begin shaking violently. In short term, remembering her fat hatred triggers me just as badly as memories of my past molestations do, if not more.
Since then, I have found a new partner who loves my fat body. I have found self confidence in myself and I am able to comfortably engage in sexual activity and be complimented on my body without being triggered. I have discovered Health At Every Size , and Fat Acceptance. I have learned to manage my PTSD, by talking with sympathetic people who believe me (very important, nobody in my family except my sister believed me at first when I told them) and listen to my anxieties. And I have discovered ways to joyfully practice my rituals. They bring calm and peace to me in a world of calamity, and need not be rooted in hate, but in serenity.
Just as fat hatred and talks of diet are inexorably intersecting with my PTSD, anxiety, and frightening triggers, acceptance of my disabilities became tied into acceptance of my body. I consider both to be a part of me, and I do not try to manipulate them to fit the ideal of society. Fat and disability intersect in many ways, and accepting both means an end to suffering needlessly over both. Disabled people who are fat face a double edged sword of disablism and fatphobia, and women and girls with autism are no different. We just as readily absorb hateful ways as neurotypical girls. My hope is that by sharing my story, this truth is realized, and people reconsider how they think about autistic women and girls and how to nurture their self esteem. We need to be encouraged to see ourselves as beautiful just as much as neurotypical girls, lest a distorted image of ugliness creep in.


  1. Wow, Leah Jane, this is a really, really wonderful post. I think it might be one of your best, at least of your recent posts.

    Well done!

  2. Thank you Lindsay!
    I poured a lot of emotion into this one. I think that is what works best for me. Just being honest and candid about my life experiences. I should do it more often.