Sunday, 25 February 2018

My Complicated Relationship With My Body: Eating Disorder Awareness Week

My struggles with mental health have never been something I've shied away from sharing online, whether that's been my diagnosis of anorexia aged 15, to my struggles with anxiety and isolation whilst at university, I've always found it therapeutic to vent these emotions and periods of my life. In return, I've gained such a strong support network online of likeminded  guys and gals, and felt reassured in the knowledge that  I always have someone there to turn to when I'm feeling blue. My openness regarding my eating disorder and challenging diet culture even saw me featured on Teen Vogue, Elle, Refinery 29 and Metro (a fact I still simply cannot believe!), and so as Eating Disorder Awareness Week has rolled around once more, I felt compelled to share, once again, a little more about what it's like to suffer with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia as a young women. Although this post might not be the most uplifting one, nor one filled with advice and tips for recovery, it will hopefully provide an honest insight into this world, because after all, isn't that what raising awareness is all about? It's often not pretty, and it's definitely not easy, but it's important nonetheless. So. Here's to my complicated relationship with my body:

I've always struggled with self esteem, whether that be related to my acne and problem skin, my thin hair not doing what I want, or my slightly on the big side nose, I would at no point in my life have described myself as a confident person. My anxiety and body image are so closely linked, and it's often when I find myself in an uncomfortable social situation or when meeting new people that my brain goes into overdrive, overanalysing my appearance, how I'm being perceived and if I look truly as awkward as I feel. I suppose therefore it was no real surprise when I began paying more attention to my body image in my last year of secondary school, as prom was just around the corner and an increasing pressure to find the perfect dress and have the perfect date began. I don't remember having thought a lot about my body shape or diet until that point- in fact I recall often eating more than my friends and feeling quite comfortable with that. I enjoyed food, and I wasn't ashamed of admitting that. Granted I didn't have the healthiest of diets, but at this point in my teen years I suppose eating my 5 a day and drinking a green juice for breakfast was never on my agenda anyway. I hit puberty later than most, not even beginning my periods until 15, and perhaps this change in hormones may have been partly to blame for the obsession with weight and shape that followed. 

I remember downloading, the now widely shamed, My Fitness Pal app a few months before my school prom, not even with the intention of losing weight, but simply to try and be a little healthier by recording what I was eating and seeing how many calories this added up to. Big mistake. This was my first introduction to the world of calories, having heard them mentioned on WeightWatcher's adverts and on school PSHE days, but never really paying attention to them, let alone counting them. I naively entered my height and weight into the app and from then on began entering details of every meal, snack or nibble of food that passed my lips. It was only when I began writing this all down that I became obsessive with the numbers I saw before me. I was shocked. According to this app, I was eating far more than I should be for me height (if I was looking to maintain the same weight) and the panic instantly set in. Looking back now, I wish I could shake my younger self and stress how little these numbers matter, and how much more value food and enjoying meal times has than attaching a number to my self worth. From this point it became harder and harder to regain control of a normal approach to eating, and my life became consumed by numbers, fats and how many (or more truthfully how little) I could get away with eating. Combined with my first real feelings for a boy (and my first kiss), it became the norm for me to associate food and weight with my desirability by this certain someone. I don't blame this boy, because really we were just kids, but all the same, he didn't treat me very well and I can't help but know that these feelings of being unwanted and the confusion of the situation absolutely contributed to the negative relationship I had, and still have with my body today.

There were so many other factors involved in the beginnings of my eating disorder, which combined with the downright awful experience I had with my first CBT therapist (the word bully instantly springs to mind) left me feeling so despondent and lost with my body and my relationship with it. I've come such a long way in the past 5 years, and truly have overcome a lot. But having said that, my relationship with my body now is a far from positive one. It feels hard to admit that, when my limbs all function and I have no physical disabilities, how can I possibly hate something that gives me so much life? But I do. I know I can't be defined by my mental illnesses and the irrational thoughts that come along with them, but all the same it's extremely difficult to live with this on a daily basis. My body dysmorphia leads me to spend a lot of time comparing myself to others (something I know is made so much harder with the world of social media) and I can spend hours a day worrying about a particular part of my body or face and how negatively I feel about it. I go from one extreme to the other with 'body checking' (the act of obsessively looking at your appearance or taking photographs of yourself from different angles to try and see how you 'really' look), sometimes needing to look in every reflective surface or material possible, and other days avoiding mirrors and photographs with determination. If I scroll back through my camera roll, I can almost see a timeline of my eating disorder documented through the amount of photographs I took of my body in the hopes of desperately gauging a true vision of myself and my weight. Along with many others eating disorder sufferers in the age of social media, I also had a 'recovery' Instagram account in which I shared my meals and every thought and feeling in between. It's so sobering for me to look back through these posts, and on the extremely rare occasion that I do, I am in fact reminded that I have really come a long way. I have such mixed feelings about these sort of social media accounts, as from a more adult and informed perspective now, I can really see that they are often used as a way of getting tips from other sufferers and triggering oneself to try and stay '''motivated''' to avoid another snack or swap out a meal for a smoothie and some fruit. Eating disorders are competitive things, and I think on most occasions that accounts of this nature are more negative, triggering and damaging than they are anything else. 

Looking at my relationship with my body now, it's reassuring and comforting to recognise that I no longer look to social media as a means of validation when it comes to my eating disorder, and I feel comfortable enough in myself to know that I don't need to be surrounded by others that are suffering, because this can simply spiral out of control. Not only this, but I've also become so much more educated about eating disorders, mental health and diet culture, and movements such as body positivity and female empowerment have absolutely helped me gain a more positive relationship with my body. I now look only immerse myself in safe and positive spaces on the internet, following people who I know speak confidently and happily about their bodies and trying (as hard as it can be) to remove those who I know will trigger me from my 'following' list. Social media has absolutely contributed to some of my issues with food and body image, and I know in the future I'm going to make a conscious effort to practice self care and detox from social media when I know I'm having a hard time. 

Some days I look in the mirror and love my body. Some days I despise everything about it. One thing that has really helped me through years of negative body image has been my absolute love for fashion, and I can't put into words the unprecedented effect being able to wonderfully overdress for a day in the office or prance around in fluffy collared faux fur coats  has had upon my self esteem. Perhaps there's a post to be written about the link between fashion and self confidence, because the transformation I have noticed in myself since studying fashion and wearing whatever the heck I like has left me feeling humbled and hopeful that I can look in the mirror and like what I see. 

My relationship with my body and the sporadic changes in my mental health mean this journey has been far but simple, and I suppose it will continue that way for the majority of my life. I've found so much peace with myself since my initial experiences with anorexia, and I can only hope that this more positive mindset (of course with the bad days in between) will be a trend that continues into my future. Suffering with an eating disorder is hard. Suffering with any mental health problem is hard. But amongst this, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, I've found a sense of calm in getting these emotions down on a page. Eating Disorder Awareness week is something I'm hugely passionate about championing, and I hope if nothing else, this post has done as I intended, and indeed raised some awareness of the feelings that come along with suffering with anorexia. Sending lots of love and hugs to anyone that can resonate with these feelings (U got this <3), and an equal amount of love and hugs to those who have helped me through to this point. 
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