How my life was measured by language
From "The Language We Use" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 14 (1), p. 17
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
When I was growing up, I was told to repeat this mantra to myself anytime someone said something mean to me. I was taught the saying as a tool to use against bullies in the schoolyard. But I’d be surprised if it actually helps anyone who is feeling the real pain caused by corrosive language. The fact is that words can harm us profoundly and deeply, and the scars can last a long time. If we don’t tend to those wounds, they can shape our internal dialogue in very negative ways.
When I was about 10, I noticed a shift in how people treated me and spoke to me. There was greater emphasis on exercise, eating habits and my appearance; it was increasingly important to be “pretty.” I began to experience the same derogatory and demoralizing inner dialogues that my mom and many other people live with—words and phrases passed down from previous generations, perpetuating a pattern of unresolved abuse and neglect, words and phrases that criticized and scrutinized. Try harder. Suck it up. You’re fat. Get a life. Nobody cares. Go away.
The environment I was raised in placed value on individualism, success and perfection. The message I received at home was to work hard, make lots of money, spend lots of money, maintain a perfect body and a perfect home. There was no focus on emotional support and connection, creativity or authenticity—even though my family members are sensitive and intelligent people! We were all trapped, focused on what others thought of us, on financial stability and outside appearances.
In addition to this, I was bombarded by images in the popular media that sexualized malnourished and underaged girls as the feminine ideal. I was convinced that to be desirable, I had to be thin and young.
I now know that the ideal woman did not always look like this. Advertising from the 1930s through the 1950s shows women who are curvy and voluptuous—clearly women rather girls. In that period, it was the skinny girls who didn’t “measure up.”1 Arguably, given the widespread frugality measures that affected many communities following the World Wars, a fuller body was desirable because it emphasized a woman’s contentment and wealth.
A focus on external appearance and a lack of connection to self or supportive community—both in the media and at home—were, I believe, primary factors in my developing a full-blown eating disorder by the age of 13. This took the reins of my life for over a decade. I became intensely insecure and dependent on others for validation and approval. It no longer mattered how I felt; all that mattered was how I looked. I found worth and belonging in the mirror, and from the words of my friends and boys. Words like “pretty,” “ugly,” “fat,” “skinny,” “cool” and “loser” determined who I had to be and who I could not be if I wanted to be accepted by my community and peers. Part of me retreated inside myself—but all my external efforts were focused on achieving the perfect body so I could be the best, most valued girl alive.
I imagine my life would’ve been very different if I heard words that radiated love, respect and community—words that focused on the importance of my inner being and my natural beauty and value as a caring and compassionate person. I would love to have heard “It’s okay,” “You’re okay,” “I’m here for you,” “How can I support you?” or “What do you need to feel safe?”
Some of us are born into families that encourage us and demonstrate compassionate and respectful dialogue. Others come from environments in which the dialogue is harmful and toxic. I understand now that my family was not intentionally toxic; they were suffering in a state of survival themselves. But that meant that many of my needs were not met, and I experienced neglect and verbal harm. I was constantly criticized for all the things I wasn’t, rather than validated and loved for all the things I was.
I went from playing outside with my friends after school every day to being glued to the TV, doing exercises and counting my calories. With each year that passed, the eating disorder took a little bit more of my life. I became more withdrawn, depressed, hopeless and alone—under the weight of my own expectations and the words of others—of what I wasn’t, and what I was told I needed to be. I didn’t question the “rules” or the way things were. I had been taught to impress others, to please others, to be a good girl. I had learned that women are valued for being embodiments of the words “sexy,” “sweet,” “popular,” “easy-going,” “glamorous” and “pure,” all served with a smile.
But over time I realized that all of this came at a high price: I neglected myself—not my external appearance but my whole human being.
By the time I was in my early 20s, the eating disorder had completely taken over my life. I left jobs, I lost friendships and my sense of self was completely destroyed. For days and months, I couldn’t leave my room.
But following a particularly turbulent year, I started to seek out other options. My grandfather had long been interested in alternative healing therapies and, curious, I began reading books on mindfulness and spirituality. In 2013, I started practising yoga. Shortly after that, I began working towards my wholistic practitioners diploma. This opened a window into a world beyond my self-imposed isolation and self-judgement—a world that enchanted me.
Through yoga, school and my new jobs at a spa and a local, independent bookstore, I met a group of new friends and colleagues who lived seemingly free and wide open to experience, so authentic to themselves, unapologetic but at the same time respectful and kind. I also began to re-connect with old friends who were now on similar paths of exploration. At first, with my bulimic glasses on, I thought it was these people’s external beauty that informed and created their internal beauty. I thought, “If I can just look like these people, then I will be okay.”
I was not yet at a place where I could be transparent with my new friends about having an eating disorder, but eventually, I was able to share the truth. And I felt completely supported. These people celebrated life, they celebrated different body shapes and they used each moment as an opportunity to use kind and loving words, with themselves and with others. They used words to create and reinforce the positive, the beautiful, the real.
What if we could harness the power of words to effect change? Imagine if we started using kinder words with ourselves. How would those words ripple through our lives? We are all to some extent products of our environment; we have all taken on beliefs, identities and perspectives that are not wholly our own. But while our culture and environment inevitably shape who we are, we have the power to shape our culture and environment as well. If we look closely, we can understand what needs to shift.
We are all, on some level, aware that things are weird, but there is something we can do about it. This is why things like mindfulness, yoga, art, music, spirituality and reconnecting with nature are getting more and more attention. By using these tools, we can increase our clarity, and we can begin to recondition ourselves for a life lived more authentically.
The best way to see the effect of our words is to look at our relationship with ourselves. How do we view ourselves? What do we perceive to be our limits? How are we worthy? What do we say to ourselves about our lives? Are we supportive or are we belittling and patronizing?
When we use language in a positive way, we can shift our internal conversation and recalibrate our sense of self. We can challenge the nagging voices that tell us we are not good enough, not pretty enough, not skinny enough or not popular enough. We can choose to speak to ourselves as a loving parent or best friend. There is room for all bodies to be celebrated, and there is room for all people to be who they are. We must create that space for ourselves. Then, we can go from telling a story of victimhood (“I must be pleasing to others because others determine my value and worth”) to taking inspired action in our lives (“I determine my own value and worth and that is pleasing to me”).
I have been actively and consistently reworking my internal dialogue for the past year. I use my morning journal time to create a dialogue with myself that is uplifting, supportive, nurturing and inspiring. I talk to other people with words that remind them of or reinforce their goodness and beauty. I am doing art and spending time in nature to get back in touch with the real me. I am taking actions that show that I believe in myself and my ability to grow. I am using words that I feel are too scarce in our collective dialogue.
I have gone from being someone who hid from the world, chronically withdrawn and focused on my eating disorder, to being fully engaged, able to enjoy the highs and support myself through the lows, while working to create a more authentic life for myself. Words can be powerful weapons, but they can also be powerful tools. If we can learn to use them properly, we can all begin to experience a sense of internal peace and a greater sense of love for ourselves and of our purpose in the world.
About the author
Kylie lives in Kelowna, BC, where she teaches yoga and mindfulness practices, always learning to embody her authentic self and unravel negative conditioning. She is a lover of the wild woods, community and expression, and she is passionate about helping other girls to cultivate self-love and embrace their uniqueness