Aisling Connor recounts her experience with disordered eating, and the ways in which we are so conditioned to look beyond someone’s health to their size. She discusses just how harmful moralising weight can be…
When I was in school I always felt uncomfortable in my body. I’m sure my hang ups were sadly shared by many women, regardless of truth or import – my stomach was pudgy, I had several chins, nothing was toned. I hardly ever exercised and comfort ate frequently. However, I wasn’t “heavy”, a lot of it was me thinking I was bigger than I actually was, and putting far too much value on my size in the first place. If you stare at something for long enough, even a mirror can be deceiving.
I finally decided a year before my debs that I was going to lose weight. I had my heart set on a skin tight size 8 dress that looked like Morticia Addams’ wedding dress, and I was going to fit into it. I started eating better and exercising. It was miserable at the start but eventually it became a habit and I began to love it. Physically I felt much better, more comfortable, and happier than I had been in a very long time – less so because of my size, but because of the way I was treating my own body.
I fit into the dress for my debs – most of the compliments I received that night were on my new figure. I was healthy at this point; I was making sure I drank enough water, got my 5-a-day, and treated myself in moderation. I also still allowed rest days off exercise. I was living my life by the healthy books, but not obsessively so.
Then my graduation dawned on me in my final year and under the stress of it all, I didn’t want to regain the weight. Instead of maintaining my new-found healthy life style, I pushed myself to lose even more weight. I would have felt like a failure if I looked “fat” in the pictures. My head was in such a dark place that I genuinely valued appearance over my grades or any other achievements in school. My grades felt like nothing if the pictures weren’t perfect. It was a black hole of self-doubt that kept sucking me in, further and further as I started trying to take up less and less space in the world.
I skipped meals and compensated everything I ate with rigorous exercise. Rest days were a no no. I have a vivid memory of trying to study but not being able to concentrate – I knew very well it was because I hadn’t eaten enough. Instead of walking to the Spar that was 5 minutes away, I walked to the one 20 minutes away, bought a banana, black coffee, and a 90-calorie diet bar and considered it a binge. I walked around another half an hour in an attempt to burn it off before I studied again. When I was on holidays a few weeks later, I went to the gym after only fruit for breakfast and forced myself to walk up the 8 flights of stars in scorching heat back to the hotel room instead of taking the lift.
This new figure was attained by depriving my body of food and nutrients, and never giving it rest. I had a black scab on my lower back from constantly doing abdominal exercises that just wouldn’t heal. It was the figure 14 year old me would have killed for, but I was miserable – nothing about me felt healthy. My insides felt like they were being carved out. Young women are so often sold the dream that with a smaller waist size comes happiness, but it doesn’t. I’d never been so unhappy: my life force felt sucked from me.
I wanted to tell someone – for someone to notice. I wanted to know I’d still be myself, still be beautiful, but my friends and peers only ever spoke to me about how my body was ‘goals’. They wanted to look like me. People who barely noticed me, and who used to make fun of me, were nice for once. For the first time in my 18 years, I had someone actually fancy me back. I had my first date at this point, and sat there looking like a corpse. He didn’t see this though: he thought I looked great. I thought: everyone said I was doing great, so I must have been doing great.
But deep down I wasn’t flattered by these compliments. I knew what I was doing wasn’t healthy. When someone would say they wanted my figure, I would think “no you don’t”. It wasn’t worth feeling so weak and faint, or constantly being anxious, but I couldn’t stop myself. The prospect of getting better was being pushed further and further away with every compliment; if I stopped then, all of the approval would go away. Only my best friend and my family saw I was not in a good place – no one else thought to look beyond my body, to examine the sudden change in me.
There is no blame to place – these people didn’t know that I only looked that way from disordered eating and from an unhealthy obsession with exercise. The people around me simply didn’t know any better – we don’t know any better. We place moral values on the size of, especially women’s, bodies and think that the less space a person takes up in the world, the better they are – the more beautiful and happy they must be. I just had what every billboard and magazine put forward as the “goal body”. In a world of laxative tea and waist trainers, our health is never valued over our bodies, least of all among young people whose health seems perfect and lives seem endless. Beauty is everything.
When I finally gained control of my eating and exercise habits, and strived for healthier and happier goals, the compliments stopped.
I had a bit of a setback in college, and old habits returned. I was out for my friends birthday and one of her friends began the “your figure is goals! How did you do it!” spiel, and I corrected her by saying she really didn’t want to look like me, because it was an eating disorder that sculpted that body. She was speechless. Perhaps it sounds blunt to have said so – but I knew I couldn’t handle another round of compliments about my unhealthy body setting back my recovery.
I’m sure no one would have condoned my behaviour if they knew what was behind the body, or said the things they did. But it’s interesting how losing weight changes people’s perceptions of you – maybe it is high time we take a second thought before we compliment someone on their weight loss. At the end of the day, being healthy is more important than appearance. Placing moral values on a person’s size, and attributing happiness to thinness, is debilitating for young women who face so much pressure to be thin. Recent studies have shown that a vast majority of children, boys and girls, are unhappy with their body as young as seven – the conversation around bodies needs to change. The fact that little children are worried about being too fat shows the extent to which we value thinness over health, how we make it synonymous with beauty and happiness, and just how implicit that message is in everything we read and say.
At both ends of the spectrum, you can so rarely tell when someone is healthy just by looking at them. To assume you can is foolish and harmful.
Those initial validations of my unhealthy behaviour made recovery slow, but I’ve learned that how I feel and what makes me feel the most confident is more important than the opinions of others. Your confidence and self-love should never be based on other people’s perceptions of you, as long as you’re happy with yourself, it’s all good.
Illustration: Sara Stefanini
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