Help me learn to get over the past and learn to like how I look.
November 19, 2012 1:31 PM   Subscribe

I hate being photographed and avoid mirrors because of emotional abuse in the past. How can I overcome this, and how can I make sure I don't give my kids messed up ideas?

I grew up being told that I was fat, lazy, stupid and ugly, ugly, ugly.

Growing up was rough. I can't think in detail about my childhood because I start to cry. I was raised by parents who didn't like each other and didn't like me either. I was a sensitive kid, which didn't help at all. My earliest memories are of being afraid of my father getting angry because I didn't want to get yelled at.

It went beyond yelling, to a point that would warrant a call to child protective services today. For instance, I recall getting a "spanking" when I was 5 because my parents left me sleeping in the car, and I forgot to lock the car door when I woke up and came inside. What I remember is what the room looked like as my dad thew me across it.

I was also 5 when my parents told me how other children were born, but told me I was crapped out into a toilet. I cried and told them that it wasn't true, but they just laughed.

I was a beanpole shaped kid until I turned 8 and gained a bunch of weight all at once. It was hard being a chunky kid. There weren't any girls' clothes that would fit properly back then, and I ended up wearing those old school boys' Husky jeans from Sears. The kids were merciless, and so were my parents. I tried dieting but had no clue about nutrition at all, and stayed overweight. I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis very young and didn't know how I could exercise without bringing on a flare. My mother, who's naturally quite slim, amped up the "lazy" talk at that point but didn't actually do anything to help.

Then puberty hit, and I wound up with severe acne. I honestly looked like a pizza, it was that bad. I would look in the mirror and just cry. My dad once took me out shopping and, out of the blue, turned to me and said "you really are ugly." My parents took me to dermatologists, but there was no helping it. I tried absolutely everything, as my mother (who had acne until finishing menopause) piled make-up on me and the kids at school asked me if I ever washed my face. (The answer was yes, and probably too often.) The acne lasted until I went through two courses of accutane as an adult, and even recurred a few years after that. The acne has largely subsided as I've aged but my skin is still extremely oily.

In spite of being pizza-faced and overweight, I never had trouble getting a date, which mystifies me to this day. I won a scholarship to college and moved away from home on the day that the dorms opened. I married a wonderful man (after taking those courses of accutane before the wedding) and have two awesome children.

I also dropped 40 pounds, mostly because my metabolism changed after having kids. I know it works the other way around for most women, but for me, the weight just fell off. So, my acne's largely resolved, I'm thin (I wear a vanity-sized 2 or 4), and logically I know I can't be as ugly as I think since people don't run screaming when I enter a room. But, I haven't been able to get past thinking that I'm hideous.

Those fantastic kids of mine have a grand total of one family photograph with me in it. We don't have anything recent. The kids' school thought that my husband and I were divorced since the kids bring in photos with their dad but nothing with me.

I can't stand to be photographed and avoid it whenever I can. When a camera comes out, I practically run in the other direction. If I see a picture of myself, I zero in on every flaw, and there are lots. Every wrinkle, pouch, patch of leftover melasma - they're all I see, along with my giant nose, thinning hair and my tiny little deep-set eyes. I was looking through a friend's Facebook feed recently and saw a group photo from an event I was at. I scanned the group and actually failed to freaking recognize myself in the photo. Once I realized that one of the people was me, I was shocked at how normal I looked, until my brain started pulling up every problem with how I look.

Mirrors and I don't get along either. I can do a full face of makeup without a mirror, and when I'm around reflective surfaces, I look away from my reflection as much as I can. Places with mirrors make me actively anxious. Yesterday I went shopping for new clothes and saw myself in a dressing room mirror. I had to work to actually look at how I looked in the mirror to see how the clothes fit. I also zeroed in on how some parts of my body are lumpy, and my first thought was "I'm fat," but I'm not, dammit.

I'm at a point where my kids are old enough to be absorbing some of this, and I don't want it to contaminate them. I tell them every day how beautiful they are, but one of them has already pointed out that he looks like me and that I don't like how I look. I know it's not logical, either, and that I should be able to enjoy how I look or at least accept it. But it's not happening.

My mother still criticizes how I look every time I see her, which isn't often. Memorably, she came to visit me in the hospital right before I gave birth - right before I got wheeled into the delivery room - and whispered in my ear how awful my acne was and how terrible I looked. The other people in the room were taken aback when I told my mother out loud "that's nice, but there's really nothing I can do about that right now," as they didn't know why I was telling her that. It still stung, even though I knew at the time how out of line she was.

I've tried talking with my parents about the past, but they're not interested. They've told me that I must be making things up because they aren't like that. But I'm telling the truth.

I'm reluctant to pursue therapy just because of the time commitment, and because I've tried therapy before for depression and anxiety but didn't seem to get much out of it. I'm on medications for anxiety and depression and probably will be for life, but they aren't helping this.

What else can I do? Are there books or other resources for people like me? What has worked for others? And, most importantly, how can I stop this issue from affecting my children?
posted by 5_buck_sock_pup to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
They've told me that I must be making things up because they aren't like that.

This happens so often. Be confident in your memories, and don't look to your parents to resolve your feelings about their past behavior.

What I might do in your situation is sit down with someone like a therapist, and look in a mirror and describe what you see. Bad thoughts and all. When I have been depressed, and have these cascades of automatic negative thoughts, being able to spew the firehose of negativity out of my head and into the air for another person to hear has helped me hear the thoughts for what they really are. You might think that saying it would make it worse, but, for me anyway, saying the negative things out loud helped me to see how puny and awful the thoughts were, and how wrong.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:42 PM on November 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

This recent article: "The Mom Stays in the Picture" has made the rounds on social media recently, you'll see you're not alone in hiding from the camera.

Your view of yourself is wrong. You are beautiful not because of perfect skin or a single-digit dress size but because you endured a shitty upbringing with no healthy models for behavior or relationships and in spite of it created a healthy loving family with your partner and your children, who get to benefit from what you know children deserve.

To really believe that you are beautiful, and to get comfortable with mirrors and especially cameras (it *is* important to be in pictures with your kids, they're observing you now and they'll love having those pictures later), therapy is the answer. Since you're going in for a specific trigger/behavior, you will have more luck with a short, goal-focused CBT spree than you probably have for the overarching depression/anxiety.
posted by headnsouth at 1:42 PM on November 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm sorry, and I can't answer your questions, but this is just a tiny bit relevant: "I don't want my girls to be children who are perfect and then, when they start to feel like women, they remember how I thought of myself as ugly and so they will be ugly too. ... 'Look at me, girls!' I say to them. 'Look at how beautiful I am. I feel really beautiful, today.' ... I see it behind their shining brown eyes, how glad they are that I believe I am beautiful."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:43 PM on November 19, 2012

First, stop having contact with parents. Your family is toxic. Stop letting them pick on you. You're not a child and you don't have to take it anymore. It's ok to say, "fuck you and get out," to someone insulting you.

Second, give therapy another try. In the meantime, make a concerted effort to look in the mirror everyday and tell yourself that you're beautiful. It's OK if you don't mean it at first. Start taking photos. Give your kids a camera and let them take pictures galore of you.

Pictures are a form of history, claim yours. You're here and you're loved. Get in the Christmas photos, the birthday ones, the Disney ones, the embarrassing ones, the goofy ones, the bad hairdo and funky clothes ones. It will feel uncomfortable at first but do it anyway. Try to out ham your kids.

And stop wasting time trying to get your parents to acknowledge your mistreatment. That way lies disappointment and continued abuse. Your parents are screwed up and by their very nature aren't capable of the kind of introspection and insight necessary to take responsibility for your abusive childhood.
posted by shoesietart at 2:01 PM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

I can relate to a lot of what you said. While I have physical and mental abuse by my parents in my childhood, I guess I should be thankful it wasn't over something as "shallow" as appearance. I was hit by a car at 11, and stayed inside for about 8 months. All I did was eat, and I ballooned to a very heavy weight, and simply couldn't lose it. I carried this for most of my life (I'm 36 now). I also had terrible acne in HS, at least to my perception. I got made fun of in school, and ended up dabbling in bulimia for awhile.

Until a couple years ago, I hated getting pictures taken of me, I didn't like looking in mirrors, I would never take off my shirt or undress in view of anyone else-- even when being intimate with a partner, I would disrobe and put my clothes back on as soon as I could. I was ashamed of who I was, and what I looked like. I basically felt that I could only have an acceptable view of my appearance only if I never saw myself.

I was wrong, as you likely are.

My issue (and I am only speaking for myself) was my own judgmental attitude of others, and projecting my own internal criticisms of people back onto myself. If I think a certain way, then everyone must think a certain way. I was angry, caught in resentments of the past, feeling betrayed by an unfair world who would never cut me a break. That is, until I realized that with very few exceptions, most of this existed in my own head. I needed to build self-esteem by doing esteemable things. To raise my own view of myself, and to not only know, but to feel like I was a worthy person.

I realized that if anyone had spoken to me the way I spoke to myself for 34 years, that I would be on Death Row or doing life in prison. I had to learn to love myself, by loving others. To forgive myself, by forgiving others. It sounds cheesy and lame, but helping others somehow made me forgive the people who hurt me. Once I did that, I was able to forgive myself, and start treating myself with kindness and the love I deserve from me.

I lost a bunch of weight, and though I gained most of it back, I strangely enough can still walk around shirtless, go to the beach, take photos with relative ease, and all the things I couldn't do before. My body may have returned to the state it was in, but my spirit has not. So for me, the solution doesn't lie in the physical, but the metaphysical.
posted by Debaser626 at 2:03 PM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Part of what I did for therapy was nude self portraits. I remember telling my therapist my genitals looked like an open wound to me. He replied "Some people think they look like a flower." That was a shocking revelation for me which taught me how colored my self image was by my thoughts -- that it wasn't an objective perception at all. I have also had relationships to a couple of men who liked photographing me. Seeing myself through their eyes helped change my view of myself.

I also have thought long and hard about it and I stopped buying print magazines years ago. No one really looks like that, not even movie stars, not even the models who were photographed. A professional makeup artist worked on her, a professional hairstylist, a professional wardrobe person. Her breasts are probably taped in place and there are 17 safety pins in the back of her jacket to make it look like that. Then a professional photographer took 300 photos, only one of which was published. And it was probably edited prior to publishing.

I spent a few years online, having little to do with tv, movies, and magazines. I have found that people who mentally compare me to movies and magazines find me wanting. People who compare me to actual other people generally find that I look fine. I have come to feel folks in that first category have a personal issue and it is not my problem. After years of actively removing my photo from the web, I began posting photos of myself again about a year ago.

I also went through a period where I liked perusing those "stars without makeup" articles that some tabloids do. That helped me mentally unplug from my own brainwashing about how people are "supposed" to look.

I was very open and honest with my kids that I had personal issues. On some topics where I felt especially damaged, I answered questions with things like "I don't know the answer to that. Some folks would say X, others would say Y, others might say Z. Why don't you do a little research and draw your own conclusions."

I have gotten a lot of criticism for my weight and other issues from people like my mom and my ex husband. But I was also often told I was beautiful and told it was my fault I was raped as a child because I was "too beautiful to resist". As an adult, I have focused on surrounding myself with people who are nice to me. I have worried more about quality of life than appearances. I don't think "looks don't matter" but I have worked to make them less important in the grand scheme of things.

Whether I was being told I was too beautiful to not rape or being made to feel fat and ugly, the one thing those folks had in common is they really did not care how I felt. I do care how I feel, more than how I look. I have consciously and intentionally skewed my life towards one that feels good rather than looks good.
posted by Michele in California at 2:06 PM on November 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

It sounds like you may have some body dysmorphia.

I worked with an amazing specialist who dealt specifically with eating disorders and I found that it helped SO MUCh to be in the right place with the right person.

I really recommend finding a therapist who will work with you on your issues. You need a kind person, someone gentle who will give you things to work on.

You say you're not interested in the time committment. I can't think of any better way to spend 50 minutes a week, than meeting with someone who is going to help you value yourself the way you deserve to be valued.

If you won't do it for yourself, do it for your kids and your husband. They deserve a happy mother and wife, and right now, you're making yourself unhappy.

As for your Mom. If she can't be nice, have nothing to do with her.

You have to draw boundaries. And you're Mom sounds like someone who has none. Personally, if someone was that mean to me, I'd drop them so fast their head would spin.

Take care of yourself, you deserve it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:31 PM on November 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

You say you're not interested in the time committment. I can't think of any better way to spend 50 minutes a week, than meeting with someone who is going to help you value yourself the way you deserve to be valued.

Yes, this. Also you don't really say why you don't think therapy worked for you, but I urge you to try again and give it time. It might take years to unlearn some of the negative self-talk you've developed, as it took years for you to develop the talk in the first place.
posted by sweetkid at 2:44 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm just going to throw out an exercise here that helped me start to "get over" my fear of being photographed (which is so very common and not reserved just for people who had terrible childhoods). I started really examining photos I had of my friends. Which ones were ugly? Sometimes there would be an awkward look or an unflattering angle or a too-glaring shade of lipstick or, you know, that terrible thing where you blink just as the camera goes off. But, geez, none of my favorite people were ugly. Sometimes I would look at them in photos and ask myself what would they hate about this photo of themselves. Sometimes I would find something but more often than not, I'd shrug to myself and be unable to find anything.

So, I started just giving over to having my photo taken. I figured it was only fair to my friends and family that they should be able to have me in their photos as much as I enjoyed having them on my fridge, in my albums (or big box of random photos) or on my facebook page. I also, let's be honest, read a lot of tips about how to look good in photos (which only works sometimes). It's more important for me to say, "Hey look! I was there!" because memories fail and times go by so quick than to say, "I'm so glad nobody remembers ugly, old me."

Your parents are and were jerks. Your mother! Oh my god.

Your kids love you. Let them take photos with you. You don't have to look at them today if you don't want. You can look at them later. Or never. Ask your husband to help make an album just for the kids of family pictures over the next year. Just one of those little folder things that holds, like 10 4x6 pictures or whatever. I think part of this is just "fake it till you make it" territory and I think that's acceptable.
posted by amanda at 2:49 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I really like Michele in California's approach. Actively deconstructing poisonous images, and working to create your own iconography around your body, can be hugely empowering.

Maybe there is someone like Eileen Fisher Turk, who does therapeutic portraiture, near you?
posted by nelljie at 2:52 PM on November 19, 2012

Look at your kids. Just look at them. With every imperfection they possess, because we all have imperfections. Every bad choice, every bad decision, every mistake, every screwup. Just look at them.

And feel how you still love them. Even if sometimes they make you angry, or they frustrate you, or they disappoint you. If they take you for granted. If they don't show you the care you wish they'd show. Just feel it.

Your parents may have had issues -- obviously they did -- but those issues aren't about you, or about anything you did. With different parents, you would have been cared for as much as your children are cared for, because you totally deserved it, and still do. You were simply in the wrong place, the wrong place for any child to be. And here you are, a thoughtful and considerate parent, somehow, despite being shown so clearly how not to be one. You should be very proud of yourself.

The only solution for the kids, then, is to stop worrying about your appearance on camera for the moment, and just take lots of pictures of them. Eventually they'll ask you why, and you can simply say "because I love you, and when you're older I want to sit with you and look at these pictures with you and tell you how much I love you, then and now." They'll probably roll their eyes, and that's totally okay, because for them this isn't an issue at all. Then you'll have the pleasure of looking at those pictures now, seeing their happy faces, and thinking "wow, look what a good parent I am, this is totally a non-issue for them. I'm doing a great job."

Obviously this doesn't help you address your own issues, but you can do that in therapy while your kids are still too young to take pictures themselves. Remember, cameras are complicated, and as their parent you can simply say "you can use my camera when you're older", aka when you're ready to see the pictures they take.

side note: I don't necessarily like pictures of myself, although not to the degree you suffer from, and not for similar reasons, but when my kids finally started taking pictures of me, the damndest thing happened: I got to see the look on my face when I was looking at my kids take pictures of me, and it turns out you can see my love for my kids all over my face. Those pictures, I like! That may not happen to you, but you never know, it might.
posted by davejay at 3:34 PM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I tell them every day how beautiful they are, but one of them has already pointed out that he looks like me and that I don't like how I look. I know it's not logical, either, and that I should be able to enjoy how I look or at least accept it. But it's not happening.

Oh, one more thing: don't tell them how beautiful they are every day. Stop that now, because what you're doing is turning it into an issue if you keep hitting it with a hammer like that. It sounds counterintuitive, but it is true of other things as well; often telling a kid how smart they are over and over will keep them from trying hard, right? Or telling them "you're so thin" every day. It is the extremes that are problematic, as much as what those extremes are.

So stop making such a big deal about appearance, and then next time your son points out that he looks like you and you don't like how you look, you might consider the truth: "you know, when I was your age, some people who didn't like me lied and told me I was ugly, and I believed them. Now, when I look at you, I see how much you look like me, and I see how handsome you are, and I realize those people were telling me mean lies. Now I know that I'm not ugly, not at all. It's just going to take me some time to get used to the idea."

if he asks who told those lies, you can simply say "it isn't important now, because I don't listen to those people any more."
posted by davejay at 3:45 PM on November 19, 2012 [12 favorites]

Memailed you.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:46 PM on November 19, 2012

1. Only way to get over a phobia is through exposure. Take 1x picture per month, then 2, etc. Make it a point to do more in front of a mirror. It might be easier to do so if you are keeping busy like cleaning something in front of said mirror, instead of just staring at yourself looking for flaws.

2. Do it for them! You are going to die someday and your kids (hopefully old adults at that point) will love and cherish every single picture they have of you. They won't care if you look like the most gorgeous woman on earth or the ugliest. They'll look at you and think how much they love you and miss you. Don't you feel the same for your kids pics? Whether they are dressed up or in their undies with their faces splatter in spaghetti, you cherish the memories that those pictures elicit. Would you want to take that away from your kids?

Bravo for not repeating the cycle of abuse! Now power to you for working on setting a good example!
posted by Neekee at 7:17 PM on November 19, 2012

The example you gave, about your parents spanking you because they left you in the car and you got out and didn't lock it, when you were five...

The exact same thing happened to me. At the same age. I say that because often people with these experiences tell them to others and can't find anyone who can relate. People just have that horrified look, like how can this possibly have happened to you?

My parents were really crappy parents. I have been much happier, saner, less anxious, less baggage-y, and all around better since I stopped having anything to do with them. I don't hate them anymore. I don't love them anymore. I just feel... vaguely fond of them, appreciative of the difficulties they had, and incredibly happy I don't have to deal with them anymore.

I think that all of these issues relating to looks will tone down a bit naturally if you don't have any reminders of these terrible incidents.

To be blunt: You're hot, thin, successful, and have a great family. You got a scholarship to college. Men like you. Great things have happened and all of these troubles are in your PAST.

You will never have to be in a family that treats you this way again. That was a one-time occurrence in your life, and it's over.

So, I have two suggestions, from my experience:

1) Get these people out of your life.

2) Do something that will scare you: engage in activities that focus on you as an object of beauty, and learn to see yourself as others do. Burlesque, glamour photos, fitness competitions, modeling (get some great photos done and put them up on model mayhem and do a little shoot for a local boutique or something)... anything that lets you see yourself objectively, even at the risk of being a bit of an object for others to view.

This will get better. Thank you for asking this question!
posted by 3491again at 7:17 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

It doesn't sound like you have an eating disorder at all, but I think you'd get a lot out of seeing a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. It's very common for patients with eating disorders to think they are fat, hideous, ugly, etc when they are none of those things, and have a very critical, downright cruel inner voice.

A good eating disorder therapist will be very experienced with this kind of thing, and be able to help you with it - probably using CBT, and also talking about your family of origin and how that contributed.

In the meantime, before you find someone, you could try to get a hold of a CBT book, and practice working on your distorted thoughts (for example, thinking you are fat is a distorted thought). But, it sounds like this goes really deep, and I really recommend working with a therapist.

I've done a lot of eating disorder therapy; please feel free to memail/email me to chat further.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:43 PM on November 19, 2012

My turning point for photos was going to my cousin's funeral and realising that if they had tried to do a photo board of me it would have been like I died five years ago. My issues with photos weren't as bad, but I avoided them for years and it wasn't fair on my family. It isn't about me and what I think about myself, because I am beautiful in the eyes of those who love me, even the photos where I am pimply faced and pasty white and bloated and snarling. Even those ones. Because they don't take photos of me to preserve my beauty, they take photos to remember me. And 'me' is more than how I look.

I am so sorry your parents did this, but please think of how your real family sees you, not how those jerks do.

(Also, I take photos of me and my daughter because it is important that she sees I am here, I am with her and I am important - like any media, if it's unbalanced it presents an unbalanced view. I keep a lot of 'ugly' photos because they are of us and that's the important bit.)
posted by geek anachronism at 11:43 PM on November 19, 2012

My mother had been horribly abused as a child by parents who hated each other and said often that they hated her and that she was ugly, ugly, ugly. Stupid, lazy and ugly.

My mother is a beautiful person inside and out, but she has never known that, because her rotten, SOB, poor-excuse-for parents couldn't get past their own issues to not resent their only child for all their many failures. I tell you this because as her daughter, who looks very similar to my mother, hearing her say she was ugly all my life didn't do my self-esteem any favors. It has hurt me to repeatedly hear and see my mother hating her reflection...Her reflection looks like me...

If I could dig my grandparents up out of the grave and tell them that the abuse they perpetrated on my mother has reverberated throughout her life, my life, my brother's life, my husband's life, my step-kids' lives...I would tell them I hate them for what they did to her and us.

You should get a giant cake and bottle of champagne and freaking celebrate the fact that you are a better parent than both of your parents put together. Think of it as sending them a big cosmic "Fuck you" by taking tons of pictures.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 9:46 AM on November 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

Grlnxtdr, that made me cry a little. You are awesome and I like your birthday party idea. If I could favorite you more, I would!
posted by amanda at 12:36 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are people in this world who build themselves up by tearing others down. They target people who are better than them because it gives them great satisfaction in tearing down an awesome yet sensitive person. I have a feeling that you are really awesome and that is why you've been targeted even by those close to you. If you've never had trouble getting dates, that's a sign right there that you must be good looking and don't realize it. Do realize that your awesomeness must be a threat to those who attack you. Use this as fuel to ignite your self esteem! :)
posted by blueflower at 2:51 PM on October 12, 2013

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