As a health coach who helps women work through food and body image struggles, I've had the privilege of hearing many womens' battle with disordered eating and negative body image. A common thread across the board is that most of the women I've spoken to didn't realise how seriously these issues were affecting their mental health and quality of life.
Having gone through the process of healing my own body image and making peace with food over the past five years, I know what it's like to feel like food and body image struggles are going to be a part of your life forever. I know what it's like to have that low-key discontent with your body buzzing in the background of your life, unresolved emotional burdens and a complex relationship with food that you feel helpless to resolve.
That's why I'm doing a short series of posts to share about my healing journey. I believe in the power of storytelling; seeing what has been possible for someone else to enforce the belief that the same can happen for you too. I'll start today by unpacking my childhood body insecurities and how they later turned into low self-esteem and unhealthy eating and exercise behaviours.
my body insecurities as a pre-teen
I was what people call a 'chubby' child. Despite being relatively bigger than my cousins and schoolmates, I never saw a problem with my body. That is until I entered my pre-teens. In grade 6 (age 11/12), I became self-conscious, especially about my legs. Being a black South African girl, it's quite normal that I would be built a bit bigger than some of my white girl classmates (body diversity is a thing). Yet it didn't seem normal to me. I started getting teased occasionally for my body size and that embedded a distorted view of myself as being unattractive and not good enough. I would get nervous about pool parties and P.E. (physical education) classes because I'd have to wear a swimming costume, or shorts, and show my legs. Instead of being carefree and enjoying moments with my friends, I was stressed about how my body looked.
the slippery slope from body insecurity to an almost eating disorder
The struggle only got worse when I got to high school. We all remember being a teenager, competing for boys' attention and trying our best not to be a social outcast. I attended a private girls' high school in my late high school years; most of my classmates were white and had bodies that looked completely different to mine. This amplified the body image issues that started for me in primary school. This was also when I started some really unhealthy eating and exercise behaviours in an attempt to be thinner. For example, I became a pescatarian because I thought that meat was making me fat and ended up with an iron deficiency. At some point, I basically wasn't eating dinner at the boarding house, but thankfully a friend of mine quickly intervened and stopped me from harming myself further. I was convinced that my eating habits were totally justified because that's how important being thin had become. Not to mention, at least once a term, the grapevine would spread news about a classmate who'd been confronted by teachers with suspicions of an eating disorder. My environment was perpetuating the importance of thinness at all costs.
What I hope you'll learn from my childhood body image struggle
My childhood experiences around my body taught me about the value that society places on women's physical appearance. This caused me to have low self-esteem and low self-worth from quite a young age. It's super important for me to share this because so many of us have gone through similar experiences but don't realise that such behaviours are actually a sign of mental distress. Western culture worships thin bodies, hence even unhealthy behaviours in pursuit of the thin ideal are not considered harmful. By sharing my story and pointing out what I was doing to myself, I hope that you can evaluate your past (or even present) coping mechanisms for negative body image and notice where your environment influenced you to engage in some potentially self-harmful behaviours. As you become more aware, you'll gradually be able to adopt a healthier mindset around your food and bodies and prevent this cycle from repeating itself in future generations.
In the next part of my story, I'll share how my body image struggles continued in university and how my struggle resulted in orthorexic (an unhealthy obsession with being healthy) behaviours. You can check out the post here.
That’s it from me for today. I’d love to hear from you - let me know in the comments if any part of my story relates to you. Sign up to my newsletter so to receive support to release the diet mindset and have a healthier relationship with food, your body and better mental health.