Trigger Warning- Eating disorders and sexual assault
With our new exhibition being released this week I have found myself thinking about my own identity, who I used to be and how I came to who I am now. Seeing all of the amazing work in our exhibition has inspired me to talk about my own identity. I think it can be hard to be comfortable within myself sometimes, but I am the most confident I have ever been, and I am proud of myself for getting here. Knowing who you are is one thing, being able to tell the world is different. It's scary and daunting to be honest about yourself, I still find it hard sometimes to say 'yeah this is who I am' so I am going to take a leap of confidence and say it today. As an artist, one of the most important things I can do is know myself. And that sounds really simple, but it isn't. For me, it has meant coming to terms with past traumas and acknowledging parts of myself that I have always been very scared to do. But how can I expect to create good art that speaks my truth if I cannot be confident and comfortable with myself and who I am. Lockdown has been hard, but it has made me sit down and confront the person I am, and it has been liberating. So who am I? I am a survivor, I am queer and I am me.
Being here and queer
Coming to terms with my bisexuality has been a hard and confusing journey. I felt a lot of shame, like this part of myself shouldn't be acknowledged. What would my friends say? Would people at school judge me? Would people tell me that my identity as a bisexual woman is not valid? Sometimes I felt like an imposter, part of me felt that I was too femme to identify with this part of myself, Obviously now, I know that was ridiculous, you can't be too femme or masculine to identify with a sexuality. But this was all so new and I didn't know what to think. I remember having my first girl crush, I remember thinking how pretty she was and how much I wanted there to be more between us. And then I felt gross about it. I felt ashamed for feeling these things. I had never dated a girl before, so how could I know if these feelings were real. There was a scared part of me that didn't want to face these feelings that wanted me to be wrong. But these feelings were real and perfectly natural. I came out to my best friend in Sixth Form and I was scared and nervous. What if she was one of those friends. Y'know, the ones that insist that you must have a crush on them because you swing that way. I was lucky because my best friend had my back and completely supported me. I could finally talk about all of these crazy feelings and gay thoughts without being judged and I had felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my chest. But as there are good experiences, there are also bad. The first being my first boyfriend in sixth form and also the second person to know about my secret. I trusted him, but he ended up using my 'gay thoughts' against me. And all of a sudden I was terrified of my identity again. If I wasn't in the mood he would throw my trust back at me, saying it was because I didn't love him or was a lesbian. This broke my heart and my confidence in myself and who I was. I lived under this toxicity for two years before getting the courage to leave and never look back. It was scary having my identity used to shame me, I was left wanting to hide this part of myself even more, which I did. And then things got worse when I joined a church, not just any church, a Pentecostal church with extreme views and homosexuality was not a grey area. Here it was black and white, and if you were gay you were going to hell. One of my Christian friends even tried to 'pray the gay away'. This obviously left me feeling more broken and ashamed of who I was, so I hid my queerness even more. I still fought and argued hard that their views on homosexuality were wrong, that everyone deserves to be accepted and loved, besides that was Jesus' whole schtick. I ended up labelled a problematic feminist. I've left the church now and by surrounding myself with people who want the best for me and want to support me I've found an amazing boyfriend and confidence in myself. I found people who love me for me, regardless of my sexuality, which feels amazing. From the bad, I discovered that people who feel a need to control who you are and who you love don't need to be in your life. And I've spent 2020 figuring this out and cutting all of the toxic people out. And honestly, I've never felt better. I'm queer, and that part of myself is here to stay.
Painting by Simona Hopewell @mona.hopewell.art
Being happy in my Body
What is who we are without the vessel that houses us. Its hard to love our bodies when social media surrounds us with what women should look like , not to mention our internal male gaze which is capable of majorly fucking up how we perceive ourselves. We can be hard on ourselves, but when others join in on criticising how we look, it can be incredibly damaging. That nasty ex boyfriend of mine, not only made a habit of calling me lesbian but also told me how much better I would look if I lost weight, cut my hair and dyed it brown, and changed my style completely. I wasn't the skinniest when I was dating him, but I certainly wasn't in a position to be told to lose weight. No one is. After we broke up I had very bad depression and anxiety, which now took the form of a lack of an appetite. I ate less and less. And when I noticed how little what I ate had become, part of me was proud of myself. I saw fast results as I rapidly dropped dress sizes and I actually enjoyed when people noticed the change. Boys suddenly were interested in me and my mother constantly told me how skinny I was and how I needed to eat more. I was eating one, small portioned meal a day and I found that I was challenging myself to eat as little as possible. I had convinced myself that being as skinny as humanly possible equaled being attractive and this all came with a cost, literally, I had to buy more clothes as nothing in my wardrobe fit anymore. When I reached about 4 months into this damaging cycle, I went swimming with friends at an outdoor pool. I was one of the last ones out of changing room and saw myself in this huge mirror before leaving. I was skin and bone and I saw what I had done to myself. I looked sick and on the verge of death, I hated how I looked so I started to make a change and eat more. It wasn't until I got into my current relationship when I started to gain weight again and finally return to loving cooking and food again. Maybe it was because we spent a lot of time eating out at restaurants, but honestly I felt like I was finally allowed to gain weight and feel beautiful at the same time because of my boyfriend and his support. He never made me feel awful about how I look, not once. Everyone says you need to love yourself before you can find love within a relationship, but I feel in my case, finding a relationship where someone truly loves me for me helped me to love myself more. You don't need a man to help you love yourself, but surrounding yourself with people who want to love you and see you at your best certainly helps. I was lucky to get myself out of my eating disorder before it became too serious, but I want to clarify, being skinny doesn't make you beautiful, being confident and happy in yourself does (cheesy I know) and it's hard to get there, trust me, but once you get there it feels great not to worry constantly what everyone thinks of you, because the only opinion that really matters is your own. As I found myself feeling more confident in my body, I wanted to explore painting it, which was a daunting process especially when it came to posting it online. I loved how the painting came out and it's definitely one of my best, but god I was scared to post it. People who I knew on social media came to look, clearly with judgemental intentions, which made me feel awful, but then something amazing happened. Not only was I supported by my friends and family, I created an impact. One of my close friends, Nia, posted her own artwork of her body and told me how seeing my work inspired her to post her own. I felt so happy to see my work had affected someone else so positively and reminded me why I love painting and and posting my art to the world, as scary as it can be sometimes. Painting someone is like a visual love letter, and to see someone else love themselves and be proud of who they are made me feel so much happier in the confidence I have gained. As an Artist and a woman this was a huge step for me, and I am proud of myself for finally finding this confidence in my body after being bullied for years over how I looked.
Painting by Nia Oldfield @nia_oldfield
Dealing with trauma
One of the hardest hurdles to finding my confidence was dealing with all of my unresolved trauma, especially when it came to sexual harassment and assault. A sad reality to being or identifying as a woman is harassment that takes the shape and size of many unpleasant and cruel things. What I found incredibly painful is realising too late that past experiences were actually sexual assault. When we initially think of assault we think of something violent which is often the case, but assault can also take the form of something subtle and quiet, and when you realise the truth of a past situation it feels heartbreaking you found yourself in that situation and you feel lost. You may also feel like your experience is invalid, especially when you open up to people and while some completely understand what you went through others claim its 'not so bad '' because you would have realised at the time. Hearing this made me feel my experience was invalid, but it's not. We take time to process trauma and come to realisations and that's okay. I won't go into the nitty gritty details, but take as long as you need to work through it, and its okay to take these experiences at your own pace, what is not okay is when people try to shame you for it. And I had to deal with that at my church. Long story short my love life with a friend was outed within the church by a guy, which resulted in me being shamed by the church community. I was called names like 'slut', 'whore' and my personal favourite a 'vixen'. None of this was okay, and certainly wasn't what Jesus would do. With my very personal experiences being outed the way they were, this opened the door for guys within that community to sexually harass me. Not only was I shamed, I pursued, and the Church knew and did nothing to make me feel safer. I just had to deal with entitled men now feeling they had an entitlement to me. One guy had the audacity to claim that I should be intimate with him on the basis that I had done it with someone else so therefore owed him the same. I didn't owe this man or any man shit. I never received justice but I found peace once I left the toxic environment. However the thing about traumas is they never really go away. They fade in and out and become easier to deal with but sometimes they will hit you out of nowhere and the pain comes back with it. But I can find empowerment in knowing that I have done better for myself and am flourishing more than ever without all of these toxic people that I have cut out. I am empowered because my body is my own again, I am empowered because I am the happiest I have ever been with amazing friends and support.
Maybe you can resonate with my experiences, or maybe you don't, but finding your identity is never easy. I fell in the trap of basing my identity on other people and copying them, but leaving that behind and looking to find confidence in myself and learning to love myself is the best thing I have done. Cutting out toxic people and environments really helped me to flourish instead of continually being held back. The process of finding your identity is never easy, but it is amazing when you get there. It just takes time, experimentation and going through crap to know what's good for you. And if I can get there anyone can. Thanks for listening to my ramblings if you have made it this far and please check out the 'Identity' exhibition we are currently showcasing and take a look and the time to be inspired by others exploring identity and what it means to them.