Most days, I feel optimistic as I scroll through my social media. I follow people of all sizes, shapes and gender. I see positive phrases, bold messages, incredible diversity. I see empowerment.
Of course, there is the flip side. I follow news outlets and suchlike, and I rage in anguish as I see reports on period poverty, frighteningly common anti-abortion groups, the pay gap. But those are topics to save for another day. Today I’m going to talk about body image, about mental health and about eating disorders.
As a child and then teenager growing up in the ‘90s and ’00s, I was living in a world obsessed with body image and the suppression of women with the ‘beauty myth’. Celebrities were mostly thin, their bodies plastered across magazines (and yes, not much has changed these days in that respect). Models lacked diversity – I can remember reading a Teen Vogue article shaming the limited range of body types in fashion publications, yet the fashion pages following that piece only showcased stick thin models. Britney danced on my television in crop tops, with a slim stomach that we all desired; plastic surgery was on the rise and everyone wanted a boob job; fad diets came thick and fast. The constant blast of the media and the social expectation of women was suffocating. I felt as though I needed to conform to be accepted, that thinness would be my route to success.
For years, I covered up my problem. I never called it bulimia, but deep down I knew it wasn’t a good thing. It was called ‘just being sick’ or ‘I’ve been a bit ill again’ – which to me meant I’d stuck my fingers down my throat, but to others it just meant I was perhaps feeling a little poorly. It was my cry for help, saying those words, but a rather masked one. How was anyone meant to decipher that there was another level to what I had said?
It started during a summer break whilst I was at university. Eating disorders were surprisingly common at my holiday job and it wasn’t long before I was in a loo at a club with a girl from work, being shown how easy it was to make yourself vomit. Bulimia was a convenient way to ‘have it all’ – I was literally having my cake, eating it and then watching myself flush it down the toilet later. It was almost glamorous; I had read somewhere that Princess Diana had had it. I was following in the footsteps of a royal! Surely that was something that was commendable?
In the beginning, it felt like it was something I could control, that I had power over. However my initial thoughts on this ‘glam’ disorder were quickly replaced with a feeling of helplessness. I was governed by the binge and purge cycle. It was a coping mechanism. I would spend the day being extremely healthy but then run to the nearest Tesco and hone in on all the bad things I would have restricted myself from earlier on: doughnuts, trifle, giant bars of chocolate, cakes dripping with icing and jam. The brief elation I would feel would be rapidly overtaken by a feeling of uncomfortable fullness, quickly veering on to hellish nauseousness and then followed by a swift run to the toilet to rid myself of all the calories I had stuffed in my mouth. My throat would be bruised and scraped from the force of my fingers, my teeth tingling from the surge of stomach acid (the cause of many a filling) and my belly flipping over and over as it tried to work out what was going on. I would then sit in my room as my mood sank lower and lower and cry my eyes red raw, putting frozen peas on my throat in an attempt to shrink my swollen glands, my face resembling that of my hamster’s when she’d snaffled all of the food in her bowl away in her cheek pouches.
I know the above can sound a little graphic, and also quite disgusting. But that’s the reason I’m writing it, to remind myself and to show you that it is just that. It is disgusting. It ravages your throat, it messes up your periods, it makes you anxious, it makes social situations involving food an absolute nightmare to endure, it leaves you feeling constantly tired and low… The list goes on. But remember, you’re not disgusting. The disorder is telling you that you are. It’s making you embarrassed to speak out. It’s making you secretive and sly. Give it a whack and tell it you’re done with that crap.
Although having an eating disorder revolves around food and body image, it is not the disorder that is the cause. It is just a symptom. I am now aware that I have body dysmorphia; the size I see in the mirror on a good day is totally distorted by what I see on a bad day. I am now also aware that the bulimia is triggered by different emotions and situations – stress, anxiety, rejection.
I hit true rock-bottom just under a year ago. My job was more stressful than it should have been, my relationship was breaking and I felt as if I had nowhere to turn. It was like Iwas wading through thick mud and was never going to reach the grass on the other side. Then I saw something online about forgiving yourself when you relapse. A tiny phrase that for some reason, that day, struck a chord in my head. By that point, I was now eight years down the line from the toilet-in-a-club scene. I was pretty sick and tired. Something snapped. I wanted to reclaim my body and my mind. I only started seeking formal help for my condition less than a year ago. I now take anti-depressants, which make me feel a little less like my anxiety is spiralling out of control, and I regularly see a counsellor who is allowing me to better understand myself and what is causing my eating disorder.
Don’t let the world get you down. The shiny, happy world of social media is not always what it seems; these people have been photoshopped and touched up, they have personal trainers and they’re definitely not using that flat tummy tea they’re flaunting in their #ads. They have down days too but they’ve chosen not to post a picture of them bawling their eyes out on their Instagram story to keep their fake image intact. That’s absolute rubbish though and totally unrealistic. Choose to follow body positive role models, real-life people that post on good and bad days, people with a cause, people that give you hope, inspire and empower you. Also follow accounts that show you endless pictures of small furry animals, because that never hurts.
Although the NHS mental health services are somewhat under strain, there is still support out there and public perception is changing. It is now recognised that it is vital to speak about mental health (thank you to countless number of celebs and public personalities that have taken it upon themselves to address this), to discuss problems, to put health first.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to discuss my problem and I hope that this empowers others to speak about it too. Not only that, but that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that things will get better. Seek help, speak up and speak out, and find the tools that allow you to empower yourself to be the best you can be, do not let anyone or anything suppress you. Take back control and don’t let a disorder dictate your life for you.