At the time of my manic episode, I had been a tiny, energetic creature. I am rather short and small-framed to begin with. When I was admitted at Elizabeth Donkin Hospital, I could have weighed no more than about 46kg. This changed when I stabilised on my medication and left the hospital.
Anyone who has been treated for bipolar disorder will tell you that the medication’s initial side-effects are unpleasant. I became lethargic and unresponsive. I’d brush my hair and chunks of it would come out in my comb. My appetite increased and I felt the constant need to devour food, and as I did this, the pounds packed on.
Glimpsing myself in the mirror, I felt disgusted by what I saw. It didn’t help that this was compounded by the severe depression that followed my manic episode so the sense of self-loathing became even further entrenched. This proved difficult to shake.
We are bombarded constantly with images of what the supposed ‘ideal’ woman looks like. Entire empires of beauty and fashion houses rest on us desperately buying into these images and their messages: Your lashes are not long enough to hold a lover’s gaze. Your lips are not full enough for another to kiss. Your legs are not smooth enough for another to touch.
I followed the latest Dove soap campaign with interest. In it, the company gave everyday women diaries to write down their daily thoughts about themselves.
Women came up with phrases like “your face looks like a bulldog” or “you’ve just no charm – you’re just fat and ordinary.”
The exercise powerfully revealed the ways in which we, as women, constantly criticise ourselves, particularly with regards to our bodies.
I saw something of myself in this advert and felt disappointed that I too was guilty of such self-harm.
Art mimics life
I don’t think I’m alone in that when I look at my arms, I see flabby turkey wings or that when I sit in a bikini hunched over I look down and am repulsed by the rolls my stomach makes… I am nothing like the tall, skinny 20-something models who make it all look so effortless.[quote float= right]“I showed up and was presented with a table…surrounded by pairs of young, eager eyes and ready bits of charcoal”
I have decided to overcome this. I have decided to love my body uncompromisingly. It is capable. It is healthy. It speaks an intimate language all its own. What more is there to celebrate?
Recently, the local university was looking for models for art students and I volunteered. It was something that, two years ago or perhaps even months ago, I would never have imagined doing..
That morning, I showed up and was presented with a table, or “perch,” surrounded by pairs of young, eager eyes and ready bits of charcoal. As I moved from one position to another, I became less concerned with the fleshy bits of my far-from-toned arms or the bulge of my stomach.
I became more interested in creating shapes for the students, providing something for all the students in the half-moon circle to draw. I began concentrating solely on my body’s contours and what they had to offer the students.
When I looked at the student’s 10-minute renderings in between sittings, I was amazed by how much dignity and poise the human form can contain. I gave no thought to the parts of my body that were a little chubby. I saw beauty in their work, and I saw nothing but beauty in myself because of what they had drawn.
Don’t hide behind foundation, don’t feel guilty eating a slice of pizza
I can’t say I made the best model – I am not yet as comfortable as I could be when posing for a roomful of people – but I will forever be grateful to those students.
So if I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, where you can, learn to silence that self-criticism when it arises. Take a yoga class or go to samba lessons, and remind yourself that your body is a living, breathing thing.
Don’t hide behind foundation. Don’t feel overburdened with guilt every time you enjoy a slice of cheesy pizza or a piece of chocolate. Dipping into your purse to support the industries who have told us otherwise will not make you happier. It will not find you someone to love.
When you look at yourself in the mirror, rejoice in that slightly crooked tooth or that freckly nose. There is art, there is magic, in these small things.
It is a cliché, but some clichés are such because they have wisdom in them. The more you celebrate life with abandon, the more you celebrate yourself with abandon, the more others will be drawn to your joie de vivre. It’s as simple as that.
Port Elizabeth writer Jocelyn Fryer was diagnosed with bipolar two years ago. She spends her free time mastering the art of pasta making and advocating for the adoption of stray animals.