Skin deeper

There has been an elephant in the room, and not one which sits quietly in the corner.  It has been rampaging through the house causing destruction and damage in its wake. I wrote Skin Deep over many days and did not actually believe I would put it “out there” online but as I felt myself sinking deeper and flinching from those small incidents which are on the surface slight, with tears in my eyes I finally pressed the “bare my soul” button.

I do not really know what I expected from the post.  Being honest, I had not thought ahead.  The purpose of writing was to vent and pour out the distress in my heart.  So I was astounded by the response to Skin Deep. As well as numerous comments on the post itself, I received personal emails and Facebook messages and a number of people here reached out with love and understanding.  I had not anticipated the many thoughtful messages reassuring me that physical appearance is not the same as beauty. I have been emotionally overwhelmed and it has taken time to put my thoughts in order and prepare this reflection and learning.

As I read through and responded to the comments, replied to emails, spoke with friends who reached out and quietly reflected, the clearer a picture developed of a whole host of people struggling silently.  So many live with constant debilitating side and after effects and swallow the assumptions that everything is behind us and rosy now. Many of us are silently absorbing assumptions of our appearance, while struggling with a variety of conditions which impact on how we look, so many of which are beyond our control.  I had lifted the lid off some Pandora’s box.

I still feel fragile, emotionally and the wellbeing and appearance issues are unlikely to change.  But I learned a great deal from writing the post, reading and reflecting on the responses and bringing together these thoughts into some key messages.

I am not alone

I am incredulous at the number of people struggling with these interconnected issues, in silence and isolation.  We are dealing with a host of issues – side effects from many meds, after effects from current and previous treatments, disfiguring surgery, pain, destruction of functions including thyroid. We may look well but be living with debilitating conditions, or we may look unfit and unhealthy yet are following extremely healthy lifestyles as far as we can. In summary, as “cancer in my thirties” said in her comment

“many people fail to realize how horrible the side effects of our treatments can be — and how much they impact our lives each and every day”.

Even if I struggle with these, knowing I am not alone somehow helps emotionally and validates these feelings.  However, another side is that very few of us expect or are prepared for such debilitating side and after effects. We should be grateful that we are alive – and of course we are, but that doesn’t mean that this is something that can be wrapped up and put easily in the past when we live it every day.

Far too many are silently living with this.


I did not intend to make people feel uncomfortable.  My post did not point fingers at any individual but aimed to draw out the consistency of reaction.  I particularly want to stress that I do not for a moment believe that there is unkind intent in many of the comments and looks I experience.  My friend Becky wrote very powerfully of her experience and in particular placed it in the context here.

“Being called fat in SE Asia isn’t necessarily a negative thing. It’s quite acceptable here to talk about people’s size. ……………

In some countries, being told you’re big can be a compliment. I sense it’s not necessarily a compliment here, but rather an observation (perhaps without much judgment).“

It is so important to hold on to this, and try and remember it is more an observation.  The challenge is that of course I come from a context where it is broadly offensive to comment on a person’s weight.  And that is why it hurts.  Purely and simply, I struggle terribly to be on the receiving end without it that stab of pain and shame.

It doesn’t matter how much I rationalise and understand – it still hurts.

Reaching out

I have found that not only writing and releasing these highly personal and innermost thoughts and feelings but then listening to the responses and reactions of others is helping me to process this.  Chronic illness, mortality, cancer and the whole psychological and emotional and invisible side to diagnosis continue in my view to be underestimated even within ourselves.  We are often caught up in our own pain and unable to see how enormously difficult for those around us themselves to deal with life-threatening diagnoses in their loved ones.

Open your eyes

Indeed, I really did not have a clear purpose in my mind when I started on this journey of exposing my soul. I did not expect such a powerful reaction. I think that in the back of my mind, I was screaming silently that I wanted to be heard. To be understood. And not to be judged.

This path is and will continue to be painful.  Yet for now, I can say that I do indeed feel heard. I feel far less alone.  And I feel more understood.  I hope that applies to us all.

The elephant is still in the room.  I doubt if it will completely disappear. But it does seem to have quieted a little and become less obtrusive.

13 thoughts on “Skin deeper

  1. I am so glad you wrote a follow-up post and grateful you opened up this discussion. I thought of something else while reading this – sometimes we carry our scars and wounds on the inside. I know to many people I meet I seem like a confident together kind of person with no obviously visible scars on my body (I keep them well-hidden) but if they only knew the secret pain I carry on the inside. I only feel safe revealing the real me to a community of bloggers filled with beautiful people like you x

    • Thank you so much for your understanding, Marie. You do highlight such an important point – those invisible and hidden scars which we protect and hide, and sometimes struggle to acknowledge. And if we show a carefree front then few can understand that private pain. I so hear you, and at least am glad that our blogging community provides that safe space where we can reach out for our pain to be soothed.

      Sending you love and gentle hugs
      P xoxox

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  3. dear Philippa,
    as Marie so aptly stated, “…if they only knew…”. emotional and physical scars that often last a lifetime and never cast a shadow of thought before they appeared have laid siege upon many of us. it is often a constant battle to try to strike a balance, a very delicate balance, in how they all play out in our heads, in our self-image, and in the eyes of others who haven’t a clue. I am so glad, and so proud of you to have spoken out in “skin deep”. a Pandora’s Box, indeed. but one that allowed legions of others who have had to suffer in silence to have their say about how these awful and debilitating and persistent and painful manifestations affect them.

    it is good to know that you feel you have been heard, that you feel less alone, and that you feel more understood. take it, every bit of it, into your heart to be a tonic, a balm not only to comfort and reassure yourself, but also to know how mightily you have given us all a refuge and even some modicum of relief and comfort. I think this is a perfect example of power in numbers – there may be an elephant still in the room, but each of us are right there beside you to keep him a little more quiet and a little less hell-bent on destruction. and we are a force to be reckoned with!

    much love and light,

    karen XOXO

    • Thank you so much for your wisdom and generosity, Karen – that balance is so hard to find and even more difficult to maintain.
      I am glad that we have been able to craft a space where we can lay open our fears, pain and vulnerabilities, a space where we each reach out to each other. Where we understand each other and where we respect and listen. I am not sure how I would cope without that.

      I have a wonderful picture in my mind of all of our bloggy circle hanging out in my living room, chatting, laughing and confusing that elephant!
      Love and hugs to you

  4. Philippa I hadn’t seen your earlier post till now and it moved me deeply. Your raw honestly spoke for many of us but more importantly for yourself. I’m glad the elephant has quietened. Maybe that’s all our elephants ever do. Like so many I love the beauty that you bring to this community with your wisdom, your photos, your writing, and I know that all shines through you in your person. Sending my love Audrey

  5. Philippa, I read ‘Skin Deep’ last week, remembering my experience of living in the Eastern Caribbean in my 20s, where in the same day 2 or more people could comment on my weight. “JoAnn, you too tin (thin)!” and later “Girl, you gettin’ fat!” Both were compliments, but through my American lens, I didn’t see it that way and could be deeply offended if I was feeling sensitive. I think Becky’s insight is spot on about the Asian cultural perspective on weight and I can empathize with the pain you feel.
    But then I have to go deeper, to what Marie says about carrying “our scars and wounds on the inside.” I haven’t had reconstruction since my mastectomy 2 years ago and in my current world, few people are even aware. I have managed to hide my scars and wounds very well–even at times from myself. But I live in New Orleans and showing cleavage is almost expected. I lost my cleavage and learning how to dress to make up for this loss has been a challenge. Do I feel frumpy and unattractive a great deal of the time because of my missing breast–or is it because I am now middle-aged as well? And what would people say if I were regularly heading to my favorite beach on Antigua?
    Thank you for writing about this whole issue of image and opening the door to the discussion. You are an amazing writer and I greatly value your insights–and the discussions they nurture.
    Peace and light, JoAnn

    • JoAnn, thank you so much for sharing your cross cultural experience – this resonates clearly with me. Rationalising the comments is help;ful but just can’t stop that emotional reaction. I share your “no reconstruction” challenges too. My swim suits are high cut and I wear a high camisole top under all of my blouses just in case my scars are visible if I bend accidentally too far forward. I still don’t fancy the major work that is reconstruction though……

      I really believe we should keep this conversation alive – thank you so much for your kind words.
      Love and warm wishes to you too

  6. I’m so glad you feel heard. It in no way surprises me that you’ve touched upon something very, very deep that many (in one way or another) share. Sending you some love, Philippa.

  7. I am so very glad you feel heard. So many people could relate to this topic, and your post hit a nerve. Thank you for so willingly showing your vulnerability with that brave post and this one. All we can do is live our lives the best way we know how. xoxo

    • Thank you so much, Beth – yes, it was such a hard step to share this, and I do feel heard. I just wish I knew how not to react with that feeling of hurt and shame, and how to reply to the comments in a way which is respectful and yet conveys how I feel. I still don’t know the answer to that. Big hugs xoxox

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