Purging is very literally a prison; the bars are self-doubt and a nagging anxiety that grows stronger by the second, fed by indecision and a gnawing unhappiness that happily eats away at your mind. When I purge, I see stars. My whole body is on fire and I feel worse than I did before I purged.
This particular purge was spurred onward by a lacerating comment made on the topic of my body, circa 11am. My heart jolted at the comment and I felt my palms sweat. I tugged on my shirt and pulled on my skirt to cover my larger-than-life legs, life giving legs. My throat constricted and my eyes watered. Why did I care so much? I felt my breakfast turn in my stomach as I made my way to the quietest bathroom on campus.
In primary school, before I understood what it meant not to love your body, I remember going to the swimming carnival. I remember taking off my towel to the attention and whispers of my peers who in turn proceeded to make jokes and snarky comments. I remember feeling stricken as an undying shame took root in my very bones.
I spent the rest of the carnival locked in one of the bathroom stalls refusing to come out, and the school administration had to phone my mum to coax me out. My mother has always been supportive of me, and she let me cry my eyes out, soaking the fabric of her shirt, I don’t think I had ever felt as safe. After I had calmed down however, my mum sat me down and tried to explain to me how I was feeling and why I was feeling the way I did, and why the other kids reacted the way in which they did.
“You’ve got a little bit of extra weight on you, and that’s not what other girls normally look like. That’s why they were being mean. If you just lost a bit of weight then this wouldn’t happen.”
I know she had the best of intentions, but as a naive and impressionable nine-year-old, I took her word for gospel. I began to obsess and feel self-conscious. Wherever I went I felt huge, and every time I would forget my anxiety and enjoy my food a bit too much, my family and peers would look on with distaste and judgement, especially because I wasn’t losing any weight.
According to the Australian Parenting website, “Children as young as five or six are likely to have concerns about their body shape if they watch music videos or look at magazines targeting an older audience.” This is exacerbated if these same notions and ideas surrounding beauty and body image are reproduced through their experiences with family and their peers.
At age 16 I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a common illness in women that causes late or non-existent menstruation and can often inhibit weight loss. According to my GP, I had to either have the cysts removed or try to treat it with copious amounts of medication. I fell into a habit of doing all in my power to change, everything from diet pills to the ‘pill’ and herbal medicine. I could not for the life of me, reconcile how I felt with how I looked. This inconsistency haunted me and I spiralled.
Body image issues are often written off as self-esteem issues, despite their link to anxiety and depression. According to social worker Gina Dimitropoulos, stigmas surrounding eating disorders and mental illnesses often pivot around the central notion of self-infliction, that suffers are responsible for their problems as they have a choice in whether or not they engage in those behaviours. Stigma itself affects every aspect of an individual’s life.
According to Dimitropoulos, stigma “robs people of their dignity, increases isolation, reduces self-esteem and contributes to a decline in one’s quality of life”. Often it is this very same stigma that ensnares victims into a fearful silence of being shamed and rejected by their families or peers because of their disorder.
It was this consistent and vindictive cycle that lead me down a figurative black hole, diagnosed with depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, all before the age of 21. The psychologist tried his hardest to explain what was happening to me and how I could try and pull myself out of the hole I had fallen into, but for the first couple of years I was pretty content with just dosing up on meds and drugs to keep me happy. Those around me lacked enough knowledge and information on eating disorders to help me and often felt like they had to tread on eggshells around me – afraid that I might explode and undermine all my progress.
Eating disorders are serious and can take away your voice and the voice of those around you. What I said and how I presented myself often did not resonate with how I felt. It was this numbing silence that allowed me to deteriorate. If I could give advice to anyone suffering from an eating disorder, or even just disparaging sadness, I would tell them to try to understand what they’re feeling and accept that it is a part of them. Denying it doesn’t make it go away and staying silent doesn’t make it hurt any less.
Sometimes I have really good days when I look in the mirror and think ‘look at you, you sexy beast’ but getting to that place is an uphill dredge through every image I see that does not reflect my kind of beauty. A beauty that hides and peers up and around the folds and creases of the map that is my skin. A collected experience that houses a fragile, but absolutely exquisite mind like mine.