by Arielle Mullen

It’s an unpleasant thing to admit, but it’s true. In my defense, I really believed she was ugly, and I know I’m not the only one. Her skin was red and rough, with angry patches and open wounds. It was the kind of thing that made you wince just to look at, and nearly impossible to stare at for longer than a few seconds at a time.

I told that little girl she was ugly nearly every second of every day. It wasn’t just her skin, although that was painful and terrible to have to see. Living life in constant physical agony meant she didn’t sleep well (or at all, really), so dark circles under her eyes were an everyday accessory. In her day-to-day she existed as a walking ball of rage, ready to lash out at anyone who attempted eye contact. She mostly stayed indoors, only venturing out when absolutely necessary, and always with arms and legs fully covered. 

In case you’re wondering, yes this is a true story. If anything, it’s been watered it down to be more palatable for you, dear reader. And yes, the little girl in this story is obviously me. From the time I was a toddler up until I was about 18, I lived in constant physical pain. My diagnosis was “eczema,” which seems innocuous enough. Plenty of people have it without it being anything more than a mild annoyance. Like my mom always said though, I’m special, so I was dealt an extra-special dose of eczema. It covered 90% of my skin, and the daily reopening of these literal wounds (gross, I know), has left scars, both literal and figurative.

The experience of living in a constant state of agony (physical, mental, and emotional), took a significant toll, persisting even long after my skin cleared up. Now, in my thirties, I’m still navigating the emotional wreckage that my early years left behind. It shaped me to such an extent that I have no idea who I’d be if I hadn’t endured that particular brand of torture.

Living with chronic pain is an odd thing, particularly as a child. To wake in the morning and immediately feel at war with your body is incredibly isolating. Even the most idyllic formative years can be fraught with challenges, but in my instance, with pain so clearly displayed (literally) on my face, my solution was to detach and disassociate. I felt separate from everyone and everything, including myself. I avoided eye contact, short sleeves, and generally being in public. 

I learned at a young age that I am not my body, but when the dust started to settle and things on the outside began to heal, I had to do a lot of difficult work to reconnect to my body and mind. I’d been in my self-imposed exile for so long that the tangled mess on the other side couldn’t be unraveled without practice and intention. Obviously no one exists in a vacuum, and it would be foolish to believe otherwise, but in navigating the aftermath I discovered the importance of questioning my choices and the motivation behind them. After so many years of not feeling in control, I’m not interested in allowing others to dictate my identity or self-worth.

For me, embracing sex positive feminism was a big part of learning to not only accept, but enjoy and love myself again. Reclaiming and further developing agency and ownership of my body has been difficult but valuable work. There are times when I’m reminded of how much pain and trauma I’m still holding onto from my past.

One such example came a few years ago, when I was at the tail-end of a fairly awful, abusive relationship. I was approached by a friend who wanted me to model for her lingerie line, and my first instinct was sheer panic. I’ve always struggled to feel comfortable in front of a camera, never mind that in this instance I’d be in various states of undress. With further reflection, I realized my initial fears were obviously holdouts from my past. In the last five years I’ve participated in a handful of photoshoots, mostly for Siobhan Barrett Lingerie. With each session I get a bit more comfortable, and although I’ve seen my body change as I’ve come into my mid-30’s, I always find something new to embrace.

Experiencing the level of pain that I did, at such a young age, has infinitely expanded my ability and desire to be empathetic for others. When all we see is our own experience, it’s difficult to recognize the humanity in others. In this way, I’m grateful for the pain I experienced. Pain is an excellent teacher, although I wouldn’t wish my personal experience on anyone. Throughout life it’s easy to become disconnected with our bodies. Particularly as women, there are countless messages we see every day that tell us we aren’t enough. That we should be quieter and take up less space. Developing your own sense of bodily autonomy in a sex positive, supportive and safe atmosphere can be incredibly healing. 

Interested in reclaiming the story of your own body? Join Sheila Kelley in her flagship online course, Woman Ignited:Body Love.
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Photo Credit: Kyle Delmar
Photo Subject: The author, Arielle Mullen.