Trigger Warning: eating disorder behaviours, suicide
I’ve spent almost half of my life at war with my body. I spent most of my time, energy and money on self-loathing, dieting, and trying to ‘fix’ my body.
The negative thoughts and feelings I had about my body started when I was in my teens. Prior to this, I’d never given my body a second thought – it was just my body. It was a vessel that allowed me to enjoy my childhood, to play with friends and to have fun. But once I started high school, this all changed. Like many teenage bodies, it was changing, and I found it difficult to accept these changes. My new adolescent body wasn’t different to that of my female peers, but I started to feel like it wasn’t my body anymore. This combined with appearance-based bullying at school; I started to believe that my body was ‘wrong’ and needed to be fixed. When I looked in the mirror, I saw reflected back to me a body that was too ‘big’ and that took up too much space.
I longed to be smaller, to look like the women and girls I saw in the latest magazines or TV shows, but most importantly, I just wanted to fit in.
My earliest memory of engaging in eating disorder behaviours was when I was 16. I started to use food to numb my feelings, it was a way for me to manage my emotions and gave me some comfort. I ate in secret, hid food in my room, raided the pantry when my family wasn’t home. I also began to withdraw from my usual activities, like netball which I had so fiercely played since a young girl. After a bingeing episode, I would feel full of guilt, shame and ready to begin restrictive behaviours. I counted my calories, skipped meals, cut certain foods from my diet, obsessively exercised and even tried diet pills. But nothing I did cured the feelings I had about myself and my body.
Once I left high school and headed out into world, my relationship with my body only became more fractured. I struggled with severe depression and anxiety and ended up in hospital after a suicide attempt. I didn’t want to end my life, it was a cry for help – but yet, I still didn’t get the support I needed. For several years after, I continued to engage in disordered and restrictive behaviours, as I was convinced my life would be better if I were able to shrink my body.
It wasn’t until 2017 when I had finally hit breaking point. I had got to a stage in my life where I was so low-functioning I wasn’t able to get out of bed, leave the house or go to work. I made the difficult decision to leave work and study while I focused on my mental health despite the financial implications. I started engaging more regularly with my psychologist and psychiatrist but still felt there was something missing that had to do with my relationship with food and body image.
I had previously tried to bring this up with other healthcare professionals but was often told ‘just eat less, restrict “unhealthy” foods and exercise more’ which made me feel like I was the problem.
The breakthrough moment for me came when I was referred to see a dietitian that specialised in eating disorders. It was through her that I learnt about binge eating disorder and how everything I was experiencing was a common response to aspects of my life that I had experienced. Once I received a diagnosis, not only was I finally able to receive the support I needed, but I also realised I wasn’t alone in my struggles which was so comforting.
There is a common misconception that issues relating to body image are not serious enough or worthy of receiving support for. Body image issues are a mental health concern. Being fixated on food or obsessed with weight loss isn’t normal, although modern society will have us believe it is.
Just like diversity in gender, skin colour, culture and sexuality – there is diversity in body type and it’s about time we celebrate that rather than shame people who don’t fit the ‘appearance ideal’.
Our bodies are not the problem, neither are you. Don’t be ashamed to reach out because you are worthy of seeking support. I promise you there is a world outside of body image and appearances and you deserve to be able to focus your precious time and energy on more important things in life.
Follow Sarah’s journey to body acceptance on Instagram – www.instagram.com/hello.sarahlou
For support with eating disorders or body image concerns, contact the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673 or butterfly.org.au