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'I was body shamed when I was 11. It's stayed with me for decades.'

Up until the age of 11, I was proud of my body.

I could run fast and climb tall trees. When I jogged along the beach in my athletic cat suit, I thought only of the feeling of the wind on my body and the strength of my legs.

One morning, I was running past a group of boys in the playground and heard a cascade of sniggers before one of them yelled out a strange insult, "Camel". 

I felt something clench inside me, like all the air had been sucked out in an instant.  


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My long, gangly body, which had served me well up until now was suddenly, painfully 'wrong' in the eyes of these boys. 

It was my first taste of being viewed not as a living, breathing human but as an object to be judged, or compared to an ungainly animal.

After that, I was called a "camel" every day for two years. 

The school did nothing about it (this was back when the term 'bullying' was still only applied to big boys stealing lunch money on American movies) and I remember being told to "stop letting those silly boys" get to me. 

It was as if I was flawed for feeling the pain of these insults, inflicted without warning, day after day. 

I never knew when the next barb would be flung and had no defences. I stopped running in the playground and learned to shrink and hide. No one noticed. 

Eventually, I developed my own kind of armour against the hurtful words. I learned how to hurt my haters, to issue scathing comebacks and attack with humour. My friends laughed. This is how I survived the insults that would follow me into high school: melon head, anorexic, flat-as-a-tack. 

Some of my curvier friends were called sluts or told that they were fat. It was a rare girl who escaped insult.

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It’s only now I see that armouring up to survive cost me more than my precious ability to stay vulnerable. 

While I may have learned to adeptly defend myself, I never regained that feeling of proudly running down the beach, relaxed in the ease of my body’s natural athleticism. 

From 11 onward, my deepest instinct – that my body was true and good – was lost to the opinions of others. It was the beginning of what I now know as self-objectification, described by professor Eileen L. Zubriggen as, "A key process whereby girls learn to think and treat their bodies as objects of others' desires."

Things changed when, at 15, a popular older boy saw me at a school disco and took an interest. Suddenly, my thin, tall body type became fashionable. I’ll never forget the feeling of being desired after years of being, at best, a sidekick to my hot friends and at worst, ugly or invisible. It was the most powerful drug I have ever taken. And like all drugs, it came with side effects.

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The experience kick-started an insatiable inner craving to be desired at all costs. 

It was the first vestige of power my insecure teenage self had ever tasted and I began to see myself as a project, unconsciously investing my time and energy into cultivating the desirable parts and cutting away aspects of my life that didn’t service my attractiveness: sport, loyalty to friends and creative projects. 

My weekends – once filled with swimming and athletics – became focused on arranging myself at the beach to look both pretty and nonchalant, waiting for the boys to get out of the surf and pretending not to care. 

It was energy-sucking and life-diminishing.

Writer Anna Lovind describes an experience of self-objectification during an arm wrestle with a classmate beautifully in The Sexy Lie or When I Traded My Power for Men’s Approval:

"All of me rose to the challenge, every fibre in my body, every ounce of determination focused on bending that wrist and getting the upper hand (literally) – and simultaneously the realisation hit me that if I gave it all like that, I wasn’t going to look pretty. 

"My face red and contorted, my muscles shaking from the strain. I’d never cared about that before, nor had my classmates. But I somehow knew it was crucial that those older boys did not see me like that."

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Over time, I began to feel frozen, like I wasn’t in my body but constantly managing it. 

When someone approved of me or a boy thought I was 'hot', I’d feel a heady rush. 

When a boy sniped that I was too tall, too thin or too 'flat', I’d feel worthless. 

For years, my worth swung like a pendulum in the breeze of other people’s opinions and this filtered through to other areas of my life. 

I began to doubt whether my art was good if no one commented on it. I started to question whether what I saw and felt was real and sought confirmation from others, my parents and friends, "Am I likeable? Do I look okay? Is my writing worth reading? Am I allowed to sing?"

Shame and anxiety pervaded my life because I had no name for what I was experiencing, which seemed normal. Compared to many others, I was lucky and privileged. But through the work of courageous female writers like Lovind and Osbourne-Crowley, I’ve discovered how good it feels to speak of such things, to name the previously unnameable experiences that instigated bad feelings so I could finally separate them from my sense of self.

"There is an intense and powerful connection between shame and language," Osbourne-Crowley writes. "One of the most important gate-keepers of shame is our determination not to give people the words they need to speak freely about themselves."

When we name the grey areas of abuse, objectification and sexism, we give each other permission to feel how we feel. We affirm to each other that we are not crazy, that what we experienced was real and our pain was valid. From this solid platform of shared words and stories, we create the vocabulary needed for healing what must be healed. Beyond this, we’re empowered to do the work of imagining new ways of existing as women that don’t rob us of our energy, power and self-respect.

Geordie Bull is a relationship coach, NLP practitioner and journalist who writes about women’s wellness, motherhood and inner transformation at www.geordiebull.com.au. Geordie has been an avid reader of self-development books since she was eight years old and loves to do the inner work of priming her mindset to create a beautiful life for herself and her family.

Geordie lives on a bush property near Crescent Head with her husband, two kids, dogs and lots of chooks.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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