TW/CW: Body Dysmorphia, Eating Disorders, Trauma
This article contains explicit mentions of harmful behaviour.
Please consult the resources under the article if you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder.
Seeing anonymous confessions about body dysmorphia or the fear of eventually falling victim to disordered eating, and not doing anything about it hurts more than dabbling in the pain of my past ever could.
Is this who I really am? The short answer is no. The disgust, the disappointment, and the cringe that comes with ED realisations is an insight into normalcy. Your mind is a field under occupation — feels as though no longer yours, but you yearn for the eventual independence. The enemy has planted its poisonous seeds, but it is not you. Rationality itself seems to be rationed at times like these. But how can you reflect on the situation that has been so imperceptibly inflicted on you, without spiralling into self-blame?
There is a common misconception which aligns eating disorders with contempt for food. In reality, the fixation mostly has its source in our love for it; love which, unfortunately, does not agree with the feelings that come with body dysmorphia. And so we succumb to the latter, ignore the former — we become more restrictive, find justifications for saying goodbye to things. In an attempt to hide from the constant bombardment with questions, my younger self took refuge in supposedly healthy diets. The freedom that came with having to cook for myself in a carnivorous household allowed me to wean myself off food that my paranoid tastes perceived as fattening. Not long until food was off the table almost completely — and two crackers had to suffice for lunch — even teachers made me into a joke. Me and my “bird food” were the best comedy of them all. I began creating rituals, restrictions, and rules for food, heaven forbid I should ever enjoy it.
Nobody knew what went on behind the scenes, and so the compliments were always innocent. I managed to subvert any comment, and find weight as its ulterior motive. A person I haven’t seen for a few years — “Wow! You look great!”, which I translated to “Wow! You lost weight since I last saw you, you look great!”. This translator, a really bad one, kept me hooked on self-destructive behaviours. Vicarious reinforcement was as influential as direct communication. What message does the media put across by labelling Adele’s (divorce trauma induced) weight loss as her “greatest achievement” — greater than 120 million records, 15 Grammys, 18 Billboard Awards, 5 AMAs, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and the fastest selling album in iTunes history? This value placed on the body image may lead us to believe that whatever we do, our achievement can only be appreciated when we reach the “ideal”.
It goes without saying that disordered eating revolves around an ideal body image, the one which we imprint on our minds and worship daily. Is this icon — this photograph of an ideal body we strive to become — an entirely abstract matter? Turns out that Instagram provides a physical shrine for the eating disorder to gather its images. Pandora’s Box, filled with both dopamine and misery. In order to appear normal, I must perform a self-loving ritual on social media — and so I post with exaggerated confidence. Felt cute, will delete later. For a few days the photo functions as a reliable source of gratification: likes, likes, likes. Are they real? — Or do my followers pity me, but still admire the swiftly exuded confidence? And will I ever know? After approximately three days, the post is old news, the activity dies out. I am extinct. No longer validated by strangers, only misery remains in the box — I am left with a photo that punctures the balloon of my inflated ego — a painful process, the source of which must be deleted immediately. Over the years I have archived ninety-four pictures of myself, the perception now sober from the initial zeal of excitement that came with the post. I dare not open the archived folder lest I realise that I have posted something which now presents itself as ugly; that people saw and remembered.
Even after having reflected upon the idea of body image for so long, I cannot describe how it manifests itself visually. Whatever appears in the mirror, it feels less like a Renaissance nude and more like a surrealist take on the homunculus. I have a mental museum of body images — and what a cunning exhibition it is — every image different than the other, certain parts accentuated here but not there. Which is the real one? Which one do I trust? Do other people see me as exhibit A, or B? And when attraction is involved — would I be a marble statue, or an antique leather armchair? Either way, as with any traditional museum, touch is a no go. Knowing that mirrors are deceptive, I have hidden them all; but the gaze seeks images out: forced resemblances to strangers, public mirrors, window reflections, cutlery — danse macabre of carnivalesque faces and oblong limbs.
The times are difficult now. With the lockdown forcing our lives and their stresses into a claustrophobic space, the eating disorders are feasting. There are less places to hide, you come face to face with problems which, no matter how small, have managed to outgrow you. It may feel as though you are failing at anything and everything you do. Self-punishment or forging a sense of control is a reflexive response of a disordered mind. I remember this response all too well — this nonsensical cycle of grasping for an illusion of stability and control.
My definitions of ‘normal’ were self-destructive, my perception of self a delusional mirage. Talking to a friend, I complained— “you can’t even see my ribs anymore”. I thought this was normal too. Weight gain, after all, was a universal concern after the first term of university. My friend’s morbid reaction was a reality check — they cried, fearful that soon I would starve myself to death. I was a bag of bones. How did I take it to such extremes? Whatever you are going through, may this be your moment of sobriety. Don’t turn yourself into a corpse. Seek help. Speak up. Speak out.
Organisations which can offer information and support for eating disorders:
Anorexia & Bulimia Care (ABC)
03000 11 12 13
BEAT (UK Eating Disorder Charity)
Helpline (adult) – 0808 801 0677
Studentline – 0808 801 0811
Youthline – 0808 801 0711
British Nutrition Foundation
020 7557 7930