The Labels We Use: A Cautionary Tale
Im going to take a moment to step away from the themes of the story of my depression and talk about something I felt greatly compelled to talk about here this week
I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately, and I realised it’s been an ongoing theme since my childhood
As a very young child, I never felt like I fitted in the small welsh town in which I was born. Truth be told, I never felt like I fitted anywhere throughout my life, even now. The only time I ever came close to feeling as though I fitted in with any one person was with S, despite our glaring differences in many areas. Funnily enough he never felt like he blended in anywhere too.
As an adult, I’ve become more accepting of this fact and quite at peace with it. Living in a large city has helped; there are so many different types of people! My friends are eclectic. And although I’ve sometimes wished in my lower moments to be amongst the “beautiful” people who all look alike and talk alike and whose houses and children all look alike I rather love the fact that my friends are a Pic and Mix choice selection of people I’ve connected with in one way or another along the way. A variety of personalities, cultures and backgrounds! I believe it’s made me a better person than I would have been otherwise. And I wouldn’t swap a single one!
But if we’re talking identity crises, the most significant and damaging one I experienced came about just before my thirteenth birthday. When I was not yet thirteen, I developed anorexia. Before I’d even heard of the word, for about ten months I pretty much starved myself; eating extremely little and excercising excessively. I monitored fat content and calories obsessively. Considered it a mark of my strength of character to see how long I could go without eating (let me stress right now that I do NOT encourage nor condone this and it is absaloutley NOT a show of strength of character in the least.) Gave myself little rules about how I could only eat certain things in a Friday. You get the idea
My periods stopped. I knew it was an unhealthy sign but did not care. My breasts, which had begun to develop fairly early, melted away. First to go and last to return, it turned out. I developed chillblains that drove me mad, my circulation became poor. I had to be put in calcium supplements and my shoulders would randomly click and lock frighteningly and painfully. Sometimes in my sleep, which would have me wake shrieking. At my lowest weight I was 6 1/2 stone or so. For my build that was very low. I looked gaunt. My collarbone jutted out. I had shadows under my eyes.
The reason for this? Not what you might think….
Throughout my childhood from a very early age, there was a huge positive emphasis, From my mother (who is a big woman who was a teen in the sixties, when thinness was glamourised massively) and sister in particular, on my being two things:
For as far back as I can remember I was Kirsty, and I was Blonde and Skinny. And how I was praised for being Blonde and Skinny!
I was Kirsty, and I was Blonde and Skinny.
Until I wasn’t
As happens to a great many of us my hair turned gradually darker until it was a kind of mouse colour( The interesting thing about this is that I continued to see myself as blonde for a couple of years after I’d gone darker!)
As happens to a great many of us, with the onset of puberty I developed a little puppy fat and curves began to form.
And I didn’t even notice that until one day when I was about eleven somebody shouted “big tits” at me as I walked down my local high street. That’s right. Eleven
As for my girth, I recall the turning point of that too.
I was on holiday with my father during the summer, staying in a caravan. I loved my father dearly, was very much a “daddy’s girl”, and he loved me greatly too. He’d have been completely horrified to have known the impact his casual words had on me. I never told him and he’s passed now and so will never know despite my discussing it publicly.
I was drawing pictures of people. I had always struggled to draw larger people. I was trying here and I couldn’t and I found it curious. I said to my father “It’s weird, I’ve never been able to draw fat people. I’ve only ever been able to draw skinny people, like me” (I was a child, I’ll remind you)
Without any malice or any kind of meaning or significance my father said
“You’re not skinny anymore”
I think he may have gone on to awkwardly try to explain that I wasn’t fat either, that I was a healthy size, but I can’t recall much further after that. All I can recall with strong clarity is that he said
“You’re not skinny anymore”
Hm. I’m not? Ok…
I felt very uncertain. But although it troubled me, I didn’t react to this immediately. But it was the spark that lit the fuse
The rest of that summer I noticed how my tummy swelled after a meal, but would go down again an hour or two later. I monitored it; measured it by how far my ribs would jut when I lay down
School started again. I noticed how my thighs spilled over the sides of the stool I was perched upon during design tech. It alarmed me.
Then came my friends birthday. We went to the cinema, ate some snacks. I came home and my mother ordered pizza. Normally I ate maybe three slices but that night I was hungrier than usual and ate more. Alarmed, I went to the mirror and looked at my tummy. I was pretty bloated. Crumbs! Ah well, no fear. It will go down after a few hours.
Except it didn’t. Not as much as I had expected
It was then I decided I’d stop eating until I was skinny again
I was Kirsty. And Kirsty was Skinny. Who was I if I wasn’t? I had to be Skinny.
My mother, sister and others who so praised me for being Blonde and Skinny had the best of intentions. They never intended harm. Indeed, they probably intended the very opposite! They never dreamt how much damage their labelling of me as Blonde and Skinny would cause or how much I would attribute so much of my identity into these labels; the labels I’d been given consistently since toddlerhood
These days, whilst I concede a part of my body hang ups could possibly be an echo of my eating disorder I’m fairly healthy in these terms. I’ve never had a relapse nor come close to having one, no matter how much my post baby size has got me down I’ve never felt compelled to starve myself.
For one thing, my blood sugar drops if I don’t eat and I’m more prone to depressive episodes and don’t function as well, so eating on time has become a part of my standard “self-care”. But even without that factor I’ve never reverted back to that way of thinking. Never come close.
Something clicks in your brain or it doesn’t and once it clicked off with me it remained off ever since.
As a mother, I am very very careful not to put too much of an emphasis on any particular physical attribute my children possess, be it critism (of course) or praise. I do not want them to feel that too much of their identity lies within the colour of their hair or their body shape or similar
Now, I wasn’t about to write about my time with an eating disorder. I’ve never spoken about it openly before. But something inside me this week has been on at me to write about it. And so I have
My writing about depression caused me to think about identity which caused me to recall the most significant identity crisis of my life, which is a part of my overall story and a mental health issue too. So it does belong here
Through all my recent reading and writings my self awareness, which was always reasonably good, has been heightened. And with a greater understanding of myself has come a more secure sense of self
My sense of who I am was always important to me
I’ve always searched around for who that is.
But we must, all of us, be extremely careful what we attribute our identity to
And especially careful of what identity we project on our children