I’m a smart girl. I love to read. I love to write. I secretly love when I use a long word that someone doesn’t understand, so I have to explain it to them. Knowledge is a skill I have always been proud to possess. I thought it would keep me safe from things in the world. I thought if I knew better, I would be better.
School and knowledge is lauded as this absolutely vital skill that we will perish without. But devouring books, and filling my head with wonderful facts and stories and languages did not keep me safe from any of the experiences I now realise I share with every person on this planet. Most of which are not experiences we should be kept safe from. They are things we need to learn through action, through screw ups and through learning lessons that will never be taught in front of a chalkboard, or from an encyclopaedia.
One of the first things I struggled with that I honestly didn’t realise for a long time because of all this knowledge It held, because i thought I knew better, was body dysmorphia. Low self esteem and hatred of the body I have been gifted that keeps me alive every day.
Because of the education that I was lucky to enjoy so much, none of this really became apparent to me until I was an adult, where the real mind tricks begin. People think girls in high school are cruel, and are at the root of body issues. The adult world, in my opinion, is far more unforgiving and damaging. We are told we are officially old enough to know better. Allowed to vote, to drink, to drive and to live alone. The task of handling all of the mental struggles is a burden we are left to bear alone, and it is a heady weight to carry.
This experience is particularly grating for women, speaking as one and from the only perspective I have a right too. I have always stood by the fact that every woman, with zero exemptions, has struggled with some semblance of an eating disorder at some stage in their life. It may not be the extreme level of collar bones protruding through flesh, or internal systems shutting down due to lack of sustenance. But every woman has switched on a film, seen a taut and toned body in a swimsuit and instantly started counting the calories of the snack sitting in front of them. Every woman asked out on a date has agonised over what dress to wear to hide the natural imperfections of our bodies, and then has a completely separate torturous process of thinking about what their date will think if they see them without the comforting armour of shape-wear and slimline colours and dress cuts.
Growing up I was eternally grateful that I did not have a family environment that perpetuated these pressures on women. My mum was a little old fashioned and occasionally chose some slightly outdated clothing for me to wear, but she never made me feel less than for the way I looked. It wasn’t something I even thought of much until a genuine danger to my health kicked off the spiral.
My father has spent most of my life sick, and when I was at university he had a very long and very stressful stint in the hospital. I was the only person who went and visited him, because I truly wanted to, but it did put a lot of extra stress on my life. Additionally I was working at an incredibly abusive and toxic workplace that served exceedingly unhealthy food. All of the additional stress plus my surroundings lead to me massively overeating to cope, and putting on close to 40kg. I didn’t acknowledge it for a long time, and it wasn’t actually until a break up that I knew something had to change. So I started going to the gym, started cooking from home, an activity I absolutely adore so that wasn’t a chore like I know it is for some.
My health improved, I was fitter and loved exercising and felt great.
And people told me so. Everyone noticed the weight-loss and told me how incredible I looked and wow such a huge difference.
At the time this lit up a little flame inside me. Gave me so much validation and I thought it was wonderful. But what they were actually saying was that I now looked acceptable because I was skinnier, and that if I wasn’t I was no longer worthy of attention.
I can see this now as I think back on it, but then I was only thrilled with the difference everyone was seeing and wanted to make more of a difference. So I kept going, kept trying new meal plans and new workouts. Some days I would see how long I could go without food until my head began to swim, until I was tripping over my shaky legs. I would be delighted if I could go a full day on just one meal. I would weigh myself in the morning, barely eat and then check my weight again at night to see if I could drop weight in singular days.
I would lay in bed with my stomach churning from hunger and think how great it was that there was so little food in my body that it was making those sounds. I would delight at the fact that maybe if there was no food in me, my body would start using up the disgusting fat stores and I would get even thinner. And I did. I thought it was ok because I more often than not did eat. I wasn’t starving myself everyday so it was ok. But I did it enough for it to work.
This would continue with peaks and valleys. I would feel content, even happy with the way I looked, and stabilise a little. And then something stressful would happen, I would binge on a whole block of chocolate and absolutely torture myself for the disgression.
When lockdown #1 hit it was a strange time because while it was stressful, it provided me with an unusual period of stability. I was working from home, I had a full time job with very stable income that I was enjoying at the time. So I spent the copious free time working out, testing new meals. And I was enjoying how healthy I was. But I was still doing it to look better.
When I eventually hit the number on the scale that was my official ‘goal weight’ I was ecstatic, smug. But I’m not sure if happy was the right word. It was an achievement, yes. But it was one made in a period of tunnel vision in my life. Not based on reality. While I was briefly thrilled with the way I looked, thrilled that I could buy dresses a full size smaller that clung to my small frame. It did not last. I started to look at my body, the lack of fat. The lack of curves. I began to worry that there was still something wrong. That I didn’t look like a woman anymore, that I was less desirable because my boobs and bum had shrunk as is inevitable with major weight loss.
After a brief period of a relationship, when weight and diet were the last thing on my mind, and as we emerged from lockdown, and finally back into reality I could see the impacts of the real world on my mental health and my body and knew it wasn’t me that needed to change.
I needed to realise that a goal weight was never going to make me happy. That the tape measure that still hangs over the door of my wardrobe serves only as a cruel reminder of how our bodies become reduced to inches and kgs, instead of strong people going through some seriously hard shit. At the start of this current lockdown I tried to replicate the first one. Thinking maybe I could do it again and it would stick. But after some seriously enlightening conversations with others also struggling with their body image, I knew that I had to put my mental health and what is really important in life as the number one priority. That I am not meant to be rake thin, and I am still beautiful and fit and smart and funny. And my weight has piss all to do with that and that is a fucking relief.