Thursday, February 23, 2012
The Emperor Illusion
Remember the fairytale, The Emperor's New Clothes? It focuses on the fact that life is about illusions and we are what we choose to be, see, think and perceive.
For a good stretch of years, I've battled a personal health issue that required endless rounds of medications. Those medications had the unfortunate side effect of weight gain, and the more frustrating part was that when the meds stopped, the weight gain didn't magically poof. Nope, it stayed and I had to take it off the old fashioned way, with exercise, focus and hard work. Repeatedly. At times, it felt like it would never end.
Having been a naturally slender person my whole life up until that point, it was a definite painful experience to gain large amounts of weight in such a short period of time. I experienced some of the ugliest treatment in public, by complete strangers who felt they had the right to judge and treat me in a shockingly negative manner. I became invisible to a great extent, somewhat due to my own insecurities and also due to that unspoken bias that the general public has towards people with weight issues. I call it the most cruel, unspoken prejudice that exists. For some reason, overweight people scare the world. Seeing someone with weight issues sparks some inner terror in others that it could happen to them, so they react in a very childish and vicious manner, taunting, throwing ugly labels and hurtful names, judgment, laughter and petty actions at those overweight people. It is one of the most disappointing things that I've witnessed and experienced, multiple times, in my whole life. I also continue to observe this bias and cruel, thoughtless judgment in others on a regular basis, and the psychology behind the unkind behavior was part of the impetus to write this article.
If any of those people had taken time to talk to me, they would have learned that I'm not a "fat, lazy slob who sits around stuffing my face". Yes, I've had that comment thrown at me more than once, in various forms. People looked at me, saw a weight issue and automatically decided I was lazy and ate to excess, and being overweight was a conscious choice. This couldn't be farther from the reality and truth.
During the whole health crisis odyssey that I battled, I exercised regularly (still do, for that matter), I ate a sensible, healthy food plan and I still gained weight due to the medications I was taking. Let me stress that I am not sharing this story to defend myself. I don't think anyone with weight issues should ever be made to feel they owe anyone explanations, defenses or anything else about themselves. Gaining weight is not something that I "did" to anyone, or even to myself. It happened as a result of medications meant to save my life. I didn't "make" it happen by being lazy, nor did I "allow" it to happen. I am at peace with what I went through with this health issue and the ongoing management of it. The reason I am sharing this story is the same reason I write anything here at Healing Morning....to reach out, to talk about a difficult topic, to expose my thoughts and experiences, and to possibly help others in similar circumstances.
Let me also take a moment to talk about the other side of this coin. There are many people who battle underweight issues that are just as misunderstood, just as harshly judged and who experience pain, humiliation and insecurities because of the way society views and treats them. Being underweight for those individuals is just as difficult to experience as obesity is for another individual. There is an automatic judgement that very thin people are anorexic and/or bulemic. While this may be the case at times, it is not a blanket truth to apply to every extremely thin person. My sister battles this underweight issue, as does a very dear friend. Neither of them are doing anything to cause this underweight issue to occur; it is a medical by product that both are working hard with their respective doctors to figure out. Yet people who don't know them feel qualified to judge and make unkind comments. Compassion seems to be at a low ebb when extreme weight issues on either side of the coin exist.
So, fast forward to about 2 years ago. I made a conscious choice to stop the medical approach I had been implementing for over 12 years. I was warned by my doctor that if I stopped the meds, I would die. Blunt, plain and simple. "You'll die, Dawn." My quality of life was at such a low ebb that I felt a few weeks of not being on those meds and dying as a result just might be worth it. So, I stopped. Cold turkey, which probably wasn't all that safe or intelligent on my part, but that's what I did. One week passed. I was still alive. Two weeks. Then a month, then six months, and now, obviously, a couple years....and I'm still alive. Let me say that I do not suggest anyone else follow my line of thinking. I am not sharing specific details of my own health issue, because it's a personal one and I don't want to influence anyone who might have a similar health issue. My choice was specific to my own life and I am not advocating that others take such a radical step.
These days, I am, for the most part, prescription medication free. I still have the same health issue, and occasionally it does flare up and require taking those old medications again. And yes, as a result, I quickly gain weight again that has to be taken off slowly, with hard work. I'm okay with that, as these episodes are infrequent now. I manage the symptoms, for the most part, with yoga, exercise, meditation and an eating and supplements plan that I've devised over the years. When prescription medications become necessary, I bow to the inevitable and deal with it.
Why, then, do I reference "The Emperor Illusion"? Because I did something the other day that really changed my perceptions. And it may make some of you uncomfortable to read this. I took a short video of myself, stark naked, from all angles. Yep, I really did. Then I viewed it with as close to objective eyes as I could manage. Let me also say that I am currently up in weight again, due to two episodes that required prescription meds in November and December 2011. The resultant weight gain happened and I'm now in the process of losing weight again. In the past couple of years, my perceptions of myself have shifted, and let me say they've done so for the better. I no longer espouse the same cruel thoughts of myself as fat and ugly that complete strangers jeeringly threw in my face. It has taken many years to get to this point of acceptance and self-love, and I have good and bad days with it. For the most part, though, I'm pretty happy with my body and how I look.
The exercise with the naked video was to see myself, clearly. And you know what? I was pleasantly surprised. My mind's eye perception of myself was much less flattering than the video image showed me to be. I had, in effect, been giving myself a version of the Emperor's New Clothes with a negative connotation. The reality that I saw on the video was nothing like the mental image of myself that I have been carrying around - in fact, it was much better than that mental image!
Yes, I want to continue to lose weight and get back to a size where I'm comfortable and happier, but I really was surprised and pleased that the image I beheld....myself, naked in this video, was a beautiful woman. I've had a few experiences over the years where I was given the chance to view myself through the eyes of a stranger (One Wish, Healing Morning, 9/15/2009) and that proved to be a valuable learning experience. What I learned from this intentional exercise with the naked video is a different lesson, and it was equally valuable. I learned that my own perceptions are magnified in a negative manner and not always accurate....an Emperor's Clothes Illusion, per se.
Friends and family have insisted over the years that they saw me as beautiful, despite the weight gain, and I believe them. Love sees beauty, and I'm fortunate to be blessed with love from family and friends. I was stumbling for many years with the concept of loving myself, though. I believed the "fat and ugly and worthless" slurs that strangers, and some people close to me threw at me. I internalized those ugly words and beat myself down for a long time.
Today, life is different. I have found ways to manage my health issue that allow me to step away from prescription medications, for the most part. I no longer walk around in a mental fog from the medications, and the changes I've made with alternative holistic healing methods have made incredible positive changes in my emotional and physical health. I've always been a happy soul, but that happiness was muffled for many years by the prescription meds. Years of working on my emotional health has also provided huge strides forward in my ability to accept and love myself.
I was brave enough to do something most would cringe at....to film myself naked, from all angles, and then view that video. What I saw was a healthy woman with shining eyes, skin and hair, who radiates a happy energy. Did I see flaws? Things I want to change and improve? Of course I did! We're all our own worst critics in that regard. There is an actual disorder that exists called Body Dysmorphic Disorder that causes people to see a very skewed version of themselves in the mirror. I think we all do this to a certain extent, and that is why I chose to make this video. A video gives a better impression, as close to a three dimensional image as possible of how we look, where a mirror can give that flat, one dimensional image that we might tend to not view as clearly and realistically.
Ultimately, what I saw was not an ugly, obese, slovenly, lazy individual or any other ugly label I've been called. I saw pretty. I saw healthy. I saw confident. I even saw, to my very real surprise, sexy. I have had male and female friends alike tell me, quite bluntly, that I project a very confident, sexy presence. For the longest time, I just could not wrap my mind around how they could see such a thing, but I did believe them, as they were being sincere. With this video, I admit that I could finally see what they've been remarking on. Very important - I felt an inner sense of acceptance. I recognized that I do still hold on to some Emperor's Clothing perceptions of my physical body, and it was a nice surprise to see that my perceptions were actually inaccurate. I'm doing quite well and I am happy with where I am at this moment in my life. I have intentions to continue to lose weight, but those intentions are driven by my own wishes and goals....not by the negative remarks of others.
I also think it is important to note that when others DO choose to be abusive and judgmental towards someone because of their physical appearance, it is NEVER truly about that person being singled out. The problem resides in the one casting judgment, as they are attacking something about which they carry a deep seated fear. They are terrified of this same thing - being over or underweight - happening to them, so they lash out, they judge, they make hurtful and condescending remarks, feeling sanctimonious, safe and convicted in their judgments. This is not meant to be a rebound attack on my part towards those types of people. I just felt it merited mentioning the psychology behind this type of mindset.
I did find this a valuable exercise and of such value that I was driven to write the experience here at Healing Morning. I may do it again, this naked video exercise, if at some point I find myself repeating old and negative mind chatter. I may never do it again. Who knows? For now, it is an experience that taught me something surprisingly powerful and encouraging. And interestingly, as I sat back to ponder the intelligence of posting this article in the last week, I have run across several female friends who have brought up discussions regarding weight issues and how we are perceived and judged by our weight. I took this as a Divine nod, a nudge of sorts, of the serendipitous kind, and I am now convinced it is the right decision to publish this.
I believe we're given challenges....be they health challenges, financial ones or any myriad of applications....as an opportunity to grow. To change. To refine Self. To release petty beliefs, thoughts and actions. To embrace compassion and acceptance, not only of Self, but of everyone. I've always been strong with compassion and acceptance of others. My weakness for a long stretch of years was compassion and acceptance of ME. I'm working on it, and as I write this, I'm smiling. What I hope discussing this topic will do, in the long run, is present a different perception for people....about weight issues in general, about compassion, about thinking before you judge a complete stranger on the street because of the way they look, about acceptance and shifting the way we all view the world and our place in it.