A few weeks ago, I was approached by Sportsgirl in conjunction with the team at the Butterfly Foundation to promote their Love Your Body Week campaign. The Sportsgirl team asked if I wanted to promote campaign awareness through Instagram, by posting a photo in one of the foundation's "Love Your Body" slogan t-shirts. Whilst I wholeheartedly support the Butterfly Foundation and deeply respect their work, I could only respond to my contact that the action of simply posting a photo felt slightly too trivial to me, too non-committal, and uncomprehending as an action. An image captioned simply "Love Your Body" felt so blithe as a response to such a hefty and multi-faceted topic as eating disorders that I decided to participate only on the grounds that I could write a personal essay regarding my own experiences and that I would be completely transparent about the entire process.
They agreed, I got a t-shirt – and now you get an essay.
The truth is, I have suffered throughout adolescence and continue to suffer immensely to this day from an agonising and downright time-consuming obsession with my body. I have quite honestly reached a point in my life where I am forced to acknowledge that I can not recall any sense of marked satisfaction or even basic contentment with my body shape or size at all. The vast majority of women I have ever encountered also suffer from precisely the same weight of this self-hatred and neuroticism, which is an appallingly tiring thought. At 24 years-old, I have been drawn to wonder whether this is simply the state of affairs for the rest of my life; the pinching and prodding at mounds of flesh that I believe to be surfeit, marching my fingers across collar bones like some authoritarian dictator to ensure that they are protruding to an acceptable degree, furiously inspecting my width from the side as I pass mirrors.
I am exhausted by these behaviours. I am exhausted by the entire concept of body image.
When I'm forced to ruminate on the origins of these issues, I'm confronted with a particularly mindless montage of imagery as I pressed into pubescence and faint flickers of perverse pride that those moments elicited in me: my father indicating that my jutting hip bones resembled those of a cow, my sister, always exhibiting more rounded musculature, constantly referring to me in diminutive terms: "tiny", "small", "stringy", my name always coming up first in the draft when an object needed retrieving from a tight space, and the way that adult hands could meet around my waist with ease.
These are the moments that force me to receive a slogan such as "Love Your Body" with such a creeping anxiety and apprehension, because I did love my body – extraordinarily so – and as such it became inextricably bound to my identity. Encasing all notions of myself that I valued, packaging my curiosity, my outrageousness, and creativity in a bite-sized pill for external observers, there was always smallness. In the absence of which, I became fearful, no other qualities of my person could remain bearable, could even possibly begin to make sense.
Throughout high school my hips began to unfurl, my thighs dilated, and my ass accumulated weight; it felt as though I was watching the torturous demolition of a statue of myself while other girls, still blessed by "smallness", fell into that privileged corner I had occupied. I remember looking at my best friend's thighs, the immaculate concave curve through black private school stockings and observing the insufferable mass of my own amorphous blobs that spread beneath me in assembly: the hot flush of shame as I assessed my abhorrent failings. At the time I had absolutely no awareness that Sarah would be hospitalised in a few short months, consumed by the bulimia that was rapidly taking her body to ruin.
Clutching a small ego occupied by small thoughts, I began to take punitive action against the body that had so blatantly betrayed me: striking at my abdomen in times of desperation as though I was attempting to beat it into submission, leaving angry, ineffectual welts at the base of my stomach, and attempting all manner of starvation that I could bring myself to accommodate. While the more aggressive tendencies eventually disbanded, the obsessions, compulsions, and corrosive cyclical cognitions have always, always remained.
Not that I had any self-awareness at the time but my vulnerability to disordered eating only became truly problematic when I first moved out of home into a small, claustrophobic den in Darlinghurst. I would lie prostrate in the carpeted front room, defeatedly considering my naked body as it appeared to the men that I would march up the crooked wooden stairs to my bedroom. I started running long distances in a circuit through Hyde park, even though my body is distinctly not physiologically equipped for such an activity; I would run and cry hot, insane tears in the process. I reduced meals to single cans of baked beans or creamed corn (neither recommended for either their sodium content or culinary dignity), and I crept furtively to the bathroom in the back corner of the house at night to perfect the act of purging. I was smaller then than I have been at any other point in my adult life and, without coincidence, I hated myself the most furiously I ever have as well.
Years later, as I had grown to tolerate the curves and diminishing smallness, my ex boyfriend who had met me in this period, would comment coolly on the amount of weight I had put on since our earliest days and, flustered, I found myself unable to communicate to him the war I had waged against myself within those walls wedged in a Darlinghurst alley behind the Columbian Hotel for twelve months. Healthy still felt like a level of abnormal.
To be clear, I was never formally diagnosed with an eating disorder but I do think it's disturbingly easy for women to struggle through this supposed 'sub-clinical' level of anguish and for those on the outside to perceive it as normal, believe that it is to be expected. We have been so corrupted by body image ideals that the lingering dissatisfaction, the self-loathing, and off-handed jokes ("Gosh I wish I could just get glandular fever and shed a few kilos") are less salient to us than when we are confronted by women who are comfortable – happy, even – with their bodies.
Earlier this year I was walking through the hideously cold winds of London streets with my older sister and we came to discussing body image. To my utter shock, she informed me that it has simply never occurred to her to be concerned about her body size. It was nothing short of a revelation to me that anybody could exist in such a way; it represented an unfathomable lack of complication. To nurse this deep distress at one's smallness (or lack thereof) seems such a constitutional part of so many women's emotional experiences that being introduced to somebody devoid of those feelings is kind of like meeting a person that doesn't laugh.
It is this persistent personal association with body size that compels me to dread the concept of "loving" one's body. I'm deterred by the emotional dependence that is implied by such an imperative. I appreciate that for some women it is possible and important but I find it deeply complicated. When you are crushed by the debilitating sensation of inadequacy, when starvation and abstinence from indulgence become an arena for pride, and the ebbs of obsession penetrate every quiet moment, "love" isn't a word that comes to the forefront of your priorities – nor perhaps should it be. Today, I reach instead for words like "complacency", "indifference", and and general fucking "okayness".
Loving and loathing are concepts that exist on either side of the same coin and the idea that somebody should hand you this coin and tell you firmly to always keep it facing the right way up can feel hopeless and downright oppressive. Some days I do wake up loving my body in exactly the way that hashtags can tell you to but equally, I will also wake up other days and violently hate everything about it; it's a capricious bullshit rollercoaster that I am quite sure most women are riding.
I believe that the distinction between loving yourself and loving your body should be made with the utmost certainty because placing implicit value in this thing, this awkward transitory mass whose ideals are shaped by arbitrary capitalist trends conceived by awful strangers in big offices, can only lead to heartbreak. Shifting our personal value systems is important, learning how to forgive yourself is even more so.
Certainly love yourself, and feel appreciation for your body (marvel at your little legs in their inverted pendulum as you break into run – what is even going on there? Amazing!) but always remain conscious that you are not it and it is emphatically not you.
Note: I understand that eating disorders and disordered eating are a deeply subjective experience, this was intended as a personal narrative and I don't wish to speak for anybody else (men or women) who feel the same anxieties or are suffering from associated disorders. I have taken into consideration my body size whilst writing this but I also wish to acknowledge that true appearance has very little bearing in such matters and this essay should not be construed as an indictment against any other body shape – larger or smaller. It simply is what it is.
I would also like to point out that I did not intend for this entry to become so dark so quickly so here is a Subreddit entirely dedicated to gifs of baby elephants. It is wonderful.