Trigger warning: Frank discussion of abuse and anorexia.
I feel ugly. I’m not actually ugly to a lot of people, I just feel like I am. It’s a feeling. It’s not a belief, or a mood, or a chosen perspective. Rather, it’s a complex series of filters that get between reality and the way I judge myself. See, I’m actually very positive about my self-image these days. But I grew up with a crossed eye. I also grew up being severely abused by a guy who tortured a baby to death.
As a child, I was the victim of ritual torture. At the time, I viewed the events of my childhood as normal. Just part of my everyday life. I was desensitized to abuse, and was present during my daily torture as part of a routine. I was beaten because I had a crossed eye. I was beaten because I was fat. I was beaten because I had a sunburn. I was beaten because I tried to stop other people from being beaten. I was beaten when I cried. I was beaten when I spoke. I was beaten when I played. I was beaten because I was simply alive, unwanted, and in the way.
I was starved, locked inside small places, and told I should just die; that I was useless. I’ve had my skin torn open by a whip made from a piece of lawn chair. I’ve had my face held over a barbecue grill. I’ve had jalapeño peppers shoved into my nose. I’ve been beaten with piñata sticks, fly swatters, chairs, wire hangers… I’ve had my cheeks pinched for hours until they were swollen and bleeding. The whole time I was called, “fat”, “ugly”, “queer”, “stupid”…
I was humiliated, molested, burned, frozen, drowned, punched, kicked, and forced to witness the rape of my mother. I’ve seen things. Terrible things that would break your heart. Things which after all I’ve said so far, are worse. But I just stood there. Never felt it. Waited for it all to end. But it didn’t. I was rarely afraid, at least outwardly. I was detached. I also never felt love as a child.
Ugly people don’t deserve love, I was told through action, again and again by everybody I knew or met. I was bad because I was ugly. I was abused, neglected, and/or segregated by my mother, my father figure, my brother and his friends, my peers in school, strangers at the store or at my mother’s church. I was surrounded by degrading sympathy, fear, or anger. People saw me and hid their children from me, whispering things like “don’t stare”. I was once thrown out of a church by a preacher, just because of the way I looked. He said I was an agent of the devil. To this day, people cross the road when they see me coming. I agree that I am an intimidating person. I’ve been told that I scare people. I’ve been rejected and ostracized; shunned and stigmatized.
So yes, I feel ugly. As a result of my upbringing, I developed two abnormal conditions: Complex PTSD, and Anorexia nervosa. This means two major things for me:
1. I usually feel like I’m being attacked.
2. I feel like my body can never be good enough.
Fast forward to me at 37.
Most days I wake up, and have to convince myself I’m not the ugliest person in the whole entire world. I have to convince myself that it’s better to eat than to starve. I have to regulate my exercise so that I’m not overdoing it. I have to convince myself that I’m not constantly under threat. I have to convince myself there isn’t a sniper waiting to shoot me when I close my bedroom curtains or bathroom blinds at night. In truth, I usually duck under the window and close things from underneath. I have to convince myself that sounds from radiators aren’t the voices of my neighbors conspiring to kill me in my sleep.
I don’t sleep well. I don’t have sweet dreams. I don’t inherently see it as friendly when you want to hang out with me. I have to scan through and analyze and determine motive in everything.
I like my body. When I say I feel ugly, it’s not that I actually believe that I am ugly. On average, I feel average. I work out. I train in martial arts. I’m funny. I have a nice smile. I care about others. In general, I’m attractive. Women who I think are drop-dead gorgeous have told me they think I’m hot. A lot of men who I think are well-built have said they wish they could have my build. I don’t see it. All I see in the mirror is a warped and monstrous form. I feel like a monster. My body isn’t the problem. The way I’m programmed to judge my worth is the problem.
Think about it.
That’s what we do. We look into a mirror, and reflect. We reflect on the image we see. Only we don’t see the bigger picture. We see whatever version of ourselves we wish to see, or are conditioned to see, or are afraid to see.
A mirror reflects a filtered view of who we are on the surface. We let that image move through our eyes and be shaped by our brains, our minds, our beliefs, our instincts, our conditioning, our prejudices, our politics and religions, our beauty standards, our stigmas and taboos.
What we actually see after all this filtering can never be the whole truth. It is an interpretation of one segment of a version of the truth. One version out of infinite potentials.
What makes it inside, what survives and gets soaked into the core of our being, is only ever a small part of the bigger picture.
That’s us, reflecting on ourselves. You can see how many things can get lost in translation. You can discern how many aspects can be missed; how many truths overlooked, and the infinite layering of falsehoods that can be added along the way.
And that’s just the surface. An image. Even if it were the bigger picture, it would still only be the surface.
I used to starve myself for days in order to satisfy my perception of myself. I wanted to be attractive. I wanted to not feel guilty about my appearance. I wanted to stop feeling like killing myself for being ugly. I HATED myself. I hated fatness and fat people, and my own fat body. Hated and feared.
I was prejudiced against myself.
And if I could feel that way about myself, even though I know better, imagine how much easier it is for me to think these thoughts about other people.
Reflect on how easy it is to develop and maintain unwarranted prejudice.
Imagine how simple it is, for somebody who’s never experienced mental illness to oversimplify mental illness. Imagine how convenient to categorize it, and lock it up somewhere out of view; and then throw rocks at it when it speaks out.
It is easy. And it is sad. We’re mean. Unintentionally mean. Or mean on purpose. Mean sometimes when we’re trying to be kind.
I want things to change. And that starts with my own prejudice. That’s something I can address in small ways.
I don’t expect to change overnight, but I think I can do better. I think we all can. I think each and every person, individually, can do better. Being kind to yourself is better. Dropping the stigma is better. Hoping and working for understanding is better. You don’t have to have all the answers. You can’t have them. But you can pay attention to context instead of generalizing.
Think about how hard it can be to understand yourself, and then apply that to your understanding of others. Is there a chance you’re misinterpreting? Isn’t it only fair to yourself to reevaluate?
I feel ugly, and maybe I am. Maybe you are too. But that will never be the whole story.
Byron Hamel is a writer, producer, award-winning journalist, and 80s Ninja, living in Manitoba, Canada. Follow him @byronhamel on Twitter.