When I was 16, my BMI matched my age. I know this because one morning my mum asked me to work it out - the night before my sister had seen me getting changed into my pyjamas from her room across the hall and seen the vertebrae of my spine sticking out. For her, that was it. She’d spent weeks and weeks watching me make excuses at mealtimes, eating a yoghurt for breakfast, skipping lunch at school for one piece of toast, and overexercising, and she’d kept trying to make me see that something was wrong, but I wouldn’t listen. Finally, desperately, she told my parents, and they stood and watched me weigh myself, worked out my BMI and were mildly horrified that I’d managed to become malnourished under their noses.
I was taking my GCSEs at the time, and had taken them so seriously that I’d let my phone go out of charge for weeks, deactivated my Facebook and shut myself away to revise for 8 hours a day. I felt out of control - these exams were dictating my life. So I decided to reestablish control by restricting what I ate, by becoming as small as I felt that I was inside. I socially isolated myself, and flipped out at any one of my friends if they commented on how little food I was eating. I was obsessed. I’d go to the gym 4 times a week and not allow myself to leave until I’d burnt at least 500 calories on the cross trainer. I’d sit in the library at school and work out how much I’d had to eat that day, the amount of calories I’d consumed directly proportional to how guilty I should feel. And it worked. I was tiny. But it was never enough. I sometimes think that I wanted to be so small I could disappear.
I’m not exactly sure when it started - there isn’t a single moment when I decided to stop eating - but rather it built up over time. Between the ages of 8 and 13 I was very overweight. I’d look at pictures of people in magazines and feel sad because I didn’t look like them. I found it difficult to feel like I mattered because I was overweight. The kids who bullied me at primary school, the adolescent crushes who I felt would never feel the same way about me, the films and tv I watched in which nobody looked like me all built up to the overwhelming feeling that I just didn’t fit in, didn’t matter. I was reading a section of ‘girl up’ by Laura Bates recently in which she asked children at a primary school to draw a picture of themselves as they were, and a picture of themselves with anything they’d like to change if they could. She showed a selection of pictures, from both male and female children. In the boys pictures there was no real discernible pattern - larger biceps here, an attractive girlfriend there. One boy drew himself as a magician. But in picture after picture the girls had drawn themselves as smaller, thinner. Reading that made me want to cry. The overwhelming impression is that even at a young, formative age, girls want to shrink themselves. And that’s what I felt.
After that pivotal conversation with my parents I had a decision to make - I either had to do what they asked and try to eat more, to (to my horror) gain weight, or carry on as I was, listening to the voice in my head telling me to eat less, to get smaller, so I might finally feel like I was good enough. I had to choose the first option. I knew that if I didn’t I would ruin my relationship with my parents, and in that moment, looking at the concern on their faces, I couldn’t do it to them. I couldn’t continue hurting them. So my mum and I worked out a regime (which at first mostly involved eating pop tarts and mars bars at various points of the day) and slowly I started to put on weight. It took a long time for me to break out of my rigid regime, but by the age of 17/18 I was back to a healthy weight, and my parents were satisfied.
But the disordered eating didn’t stop there. The voice was much quieter, but it was still there. When I first arrived at university I would still feel bad about eating beans on toast the morning after a night out, ridden with guilt because of all the calories I’d consumed the night before in alcohol. I would watch people eating chocolate bars at lunch with fascination, because it was something I’d never allow myself to eat. I described my eating habits - no carbs, no meat, mostly protein and vegetables and very little else - to a friend once and he looked at me and said, half joking, ‘how do you live?’. Being vegetarian gave me a ready excuse - there was a whole food group that I could avoid - and I also often hid behind the statement ‘I’m just trying to be healthy’. But, even though I wasn’t depriving myself of nourishment (I was eating around 1800 calories a day), I was still obsessed. I was still following rules, restricting myself, always thinking about the next meal and how I could make it healthier. I still wanted to be thin. I still didn’t feel good enough.
Over the summer I spent a lot of time watching videos from the StylelikeU youtube channel, in which women are interviewed about their lives, their passions, their sense of self. The message they send is that women are not just their bodies, or what they wear. They are not defined by how attractive they are. It showed me that there are so many other ways to feel like you matter which don’t involve shrinking yourself, which seems like a self evident truth, but was something I’d struggled with for all of my teenage years. All these women were so beautiful, despite many of them not fitting into the idealised standard of what is considered to be attractive.
Watching these videos, and educating myself about body positivity, had a huge effect on me which at first I didn’t even notice. It was as simple as having a meal without once thinking about the amount of calories in it, or not caring when someone commented that I’d put on a bit of weight, or just deciding to buy a new pair of jeans when my old ones didn’t fit me anymore, rather than holding onto them to torture myself into losing weight and shrinking back into them. Now my eating habits aren’t exactly 3 meals a day normal - I’m at university, so some days I’ll forget to eat lunch because I’ll be writing an essay, or I’ll eat half a packet of biscuits while sitting at my desk. But the important thing is that I’ve stopped worrying about what I eat. I’ve stopped criticising my body and started to accept it for what it is. I’ve put on weight and I don’t give a flying fuck (excuse my French). I am not my body. I am the books that I read, the people that I spend time with, the values I uphold. I am my interests and passions. I am myself. And I feel pretty great about that.
I want every girl who’s ever felt like she needed to lose weight to fit in, or to feel like she mattered, to feel this way too, but I know it’ll take time. Just know, please, if you’ve ever struggled with body image issues, that you are not your body. You are not the standards which media and society set for you. You are so much more than that. You are, as my friend said to me recently, a precious gem that should be cherished.