I was eleven years old the first time I was definitively told I looked wrong. I was in a science lesson and the teacher - a grey-hair, grey-suited man - asked the class who wanted to take a turn feeding the worms we’d been looking after and observing. My hand shot up, desperate for the chance to take on this responsibility. Without missing a beat my teacher said: “No Lizi, you might scare them. We’d better have someone pretty do it – come on Katie.” The class erupted into laughter as Katie stood up to perform the task for which I was deemed too unattractive.
The message that I looked “wrong” stayed with me for the next thirty years. I devoted those decades to trying to make myself invisible. I hid behind “character” clothing; heavy metal t-shirts and black boots with skull chains on them. As I grew up I changed that for a bland and unnoticeable uniform of muted colours. I dieted (and failed, and dieted and failed ad nauseum) in the hope I could stop anyone seeing how very wrong my fatter-than-average body was. I studied the hair, make-up and affectations of girls like Katie – the girls who looked “right”, and for whom, it seemed, life was easy. But of course I wasn’t Katie, I was Lizi. I wasn’t pretty enough to feed the worms: so how could I imagine I was worthy of any of the other hopes and dreams I’d buried at the back of my consciousness?
I bounced from one inappropriate boyfriend to another, willing them to tell me I was beautiful yet knowing they wouldn’t because I wasn’t. And knowing that I wasn’t worthy – that I didn’t matter – meant I subconsciously chose boys (and later men) who would reinforce this. At 15 I was told: “I can’t go out with you unless you lose some weight and straighten those teeth of yours”. At 27, on seeing my naked body for the first time, a boyfriend exclaimed: “wow, you’re a big girl!” At 30 I married a man who, it turned out, preferred the bodies of prostitutes to the body of his wife. At 34, newly single and back on the dating scene, I was informed: “you would be so pretty if you lost some weight”. And each time I felt the burning shame I’d experienced in the science lesson when I was eleven, yet knew I shouldn’t have expected any different. After all, I looked wrong. I wasn’t worthy. I didn’t matter.
Positive body image goes far, far deeper than liking your reflection and accepting your bumps, curves and flaws. When you believe you look “wrong”, you believe you don’t matter. As a body confidence coach I see women whose negative body image affects every aspect of their life: their marriage, their friendships, their work, their sense of achievement. So many of these women come to me with a sense of missed opportunities: how different their lives would be if they were thinner or prettier, or if they had the right hair or nose or legs. Other women are in a state of limbo: wishing they still had the bodies of their youths (when they remember being happier); and waiting for the body they dream they’ll have one day (when they imagine they’ll be happier again), they feel stuck in a place where, by virtue of having the “wrong” body, they can’t live a happy life right now.
But changing the way you feel about yourself is possible. For me the turning point came, surprisingly, when I developed alopecia. In October 2017 I turned forty and found my first bald patch. Within six weeks I’d lost all my hair.
Initially I found this incredibly difficult. I cried every day at the terrible, out-of-control changes happening to my body. Thirty years of hating how I looked were now fully confirmed: after all, what could look more “wrong” than a bald woman? I would never be pretty enough to feed the worms now: and equally I could never again feel invisible. Even hiding under a wig I felt conspicuous, certain that everyone could tell and was whispering behind my back.
But things started to change for me when I joined the Facebook group run by the charity Alopecia UK, and began seeing photos of other bald women. Every time I saw a new picture I was struck by how beautiful the woman looked. How her lack of hair accentuated her eyes and her smile, and that it somehow allowed her inner beauty to shine through. Every bald women I saw seemed to embody a combination of vulnerability and fearlessness and I found myself embracing those qualities more and more in myself. And the first time I went out without a wig on I felt simultaneously vulnerable and fearless: terrified and powerful. I went to a friend’s house but had to stop at a shop on the way and walking across the road I held my bald head high. A man walked past me and smiled at me. Heart pounding, I smiled back. I wasn’t invisible any more. I was forty years old, and for the first time I knew that I was visible and I mattered.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, and the theme for 2019 is “Body Image” – how we feel and think about our bodies. I know – from my own story and from the women I work with as a coach - that feeling good about the way you look changes everything. I also know that if I hadn’t seen other bald women I would have continued feeling negative about the way I looked and would have carried on trying desperately to make myself invisible. The realisation that I could feel beautiful as a bald woman came from seeing women like me.
I’d spent thirty years thinking I looked wrong, but the truth is – we all look “wrong”. None of us fit the ideal of the perfect body. Even the woman you aspire to look like has her own insecurities and body anxieties. So why do we think there is a “right” way to look? It’s because they’re the images we see the most. The more we see women who don’t look like us, the more we’re convinced that the way we look is wrong – and the more we’re convinced we don’t matter.
So this Mental Health Awareness Week, be the person who shows others that they’re “right”. The Mental Health Foundation is asking us to post a photo on social media of a time we felt comfortable in our own skin using the hashtags # BeBodyKind and # MentalHealthAwarenessWeek. In doing this you can do for others what the bald women on Facebook did for me. And once you know you don’t look wrong (or more accurately, that we all look “wrong”), you can start living visibly and happily. You look wrong. And you matter.