“Wow you’ve lost so much weight, you look amazing!” “How did you do it, what’s your secret?” These were the typical responses from people when I was entering a deep black pit of destruction they call anorexia. I went to a dance college so as you can imagine, appearance was the hot topic. This is my advice on why not to tell a girl they’ve lost weight (or gained for that matter) because you could be causing a lot of damage.
Entering the dance world meant I was confronted with a lot of factors that would contribute towards my underlying eating disorder that was yet to dominate my life. Previous to university, I was self conscious about my body for as long as I can remember, been on many diets and would partake in a lot of high impact exercise, so this made me already vulnerable as to what lay ahead. I must reiterate that there are many factors that can contribute to developing an eating disorder such as genetics, life events and personality traits and I am in no way blaming my university for my health deteriorating. As part of my university course I was doing up to 8 hours of dancing per day which filled me with excitement and gave my exercise addiction a kick start; it was my high. When my exercise addiction got out of hand in my third year of university due to added stress of exams and writing my dissertation, I was topping off the dancing with hours in the gym, running for miles on end plus going swimming, even though I hated swimming. In an environment where exercise is such a big thing, it is difficult to recognise when this behaviour becomes excessive, so naturally no one flagged it up or advised me to get help which I had no ability to do in my act of denial. It was nobody’s intention to ignore the fact that I was suffering, it was simply a lack of knowledge within the institution on the warning signs of a potential eating disorder taking place.
I was complimented for my dedication on my practice and hard work and praised for my weight loss and increased muscle tone. My teachers were blind as to how much I was struggling, more so than the students, and commended my actions. This motivated me to continue what I was doing and I was dedicating more hours to exercising. My social life became a distant memory as I’d be out running or staying late in the gym instead. The compliments still came flooding in which pursued me to lose more weight so I began restricting food; eating very little and drinking black coffee and protein shakes. I was not fuelling my body anywhere near enough for the amount of activity I was doing and began to waste away – my body was eating itself. By summer I was severely unwell and all my muscle tone was lost for use as energy as my body tried to get everything it could. The reason I carried on doing what I was doing was because I was recognised for doing something I was good at. All the praise I was getting fed my eating disorder with more strength to cause a turmoil of destruction.
For every ‘like’
Social media can be a dangerous trap in regards to receiving ‘likes’ which could encourage unhelpful behaviour as we tend to glamorise our lives online. We all present the best version of ourselves on social media and tend not to let the world in on our problems. I used to post gym photos for instance, full body shots of flexed muscles and solid abs and additionally, “healthy” low calorie meals. I wanted to portray my new found lifestyle to the rest of the world because my eating disorder was so proud however, the world saw what I wanted them to see; they weren’t aware of the hell hole I was drowning in. Every ‘like’ just confirmed that what I was doing was the right thing so I carried on. I carried on because it was never enough and my mind was ordering me to lose more weight. I got such a buzz from starving myself or excising to the point where I felt sick and that feeling was success. I’ve always aimed high and strived for perfection so naturally, the positive comments only reaffirmed my success – so wrong! It felt great to be noticed for something I was truly exceptional at. I always try my best in everything I do but I’m just not one of those people who is outstanding, I was just good. Some might think what is the problem? Good is still a fantastic achievement yet good was not good enough for me. It’s common that sufferers from eating disorders share the trait of perfectionism which is usually the thing that can keep the eating disorder alive.
You are loved
Of course I understand that if someone goes on a “harmless” diet (personally, I believe there is no such thing) in a bid to lose a couple of pounds, then sure, they would like to be told they’ve lost weight. More importantly, we must also be aware that harmless diets can in some cases be the beginning of a rather horrific outcome, much like it did for me. I am in no way suggesting everyone on a diet is susceptible to developing an eating disorder however, we must be cautious if the individual is vulnerable to mental illness or has particular concerns with their body image. Instead, you could encourage that person to see that they are beautiful inside and out just the way they are by helping them recognise their inner qualities, which reiterates that personality is far more important than appearance. At the height of my eating disorder, I felt so strongly that I wouldn’t be loved unless I was skinny, when in actual fact people loved me a lot more when I wasn’t suffering. In hindsight, the skinnier I became, the stronger I would feel this belief which is completely contradicting . This was my eating disorder bullying me into thinking I was unloved so, in fear of being alone, I faithfully stood by its side: which is what it wanted. It made me believe I was worthless, insignificant and a burden on my loved ones. Anorexia became my identity all from an innocent attempt to lose a few pounds. Seeing someone you love so consumed by a mental illness is heartbreaking and I’m sorry to everyone who had to go through that with me. A piece of advice I would give to those with those suffering from an eating disorder is it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose to be like this and it is important you encourage them to seek support.
And it’s not just women…
Anorexia in males is just as important to mention as around a quarter of sufferers are men, according to BEAT. Men are equally dissatisfied with their body image as women and there is huge pressure to look a certain way to conform to society’s image. This could mean hours working out in the gym and dieting to perfect the ideal body. For the same reasons, we should be just as aware as to what we are saying to men.
Before complimenting someone on any change in physical appearance, consider why they may have made that change and what it suggests about their self esteem. Everyone is blessed with inner qualities which are often overlooked and it is precisely those qualities which we should be appreciating over the outer image.