This is a topic that I personally resonate with, quite significantly. I've realized that in really low moments, it's easy for me to isolate and avoid letting anyone in to my struggle. Insecurity is unfortunately an extremely common struggle for women, but our individual journeys with it are all so different. This segment is about telling the bigger story, the story that beauty campaigns and body-positivity movements don't usually dive into. I had the privilege of sitting down with Shaley Fleming for the first interview. I am so thankful for her openness and vulnerability.
TRIGGER WARNING: this interview includes details about struggling with self-harm.
Do you remember your first experience feeling shame about yourself?
“The first time I felt like there is something wrong with me, is in 6th grade a boy called me 'fat' for the first time. I remember his name and everything. It was because I wore a hat that was the same hat as his. When I was young there were those beanies with the little visor on them that were really popular; I saw that he and his friends had them, and I just thought they looked so cool. My mom bought me one, and when this kid saw that I had it, he just didn’t like it, and decided he just didn't like me as a person. There was no real reason for him to not like me, I wasn’t an annoying or rude kid, it’s just because I had the same hat as him, so he called me fat. I told my teacher what happened, and she just looked at me with so much sympathy; I don’t think she knew what to say to a young girl who had just been shamed. It’s so crazy that as a 24-year old, I can remember that entire scenario as if it just happened. I have just felt overweight..I've felt fat. I would love to just say that I feel 'overweight' and make it sound cute and not as abrasive, but because I’ve heard the term 'fat' used to describe me, that has become the term I use to describe myself in my own mind.”
“In high school I was worked out every day. I was a dancer, and really athletic. I look back at pictures now and remember that at 145 pounds I thought I was massive. That’s the crazy part. I've always carried that sense of discomfort with me. My parents also made comments about things I should or shouldn’t eat...neither of my parents are thin, but they make comments about my eating habits. I can’t go into a doctor’s office without them addressing my weight. I’ve gone in for a cold before but they focused more on my weight. Anytime I’ve gone in for something that isn’t even related to my weight, they make it a point to tell me to lose weight. I went in for a flu shot and they told me to lose weight. I am all about people being healthy...when you exercise and eat healthy, you feel good. But not everyone looks the same way when they exercise and eat well. There are different body types.”
“My senior year of high school I was hit with anxiety and depression. I had dealt with it before but thats when it really hit me. I ended up joining a church that was very much about marriage. I became a Mormon and was active in that for six years. I’ve recently taken a step back. But it was all about marriage, so I was on a quest to find a husband. Most people want to find a companion in life, everyone wants to have someone. I was always worried about telling that future companion about my mental health problems. Most recently I had a group of friends...I was really close to one of those friends in that group. Everyone wanted me to date this guy because it would have worked well with our group...two couples were married, and this guy and I were some of the only single ones in the group. But he didn’t like me, and I never really knew why. I worked with one of the husbands in the group, and over instant messaging he said he wanted to give me some advice. He said that I should stop wearing my mental health issues on my sleeve, and I shouldn't own them as much as I do. He said that I make them too much about myself.”
“He also encouraged me to become more physically active, which led him to talk about physical health and how it’s linked to sexuality. He started sharing about his sex life, and made it a point that losing weight would be more desirable. He is a married man, discussing these things with me, out of nowhere...boundaries were crossed in my opinion. He finished by telling me that I need to be more confident. So basically, he insulted me twice, and then tells me to be confident. Those were my two biggest insecurities when thinking about getting married. I was so scared that I would never get married and that no one would ever love me because of my weight and my mental health struggles. I feared that no one would be able to bridge that gap. I feared that I would always be 'too much' for someone. It’s hard to be open with people, especially in relationships because I feel like I need to give a massive disclaimer to anyone that might be interested and tell them about the medication I take and the bad days I have and the bad things that have happened to me. My life comes with a huge disclaimer.”
“I think what I've learned is that the most beautiful thing about a person is their vulnerability because it makes me feel less alone. It takes power away from negative feelings. People like to walk around and pretend like everything is okay all the time. I saw that in the Mormon church a lot, and in social media. You can see so many people pretending like everything is perfect...it’s easy to feel bad about yourself and your own life when you see the lives of these other people, but little do you know that those same people are sitting at home having these pictures saved up from two trips they went on, a few moments saved from weeks ago, that they slowly post on their Instagram to make it look like they are living a more exciting life, when it reality they are miserable.”
What have some of your lowest moments looked like?
“My lowest moment has been happening recently...right now actually. I joined the Mormon church 6-years ago, and while I loved a lot of things about it at first, it’s culture is very judgmental. I lived in Idaho for 4-years, and I tried so hard to be the perfect Mormon. There are so many things we were told we couldn’t do. We couldn’t drink coffee, or tea, no tobacco. I joined the church at 18-years old, the season of life when people are really developing who they are and learning about themselves. That’s when I chose to join. I became completely immersed in it. I chose to forget who I was, and gave all of myself to the church. I lost myself in that religion. There was so much to keep up with, and I felt like I was falling short. I always felt guilty. If we didn’t read our scriptures every day, or if we didn’t pray every day, then we should feel guilty. They are always reaching for perfection, this thing you can never achieve, and because you’re reaching for something you’re never going to achieve, you’re constantly feeling bad about yourself.”
“I still think it’s really cool to want to emulate the character of Jesus, and learn from Him. But people in the church strove to be exactly like him, which no one can ever be. No one will ever be exactly like Jesus. They would take their pain and suffering, and mask it, that is the culture. They strive to be perfect, with the perfect family, the perfect kids...the wife stays home, the husband goes to work...so many things about myself didn't fit into this to begin with. When I was up at school I started gauging my ears, and a friend said, 'what if you run into the man that you are supposed to marry tomorrow, but he doesn’t want to marry you because you gauged your ears?' She knew that my biggest fear was not meeting my future husband. To add to it, I’ve known for a long time that I am bi-sexual...so that’s fun, being in a church that is so unloving towards gay people."
“I’ve been home for 4-months now. I was about to graduate, but I had to come home because of my mental health. I needed to readjust my medication, and just couldn’t handle the stress. I was supposed to graduate, I was three points away from the grade I needed. The attendance policy for my job at the time was really strict, if you’re one minute late, they mark you up. If you’re sick, even if you’re throwing up and can’t make it, they mark you up. If you’re sick and can’t find anyone to cover for you, they mark you up. The only times I ever missed was because I was really sick, or my mental health was really bad...I wasn’t just ditching out. I quit that job and came home because they were going to fire me. I was not only struggling with school and mental health, but my only source of income was going to fire me. It was just a lot to handle. 4-years working for my degree, and it was all taken away from me. If I want to go back to that school, I have to wait 3-years before reapplying, just so I can go back and finish that one class. I had a job opportunity that was going to pay me really well...it was all handed to me, I just had to pass a couple tests. One of the tests is doing math equations in your head really fast, and I just couldn't do it. I passed everything else, but they didn’t hire me because I failed the math test.”
“I applied for a job for police dispatching...I made it through the interview process and they sent me to take a lie detector test. One of the questions was 'have you ever lied to anyone in a position of authority?' I answered 'yes' and explained to the man conducting the test that I had lied to the bishops and church authorities when I was part of the church. He said, 'oh, no, we just need to know if you’ve lied to police officers or anything like that,' to which I said 'no.' I’ve never even gotten a ticket in my life. But after taking the test, it said that I lied. In my head I felt guilty about lying to church authority, and even though I’ve never lied to other types of authority, like the police, I still failed the lie detector test. I find myself sitting at home wondering what I am doing with my life. Those are the moments that I start dwelling on all the hurtful things people have said to me in the past. People remember what others say, at least I do. I can remember all the hurtful comments and jokes made to me, so vividly.”
“Since I’ve stepped away from the church, even though I feel like crap most days and like I’m not doing enough, I’m starting to find myself. I feel like I am finally able to accept that my life is flawed, and that I don’t have to achieve perfection. My life might not be where I want it to be, I have been feeling really down and alone. But now I have the freedom to become whoever I want, and I didn’t have that before. I got a tattoo, which is a really big deal considering how looked down upon it is in the church. I got it to cover self-harm scars. I had a friend ask why I got a tattoo, so I told her I wanted to share with her all the reasons why. It’s not necessarily something I would share on my Instagram since there are family members that don’t know that I struggled in with self-harm. But I want people to understand the significance of why I got it.”
“I am taking a break from organized churches for a while. I still believe in God, and I love Him. But after everything I’ve been through I’ve just become angry. The church promises so many things. Above anything else I wanted a companion, still to this day that is something I long for. When I got baptized they promised all of those things would happen for me. They said they knew for certain that x,y, and z things would happen, but I don’t think anyone can ever know how anything is going to happen. I was promised so much, but they were all promises that they couldn’t keep.”
“I have a lot of shame that I am trying to let go of now. Shame kills the soul. Shame for being overweight, for having mental illness, for not having a job yet...it’s hard to get over those things. There is a difference between guilt and shame. It’s okay to feel guilty about saying something mean to someone else...you can approach that person and apologize for your actions. But shame gets carried around forever. We have to learn how to let it go.”
What has your journey with self-harm looked like?
“I come from a family of addiction. My dad is 27-years sober, he's a recovering alcoholic. I’ve been a part of AA meetings since I was a kid. I had a friend from 6th-9th grade, and she was abusive, mentally. I remember I was watching an episode of Degrassi, and a character on the show had a self-harm problem. That’s where I learned about it. My friend started self-harming and would tell me about it. I was holding on to all of her drama; everything was bad or sad all the time with her, there was never a happy moment. I started by using a key, and it was just scratching, really. My friend would criticize me and say that I wasn’t actually doing anything, that I was just scratching myself and it wasn’t a big deal. I felt like I had to do more in order to prove myself to her. It was a weird and twisted situation. The first time I ever saw blood, I freaked out, but it was also a little exciting because I finally accomplished what this girl wanted me to do."
"It became an escape for me. It’s almost an itching feeling. It's like when people rely on something else to make it through the day, caffeine for example. If they haven't had caffiene, they feel like crap throughout the day. To feel better, you get a coffee, or a soda. Or people use alcohol, or normal things like sitting in front of a TV and turning off for a bit. For me, I had so much going on internally, so much mental pain that I didn’t want to deal with, so I would cope by inflicting physical pain. During a rally in Jr. High, I had a bunch of bracelets on, and a rubber band...anything that I could put on my wrists, I put there. My friend told me to give her the rubber band because she wanted to snap it on her wrist. It’s a coping mechanism for people who want to stop self-harming. I didn’t want to give it to her, so I told her no. We fought about it for a few minutes and then she said, 'if you don’t give that to me I am going to cut myself in front of you.' So obviously I gave it to her."
"She was a lot. She was the one who got me into it, so once I was done with her, the need to do it lowered quite a bit. I started replacing that addiction with other things. I was fine for a while...and then I became Mormon. The things I started doing instead of self-harming were not accepted in the church, as I learned 6-months in. I had to tell the bishop everything I was doing, the things I would do to cope. My punishment was that I couldn't take sacrament for 6-weeks, which is a big deal. In the Mormon church, sacrament is what renews you and gives you a clean slate every Sunday. It’s like you’re made new and holy again, and so when you don’t take it, people see. After that my goal was to become a perfect Mormon, and anytime I did something that I wasn’t supposed to, I felt extremely shameful. I ended up turning to self-harm again."
"I also started having dissociations, which is a mental thing, and kind of an out of body experience. I just sit still, but my mind is telling me I need to get out of my body. It’s an internal conflict of fight or flight. When I’m in that mode, I feel like I need to hurt myself, so I started doing it again. It was easy to hide because I wore garments. When I moved home I decided I wanted to stop, and gave everything I used to harm myself to a friend of mine. I also decided to get a tattoo to cover the scars. It was a huge decision because I was still in between the church and thinking about taking a break. The Mormon church looks down on tattoos, and so I knew people were going to judge me for it. But it was the first thing I did for myself in 6-years. I did it for me, and I didn’t care what people thought. I needed it. It has helped me so much; I haven’t been perfect since the day I got the tattoo, I’ve relapsed twice since then. But that’s still so huge. On so many occasions, seeing a tattoo in the place that I would normally go to self-harm has helped me refrain from doing it. I always felt like I had to cover everything up because of my scars. I never felt comfortable wearing shorts, but now I can wear those things in freedom.”
What advice or encouragement do you have for those that want to be more intentional with the people in their lives that might be struggling?
“I think it’s important to know your audience. There are some days that I am more easy-going, and I like to joke around. Then there are some days that I am more sensitive. I’ve been insecure about my sensitivity. If you are speaking to someone who struggles with vulnerability and insecurity, the best thing to do is look within yourself and learn to empathize with people. Empathy over sympathy. It’s so easy to just give someone a pat on the back and tell someone it’s going to be okay. But I think the more important thing is to look within yourself and remember moments where you might have felt the same way that person is currently feeling, and use that to get on their level to empathize. Sometimes people aren’t looking for advice, they are just needing a hug, or a listening ear without interruption. Ask the people in your life that are struggling how you can help them. Even in someone’s darkest moments, there is always something that can add a little happiness to their lives. Find out what that is for the people in your life. We just have to look out for each other.”
“If I could go back and give my 6th-grade self any advice or encouragement, I would say, that boy was just jealous of your hat. He didn’t mean what he said. Even if he did, it’s okay. Go play with your friends and don’t stop wearing that hat.”