I have never been a big girl.
I’ve never been overweight, I’ve never been fat shamed.
I’ve never weighed more than 60kgs.
For many years, I believed that meant I had no right to speak up about my experiences. This was my first mistake.
I imagined what would be the replies if I brought up the conversation. I have clear memories of being 12 years old and hearing the replies, “but you’re so skinny” to my calls for empathy. I stayed silent, and kept the feelings to myself, bottled away to brew quietly in the distance. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet, it was never not on my mind.
I remember being 13, and my sister, 16 at the time, had her high school boyfriend over at our home in Coffs Harbour. The three of us were sitting in the lounge-room watching the TV together, not uncommon for when he would visit. He was an athlete, and my sister was not. While in my memory it did not seem to bother him, it brought to light a lot of insecurities in my sister. This particular day he made an off-handed comment about my legs. “They’re so thin!” he remarked innocently, and I could sense the frustration in my sister who had her own anxieties. I was silent and quietly left the room, pretending to do something more interesting. I was flooded with thoughts.
Why did he say it like that? Are they too thin? Do my legs look normal? What’s wrong with them? What about my knees? Why don’t my knees sit like hers? What’s going to happen to me?
My body was not like my mother’s, she was small and 3 pregnancies and almost 2 decades of motherhood at this time had turned her into a curvaceous, short statured woman. In photographs at my age, she was radiant and youthful, along with her sisters who looked like a petite quartet walking through a Stevie Nicks music video. My body was not like my sister’s, she was built like a Greek Amazon warrior, with beautiful full lips and a smile that lit up the whole room. My body was not like my father’s, who was a solid, straight build that lacked the feminine touch I needed to reassure myself of normalcy. All 3 struggled at times through my upbringing with their weight, all 3 at times scared me with what they needed to be happy with themselves. Sometimes it was barbaric goals from ridiculous fad diets. Other times it was off-handed comments that came as a result of social pressures. Thankfully, all have changed their perspective and have accepted that change is a journey, and there is nothing wrong with being you.
My body was not like my brother’s, in a wheelchair since I was born – yet it was his I identified with the most. In my heart and mind, I believed we were the same. His legs were thin, lacking the muscle build we take for-granted every time we step. His spine began to curve from sitting in this chair, and one side of his ribs protruded more than the other. Mine were uneven, and mine stuck out too. Of course, not anywhere near the same, my legs are perfectly normal and healthy and there is nothing wrong with my ribs, but at the time it was my genuine belief they were the same. If saw myself in a mirror, that is what I would see.
To highlight how even the most educated can feed this fear, another memory that haunts me was at 15 years of age. I finally wanted some more answers from my doctor, so I brought up my worry for my ribs, my concern with my widening hips and the shape I was becoming. I was met with a dispassionate, “it means you will carry children well, and pregnancy will be easy for you”. I had spent over 2 years obsessing over one comment, and when I vulnerably attempted to ask a professional for help, I was silenced.
The next 3 years of high school for me were a constant struggle to accept myself. I was surrounded by beautiful, kind and wonderful women – all of whom had fallen into the society trap of needing to be thin. If these women, the most gorgeous I had ever met, couldn’t accept their weight, how could I? At sleepovers I would wear Winter PJs in Summer, I feigned illness to avoid swimming in a two-piece, I avoided looking into the mirror, it became my number one enemy, as a small glance turned into half an hour of self-loathing.
I could go on forever listing memories, comments and moments that are burned into the back of my eyelids, but that’s not why I am writing.
When I had left Coffs Harbour and moved to Brisbane, I had (for a very brief period of time) a doctor who mentioned the term Body Dysmorphia to me for the first time. I was in shock, and chose not to talk to my partner who I lived with about it. I didn’t call my mum and chat to her, I didn’t mention it to my best friend. Just like the past decade of keeping my insecurities and fears hidden, I kept this hidden to. I was just dealing with understanding my sexuality, and the repercussions it had on my relationship at the time, I couldn’t handle this.
A year and a half ago when I fell very ill, I saw my body slowly deteriorate in front of me. My posture quickly worsened, my strength fell apart, I gained a tremor I didn’t have before. This battle was the hardest for me to overcome. To others they were small changes, to me, it was everything. I was losing the little control I had. I thought I was disfigured. I have always been active, I love exercise and I eat relatively well. I found ways to silence BDD for periods at a time, but 18 months ago the bottle had burst open. I probably cried more in those months than the rest of my life combined.
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a common anxiety disorder that causes someone to have a distorted view of how they look and to spend a lot of time worrying about their appearance. It is not simply something we don’t like about our appearance, as BDD begins to affect and impede our daily lives. People who have BDD can spend hours each day thinking and obsessing about their real, or perceived flaws. Hours. Every day. These thoughts cause emotional distress, anxiety, frustration and impact daily functioning, from cancelling plans with friends or work, to being unable to eat or dress one day. The fear is that others will notice, and mock, their flaws.
It was upon discovering BDD that I learnt about intrusive thoughts, and how most people experience them on a frequent level, but being unable to dismiss them was uncommon. Suppressing intrusive thoughts only causes them to become worse, and more damaging to the psyche. I had spent a decade that I can clearly recall attempting to suppress all these thoughts, only to have them continuously come back.
For me, BDD was a combination of imagined flaws, or heightened responses to small, irrelevant flaws that became overwhelming and preoccupying. There are many photos of myself where I look like a stranger to myself. I simply don’t recognise myself, even though I have hardly changed. I look back on photos of myself from 5 years ago, and I don’t look like what I felt like. Even today, I have people comment to me, or about me that “you’ve lost so much weight,” purely in response to turning from a child to a woman, and it feeds this negative and destructive thought process.
I thought I was hideous, I thought I was not good enough and I let some people take advantage of that fear.
I feared speaking up about my insecurities because of the countless times I was met with “you’re so skinny,” “you look so healthy though,” and my least favourite of all, “you’d look better if you put on more weight”. Like anyone else suffering from an eating disorder, anxiety or depression – feeling and thinking this way is not a choice, and passing judgement is one of the most harmful things you can do for someone suffering.
BDD to me is not feeling fat. It’s an obsessive disorder I am trying my best to overcome. On an almost daily level I find myself apologising to my partner for my bony knees, or asking if my ribs are too uncomfortable for him. If you go through my Facebook photos, you’ll find I rarely smile with my teeth showing any more. Until the past year, I never showed my middrift or shoulders. My collarbone is uneven and I am still thinking about how much I hate it even as I write these words, and hold back tears.
I know so many people who have had it worse than I in regard to eating disorders or depressive episodes, and I am lucky that I have been able to fight my thoughts before anything damaging has happened to my body. There are thousands of people, especially teenage girls, who can’t.
The next time someone talks about their insecurities, please please please empathise with them. Don’t shut them off, or tell them “but you’re so skinny”. It’s not about weight, it’s about mental well-being. I never spoke up when I was at my lowest and most frightened because I was afraid of insulting or hurting someone else. People told me I was skinny, and I thought that meant I had no right to complain. Some of these scars I will carry with my forever.
Please, listen to one another, and love each other because sometimes it is too hard to love yourself. Everyone needs help sometimes, and it can be frighteningly easy to fake it around people who love you more than anything. More than anything, have empathy for each other.
I am slowly finding a balance, and it is a tumultuous journey I can’t possibly imagine anyone could face alone.