When my doctor told me I had to gain weight, I panicked.
My weight loss had began innocently enough. At age 17, I was unhappy in my personality and unhappy in my body. I had always been a straight A student, but it weighed on me that I was hopelessly uncomfortable with who I was. Multiple times, I’d been rejected by friendship groups and ignored as a romantic prospect. (I still remembered one popular girl telling me I’d still by single by Year 12, and she was right.)
I had come to believe that I was the epitome of awkward – awkward in my interactions, and awkward in my body. One of these seemed easier to control, something to show others that I could get one part of my personal life right.
That began me on my journey of restricting what I ate – and restrict I did.
Most days, I had debilitating stomach pains sitting in my afternoon classes. Missing an exercise session was cause for a meltdown. And each day, I’d chart in my journal where my progress was, and how I felt. (Often, my feelings were awful, because to my mind the work was never done.)
Eventually, I had lost a large amount of weight, and I felt much happier with myself in photos.
But unbeknownst to others, my body was starting to physically stop normal functions. I felt tired all the time, and my anxiety was through the roof. I didn’t look skeletal, but I was very sick – even though I refused to admit it.
So when my doctor told me to put on weight, I was horrified. That was capitulation, right? If models in the magazines could be thinner than me, why couldn’t I? I had to be the best, and smaller was always better.
Or was it? Over time, I began to realise something profound.
My relationship to my body had become poisonous. And as the weight disappeared, my own self was disappearing too.
My obsession with being “small” (read: thin and “attractive”) was beating me down and making me small in everything else, too.
I had believed being “thin” would help me hold my head up high. But now, I didn’t feel like myself, and certainly, I wasn’t happy. It’s hard to be joyful when you’re constantly anxious after eating food or fuzzy from lack of food.
I had also hoped losing weight would help my confidence with others, but the irony was I had become more isolated than ever. Most social events revolved around food and drink, and even a coffee out meant extra calories, and so I avoided all of it.
No doubt, people around me also picked up that something was off. It’s hard to feel comfortable with someone who won’t eat at her own birthday party, and who is stressed out by missing a walk.
Ironically, I was at my sickest when I looked my healthiest.
Today, I know that what I was doing to my body was actually robbing me.
I was unable to be myself or to think about anything else but my body and eating and exercise. I had become a prisoner of my own addiction.
Like any addiction, I couldn’t break it right away. In fact, it took me years to realise that I was giving up to be tiny. But eventually, I realised that wasn’t a price I was willing to pay.
I am more than my body.
And eventually, I realised that loving and accepting my body was an act of resistance.
Eating disorders are extremely complex, and they can’t be reduced to one single factor. But it’s clear that our culture puts enormous pressure on us to live up to standards of beauty.
For women, that standard is usually to take up as little space as possible.
It occurred to me that I went through all of that suffering, just because I decided “women should be thin”. It wasn’t fair that I thought I needed to be starved to be loved by others or by myself. And that’s one of the most deep realisations I’ve had: that my eating disorder was robbing me of the life I wanted to lead.
More than ten years on, my recovery hasn’t been fast, but it has been big. I still struggle to love my body sometimes. But I have learned that my body deserves to be cared for, regardless of how I feel about it in the moment.
Today, I know I am worthy even if I’m not the smallest in the room. I have made deeper connections – even meeting my first boyfriend – when I was at my “heaviest”. And I want others to know that they are more than their body.
I don’t want to be small. And you don’t need to be, either.
To those who are suffering, there is hope. Ask for help. If I can beat this, you can too.
Contributed by Cheryl