Body dissatisfaction is an epidemic: this photo resonates with my feelings about my own post-surgery body

woman with monster scrawled across her chest. Photo by Jo Spence.

A post from our Community Correspondent Lorna Cosh

‘Monster’ by Jo Spence resonates with  my emotions about my body. Jo Spence was a feminist photographer who sadly died in 1992, a month before her 58th Birthday.

In 1982 Jo was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her previous work– weddings, family portraits and acting portfolios – gave way to documenting women’s post-surgery bodies.

Jo became her own active subject as she documented the changes in her body during her illness. Jo experienced a lack of control over what was happening to her body and this work allowed her to take back some  power and control.

The image of Jo with  ‘monster’ written above her breasts challenges what is normal and desirable and the pressure on women to conceal their disfigurements.

In March 2009 at the age of 48 I had a hysterectomy. One week later (as a result of negligence), my bowel perforated.  After constant infections, I was left with an open wound on my stomach for over two years.

I am left with a horrendous scar the full length of my abdomen. I faced life with a stoma and a colostomy bag stuck to my stomach, like an alien. I have lived with this disfigurement for six years  and I am not able to look at my body in a mirror. I feel like a monster and undesirable.

Living with a stoma is not easy and is still a bit of a taboo. People do not want to know and find it disgusting to defecate in a bag that sticks to your tummy. Yes – it’s not a natural way to do the toilet but for me and many people it is the only way to maintain our bodily functions, without which we would die. I was horrified at the extra hole in my body and am aware that I have no control over when I experience wind or a bowel movement.

I worry that people will be disgusted by me because I smell. When I experience an upset tummy, my bowel moves like an overflowing drain and my colostomy bag fills so fast it can detach from my skin and leak onto my clothes and surroundings. It’s extremely distressing.

I remember a junior doctor looking with shock and horror at the scarring on my body. He asked if I had a skin disease and I felt ashamed as I explained. His  relief was apparent when he realised it was not contagious.

Body dissatisfaction is an epidemic of our time. Women are under increasing pressure to attain the unrealistic, ‘perfect female form’ reflected in the media.

It affects the emotional and physical heath of young women. Hospital admissions for teenagers with eating disorders have nearly doubled in the last three years; a larger number don’t go to hospital.

The psychological effects of obesity on women are well documented: low self-esteem, depression anxiety and panic symptoms. However, many women claim that the obesity problem is a symptom of their mental health condition. The stigma of obesity leads to discrimination in education, employment and healthcare and has been associated with depression and low-esteem.

There is much profit to be made from the misery of obesity. The diet industry in the UK is worth around £2bn and still growing – and yet we have never been fatter.

Every day we are urged to battle our weight and fight aging. Women who gain weight are accused of  ‘letting themselves go’. Recently a diet supplement advert asking ‘Are you beach body ready?” caused fury and an online petition signed by over 50,000 people. Ironically, the campaign  ensured a much bigger audience for this advert.

‘The empowering messages of feminism are as important today as ever. Given that young women now believe that in order to be successful they must be perfect and controlled in every way – body, mind and behaviour.’

This post was adapted from an essay Lorna wrote as part of a sociology course in conjunction with Queen Margaret University

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