For close to half my life I subscribed to a belief that I had to look a certain way on the outside in order for people to see the value I had on the inside.
Almost every morning from the ages of twelve to twenty-three, I would wake up, look at myself in the mirror and feel like I wasn’t enough. I wasn’t ‘toned’ or tall and I didn’t have a tiny waist; I had a squishy belly and thighs that jiggled when I walked.
There didn’t seem to be anything that could change how I felt about this. No matter how much I went to the gym, what I ate, or how much weight I actually lost, I still felt inadequate. In my eyes there was always something wrong with me.
It has been systemically ingrained in us to believe that weight loss, or dramatic body modification will bring us that elusive happiness, but at my lowest weight I was also at my lowest self-worth.
In late 2017 The Butterfly Foundation conducted a survey of Australians over the age of eighteen, to see how they felt in relation to their bodies. 73% of the respondents to this survey claimed they wished they could change the way that they looked and more than half of them said they either rarely or never spoke in a positive way about their body. I know I could confidently say that I have heard every single woman I know speak negatively about an aesthetic element of their body.
As women our bodies are constantly being subjected to the trends of the times. The bodies that were idolised when I was growing up are quite different to those we see in mainstream media now, and neither of these versions look like me. This is not to say that those women aren’t beautiful in their own right, but the pressure for society to look like them is too much.
Nowadays, many of those very women are coming out to talk about the pressure they faced to look a certain way, just to keep their jobs. As the saying goes, “not even the women in the magazines look like the women in the magazines”.
When I was in my early teens my quest for weight loss was purely for aesthetic reasons, I didn’t even give a second thought to my health. As I grew older I started to use ‘getting healthy’ as a safeguard to cover the real reasons I was still pursuing weight loss, which in truth were no different to my adolescent motives. This led to me feeling double the amount of self-hatred and guilt when I would eventually ‘fall off the wagon’ and succumb to the things I had been depriving myself of.
Now, not only was I letting down my ‘body goals’ but I was also going to be unhealthy.
Around the time I turned nineteen I was at my lowest weight since puberty. I had started an Instagram account and had become a dedicated (read: obsessed) ‘foodie’ and ‘fitspo’. I already had an unhealthy relationship with food, but now I could compare absolutely everything I ate with my social media feed.
I watched hundreds of “how to be healthy” videos which were really just poorly disguised adverts for restriction. I became absolutely terrified of any oil (except coconut), and I convinced myself that oat pancakes tastes so much better than wheat ones. Every time I turned on my phone I was bombarded with women whom I thought had more value then I, purely based on what I thought of their bodies.
It was working though, whatever I was doing to myself in the name of ‘health’. I lost weight, and people started to notice. I was complimented and congratulated for taking my health seriously. Every comment was like a nail in my coffin – this sucks, but it’s worth it.
I knew the symptoms of eating disorders, and I didn’t believe I had one, but what I didn’t know about was disordered eating. The National Eating Disorders Collaboration describes disordered eating as a disturbed or unhealthy eating pattern. It is something that is often blindsided by society, but it is the number one cause of the onset of eating disorders.
It’s important for me to note here that while I was in an incredibly bad place mentally, I was never properly ‘underweight’. Nowadays I’m so thankful that my body coped okay with my abuse, but at the time this definitely contributed to my thoughts that what I was doing, and how I was feeling, was justified.
Two weeks before my twenty third birthday, I began seeing a psychologist with a specialisation in eating disorders and poor body image. I had been seeing a general psychologist for about twelve months previous, but things hadn’t been getting any better. I was terrified of getting specialised help, I had been in denial for so long that there was anything properly wrong with me.
I spent almost twelve months seeing this new psychologist, and I am so thankful that I was brave enough to go through with it. When I began seeing her I was petrified that she would think I was a fraud; I couldn’t possibly be sick enough to be taking up her time. I didn’t have any of the obvious outward symptoms of someone suffering from an eating disorder.
Spending time with her was valuable for more reasons than I can count, but number one is that she reassured me of the two things I had for so long been unsure of.
Firstly, I didn’t have to wait until I was sicker; I didn’t need to have an eating disorder to suffer from disordered eating.
Secondly, although what I was feeling was common and I shouldn’t feel bad for having these feelings – it wasn’t normal. We see self-hatred, especially in young women, absolutely everywhere and I think we’ve become desensitised to it. For my own wellbeing I’ve had to learn how to become sensitive to it once more, and to learn how to combat those thoughts as they come.
One of the biggest things to note when embarking on a journey of recovery is that the process will never be linear. One of society’s current favourite buzzwords is ‘balance’ and that was something I struggled with immensely at the beginning of my journey. I had for so long been anxiously counting every calorie I consumed and treating exercise only as a punishment and so to combat this I began to treat both healthy eating and movement as if it were the cause of my distress.
It took a long time before I was able to intuitively reintroduce nutritious foods into my life, not as compensation for not eating cake, but simply because I enjoyed them. It took even longer to start moving again. The all or nothing part of me wanted to jump head first into a new way of living, just as I had always done, but the most important part of my journey has been learning to take things slow. I’ve had to come at things with a sense of curiosity and not to feel judgement at my response to those things.
This month I turned twenty four and it was the first birthday that I can remember having in more than a decade where my focus wasn’t at least partly on my body. I will never say that I am ‘better’ because that part of me will always be in there somewhere, but I now know how to stand strong against it.
I still have bad body image days, but now when I wake up and look in the mirror I remind myself that that’s not where my value comes from – some days I forget to even look at all.