At the age of 16, I was a confident social butterfly who was a part of every club in my high school. I loved being a part of my community, I had a wide circle of friends, I was acing my classes, and I’d enjoyed a happy and very privileged upbringing. Everything was supposed to be perfect.
When I was 16, I also felt like I was wearing a mask. Underneath the surface, I was insecure about my changing body: constantly worrying about whether my arms were small enough, if my stomach was flat enough, if my eyes were big enough. People who loved me told me that I was ‘good enough,’ but all I could focus on was being better. Sure, the media and fashion industry have always created ridiculous expectations of young women. We know this. But these unrealistic expectations were being perpetuated by family, friends, and people whom I cared about:
“You need to eat more, you look like a stick.”
“Is school stress getting to you? You don’t look as thin as you used to be.”
“Don’t you think that you should slow down on dessert? I can see that you’ve put on some weight.”
“Oh my, you’ve certainly gotten thinner, your face looks so gaunt!”
Looking back, I should have said: “Ok, I look different. None of your business.” But my confidence had already made way for insecurities, low self-esteem, and of course, a negative image of my body. My personal experience relates to eating disorders.
Because when I was 16, I developed an eating disorder.
If you’re reading this, you might think: “yeah, I’ve heard this story before” or “I’ve been there before.” And that’s not a surprise. When we think of the perfect man or woman, a certain image springs to mind: the digitally altered, unrealistic image that we see on the covers of magazines and in other forms of media. And often, it’s that very image that we take to be the ‘ideal’ body. Unfortunately, that’s also where a lot of people may develop a negative body image, which can lead to mental health disorders like Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to look like the models in the magazines? Airbrushed skin, enlarged eyes, and dresses that fit flawlessly on photo-shopped bodies. Growing up, I remember fawning over Victoria’s Secret models and secretly idolizing the photos on ‘thinspiration’ blogs (blogs that encourage dieting and weight loss, many of which support unhealthy means to achieve an ‘ideal’ figure).
When I started a vicious cycle of binging and purging, it was supposed to be short-term: a secret phase to give me more control over my changing teenage body. But it quickly snowballed into something dangerous.
The one word I could use to describe an eating disorder? Life-consuming. Counting the calories, feeling guilty about every bite of food you consume, wondering how to slip away to a washroom discreetly after any meal. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t cry after purging. I remember throwing up before acting in a musical theatre show, and getting a nosebleed before the show started. I remember the pain in my friends’ eyes when I told them. I remember my mom crying when she found out.
The whole time I was going through this, I can’t help but remember that I knew how wrong it was. Each time that I purged myself was supposed to be the ‘last time.’ But every time that I binged, I lost control. Each time I purged, I felt dirty. What I was doing was unhealthy and unsustainable. I was a smart girl, who was obviously damaging her body. I knew that if any of my friends were in my position, I wouldn’t allow them to do this to themselves.
But since I couldn’t stop myself, I tried to look for some professional help. I searched for clinics in vain, I called hotlines, and I scoured help websites. Finding supports was truly a challenge. At one point I gave up, and it took several months of guilt, relapses, and pain before I tried to find help once more. I finally broke down and confided in my family doctor, but the stigmas behind mental illness makes the issue so difficult to discuss, let alone difficult to admit, even with a medical professional. Eventually the news got to my family, and my ‘secret’ was finally out.
The climb to recovery wasn’t an easy one. My mom referred me to websites, my doctor warned me about the consequences of my condition, my friends asked me to call them when I felt out of control. Everything they said made sense, but all I wanted was to be thin forever, and that trumped all common sense. It didn’t matter that my methods were unsustainable. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t receiving the proper nutrients. I had no respect for my body, because it wasn’t good enough.
The moment that it really hit me was when one of my friends confided in me that she was bulimic. When I shared my experiences, her eyes looked up and down at my body, and then she exclaimed: “Well it’s obviously working, you look so good!” And even as someone who was going through the same experience, I didn’t support what she was doing, and I wanted her to stop… yet I myself hadn’t stopped. In that moment, I realized that no one could help me but myself. I had to change my own outlook and expectations of my body.
And that’s when my journey back up the hill started. But even though I wasn’t able to find an answer for my friend, I realize now that as a support, I was not expected at that time to have the answer. My supports didn’t have an answer for me, but their love and acceptance was enough to get me on the road to finding help. I realized that if a loved one opens up about their struggles, sometimes the most that one can do is to listen. Speaking to a parent or guardian, a trusted adult, a medical professional, or even calling a hotline like Kid’s Help Phone can be the first step to ensuring that you, or a loved one, receives the right help. Articles like this one, from the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, might be a good place to start.
I’m better now, but the change was gradual. For me, controlling food had always been present in my life. From my friends commenting on their body shapes, to my family members dieting, to the off-handed comments made by family friends. But the expectations that we have of our own bodies are created over time. We aren’t born with an idea of what a ‘healthy body’ looks like. But we develop one, from what we see everyday, and the opinions we form about our observations. Mental health issues, specifically negative body image, can stem from a variety of sources, and can affect anyone to varying degrees, regardless of gender, race, age, socio-economic background, medical history, cultural or religious background or any other factor of identity. Nobody could figure out how I had developed an eating disorder. So here, I’ve explained it. But my story is just one of the many out there. So let’s teach each other that the meaning of a healthy body is more than its appearance. It’s a healthy heart. It’s strong muscles that move you to where you wish to go. It’s a sharp mind that helps you tackle life’s challenges. So have that extra slice of cake. Make a New Years’ resolution to join a running group. Be skeptical of images that look too unrealistic to be true. If you don’t feel good enough, talk about it with someone you trust. And take what others tell you about how your body should look with a grain of salt. And the ‘perfect body’ will come to you naturally, because it will be one that you create to help you do the things in life that matter to you.