Since I was a small child, I can remember feeling especially sensitive to the messaging I was receiving from society. It was everywhere, and it was loud and unequivocal; thinness equals ‘better’. From what I could tell, being a smaller girl brought you more praise, more opportunities, and more love. My friends were all much smaller than me, and whilst they didn’t ever treat me any differently, I felt ‘different’, and I noticed the adults talking about the smaller girls more favourably.
‘Oh Belinda, she’s so tiny! She still fits into the clothes of her younger sister!’
‘Oh that Melody, she’s such a pretty little thing! She looks so beautiful and delicate in that dress.’
Such innocuous expressions were absorbed and internalised into my developing brain, but never did I hear anyone talk in the same way about bigger girls, or chubby girls like myself. Instead, the comments I overheard were only related to sports or how I was going in school, and they were said in a completely different tone and more matter-of-factly. There was certainly no gushing about the way I looked in my clothes, or anything to do with my appearance. That kind of conversation was reserved for the skinny girls, and comments about my appearance were either not spoken or said in hushed tones. This made me feel ‘less than’. It also made me feel that if I wasn’t good academically or at playing sports, then I had no worth at all.
"There was certainly no gushing about the way I looked in my clothes, or anything to do with my appearance."
I believe that I might have avoided developing an eating disorder if I’d had more voices within my community and family helping me to feel loved for who I was, and a community that didn’t celebrate ‘thinness’ to such an extent. I think if I had more support from those close to me, maybe I would have developed a better sense of self-esteem, and maybe those messages from the TV and the glossy magazines wouldn’t have made as much of an impact. The media only further perpetuated this notion that a female is worth more if she is thin, because I had already seen evidence of this in my own community.
Much like our personalities, every eating disorder is different, and I can only write from my own experience of having an eating disorder for almost two decades. But if I could suggest a way that carers could support their loved ones, I would say to them – as someone who knows your loved one better than most, find those reasons for them to want to get better. Find opportunities to take them outside of their environment and explore novel things. Try to help empower them to rebuild their self-esteem. Highlight their strengths that aren’t related to their bodies, and don’t be shy about telling them – even if you think it’s falling on deaf ears or if they tell you you’re full of BS. Write it in a letter if you think that might work better.
"If I could suggest a way that carers could support their loved ones, I would say to them - as someone who knows your loved one better than most, find those reasons for them to want to get better. "
If they are like me, the eating disorder is constantly working against them believing in themselves and their own strengths, and they need reminding there is so much more to them, and so much more to life than an eating disorder. It took me years before I gave myself permission to allow myself to take a chance on recovery. I did not have the support of my family, but thankfully I found good people who I now consider family, and it was their positivity, their ability to hold a mirror up to me and say ‘This is who you are and who you are is lovely’ that allowed me to (very slowly) take small steps forward towards a much better life.
Recovery is such a confusing period for the person with an eating disorder because there is the ongoing battle for power in their head. It can feel like strong primal urges, or a panicked and shrieking voice that is unrelenting in its attempts to convince the person to keep the eating disorder. I know that I could not have even contemplated recovery, let alone participated in it, without the support of those around me. They never made me feel like a disappointment even when I couldn’t show up to dinner, or couldn’t complete an inpatient stay, or couldn’t go for a swim. No matter how many times I felt that I had failed, or believed that I was a failure, it was their ability to see me as the person I truly was and to remind me of that that got me through and saved me.
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