I've been through a few different stages in my body image healing journey. In my previous blog post, I opened up about how my body image struggles started in my childhood through insecurities and how it almost turned into an eating disorder towards the end of high school. If you missed the first post, I highly encourage you to check it out here (then come back to this post). Today I'm sharing about how my childhood body insecurities snowballed into an obsession with weight-loss, orthorexia and body hatred. If you're like "orthorexia,...what?" - I got you, I'll explain what this is in a bit.
You might be wondering why I'm sharing my story in the first place. I believe in the power of storytelling to educate about certain things and experiences. The purpose of me sharing what I've gone through is to help more young women be aware of the traps of socio-cultural messaging around women's bodies and how dangerous it can be to mental health. It's also to break the normalisation of 'perfect body' worshipping on social media that infiltrates people's mindsets about their own bodies (even in the subtlest ways) and subsequently their relationship with food and exercise. Because of how mainstream diet culture is, many people don't even realise that they have a diet mindset, that they have negative beliefs and feelings about their body and that they have a tainted view of food as something that either makes them gain or lose weight. So a person may be struggling with certain feelings about their body but overlook it because they think it's normal. None of this is normal and neither you nor I have to tolerate it.
Now, onto the blog post.
MY EXPERIENCE of legitimately hating my body
My body image struggle reached its peak in university. After gaining some weight in first year, I became increasingly preoccupied with my physical appearance. Every time I saw my reflection in the mirror I would become completely occupied by feelings of shame, disgust and misery. The misery came from the belief that if I never changed my body, I would be forever unhappy. I'd never be able to have the life I desired. The shame and disgust came from my own sense of internalised weight bias (a negative bias held toward my own body as a consequence of internalising weight stigma). For clarity, weight stigma is a system of beliefs and institutions that discriminate against people in bigger bodies. This doesn't necessarily extend only to people in bigger bodies: if for example you gain a bit of weight and somebody makes a negative comment about it or treats you badly because of it, that is an example of weight stigma in action. We are all affected by it, although of course to different degrees depending on our body size. So basically, the weight stigma that I had experienced in my childhood culminated in a set of harmful beliefs about my worth, which also affected my self-esteem and what I believed I deserved in life. It went beyond hating my body - I also hated a portion of myself because of how much I had attached my identity to my body.
From 'weight-loss journey' to health obsession
As a result of the deep emotional struggle of hating my body, I had to find a way to cope. After reading a book called More than a Body: Your Body is an Instrument Not an Ornament by Doctors Lindsay and Lexie Kite, I learned about a whole lot of different coping strategies that people adopt when struggling with body image. Two of those that related to me were dieting and exercise. Although eating healthily and exercising are generally good things, they can also be bad for you depending on your motive and the mindset by which you approach them. Personally, I went on a diet to lose weight. It was a diet composed of healthy foods, but it restricted calories. The restriction turned out not to be so good for my mental health after a couple of months. I also started a high-intensity workout plan that was intended to burn the most possible calories in 28 minutes. I had placed all my hope of feeling better about my body in this weight loss strategy, and I was completely obsessed with sticking to the meal plan at all costs and not missing a day of exercise. If not, I would surely gain weight (immediately, of course) and lose any chance I had at liking myself and having a better life. I had also begun to start identifying with being the "healthy girl" - so sticking to the plan also contributed to better self-esteem in some warped kind of way.
So what is orthorexia exactly? Here's a more formal definition from Beateatingdisorders.org: "Orthorexia refers to an unhealthy obsession with eating “pure” food. Food considered “pure” or “impure” can vary from person to person. This doesn’t mean that anyone who subscribes to a healthy eating plan or diet is suffering from orthorexia. As with other eating disorders, the eating behaviour involved – “healthy” or “clean” eating in this case – is used to cope with negative thoughts and feelings, or to feel in control. Someone using food in this way might feel extremely anxious or guilty if they eat food they feel is unhealthy." It's crazy how on point this definition is. In fact, this definition was me. For about a year my life completely revolved around losing weight and being perfectly healthy. On the outside it probably looked like I was doing really well - I was losing weight and I had a newfound sense of confidence from getting physically stronger. But I had also started bingeing on weekends and had obsessive thoughts about my 'cheat meal' during the week. I felt completely controlled by food because I had given it so much power to determine outcomes relating to my body and my life and self-worth. These were the inner workings of my body image struggle that nobody could see from the outside. I also never thought that it would be possible to have a life where I wasn't always thinking about food and didn't feel completely revolted by the sight of my body.
How I started healing my body image and relationship with food
This phase lasted about two to two and a half years, but I'd been struggling with body image since about the age of 10. I reached my breaking point when I got real with myself about how much suffering I'd endured in the quest to have the perfect body. I decided to call it quits - all of it. I changed my mindset about a healthy lifestyle, choosing to focus on self-care rather than body appearance. Slowly, I started to feel better about myself. But it took a while and it's still a work in progress. I still somewhat hoped that I would eventually look like those women on Instagram who'd moved mountains to get their perfect 'after' photo, but I was unwilling to continue living in darkness for something that I realised would actually not make my life any better. Each day, I chose myself in the little ways - listening to my body when it asked for a gentler workout, eating if I was hungry before I thought I would be etc. And gradually my mental health started improving and the cloud lifted.
Why am I sharing all of this?
Whether or not you've experienced body image woes to this extent, we've all been tainted by diet culture messaging. We've all had moments where we've felt down about our bodies, gone on a restrictive diet to lose weight or something else along these lines. This mindset and subsequent behaviour is totally normal by our societal standards, but it actually is not normal. A healthy way of eating is to listen to your body instead of silencing it. A healthy self-worth is knowing that you are worthy regardless of your shape or size. It's not okay that so many women have this ongoing body image battle and are unaware of how their coping behaviours are actually harmful to their mental and physical health. I'm writing to raise awareness about the nonsense of diet culture and how we all deserve better than this.
You deserve to feel good in your body. You deserve to feel good about yourself. You deserve to take care of you for you and not for the world. You deserve true joy and the confidence to go for the things you wish for in life.
Educating myself about our oppressive socio-cultural standards and how to take better care of myself helped me get better. It helped me heal my body image and have a more positive relationship with food. If you'd like to have the same transformation, I have a great free resource for you. You can get free access to a preview of my self-help coaching programme handouts by clicking here.
Until next time
Beat Eating disorders. n.d. Orthorexia - Beat. [online] Available at: <https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/get-information-and-support/about-eating-disorders/types/other-eating-feeding-problems/orthorexia/> [Accessed 28 March 2022].