Body dysmorphia: a letter to my former self

TW: Body Dysmorphia

It’s body positivity week here at TWSS and to begin the discussion, Olivia Cooke shares her personal story of recovery.

I know that you’re standing on the scales. It’s part of your daily routine. Two moments at the start and at the end of the day where your self-worth is defined by a number. It can be either painful or euphoric. The emotions range from the despair of having gained a few pounds, or the sheer joy of having lost a few after a day’s worth of starvation. This is going to be hard, but I want you to stop. Stop using the scales. Reclaim yourself.

My eating disorder started after my GCSEs. I stood on the scales in my Mum and Dad’s bathroom and decided that I was fat. The fifteen-year old me loathed her nine-stone body and went about undertaking a journey which would incur long-lasting consequences on her health. I began a regime of forced starvation and regular exercise. I would eat 1000 calories worth of food a day: breakfast consisted of a small bowl of muesli, lunch would be a small bowl of plain yogurt with three blueberries, and then I would have a dinner cooked for me by my Mum. Sometimes I skipped lunch and breakfast, and would just have dinner that day. Or I would have even scantier meals for breakfast and lunch where breakfast would be one Belvita biscuit, and lunch a mere apple. This, coupled with my regular running, saw me lose weight fast. By the time I started sixth-form I had lost over a stone in weight. I came to seven stone, twelve pounds on the scales.

emily godbold for body dysmorphia.jpg

Was I happy that I had lost weight? No. That summer’s worth of extreme dieting and exercise exacerbated the subsiding insecurities I had about my body and appearance. Throughout year twelve I continued to lose weight. The pressure of taking five A-Level subjects and applying to Cambridge, led me to develop an extremely warped mentality of ‘I have to lose weight in order to be successful’. I equated skinniness with cleverness. It didn’t help that a lot of the high-achieving girls at my sixth-form were slim and petite. By December 2014 I was six-stone, 13 pounds. It was at this point where my Mum and Dad were forced to intervene. I was told by my Mum that if I kept losing weight, herself and my Dad would have no other choice but to send me to hospital. I realise now that I was verging into Anorexia. Looking back at photos of myself taken during Christmas 2014, I can see how gaunt my appearance is. The cheekbones of my face are hollow, the flesh around my eyes appears sallow. My arms look like they would break easily. And perhaps more chillingly, the smile on my face looks forced, unnatural.

I would say that my recovery really began when I came to Bristol. Although I gained weight during year thirteen, my acceptance into Bristol following my A-Level results gave me the confidence and boost that I needed. The fresher’s first-term diet of ready meals and fast-food, coupled with the enjoyment I gained from my course and making friends, saw my body blossom and grow. Being in a relaxed and tolerant environment allowed me to finally come to terms with myself and my body. I realised that in order for me to be happy with myself I had to accept my natural body shape. Genetics from my Mum’s side of the family blessed me with a naturally curvy, pear-shape. That shape which I wanted to eradicate for the most part of sixth-form, is a fundamental part of what makes me, me. Very clichéd I know, but embracing my genetic makeup has helped enormously in my recovery.

Learning to love yourself is hard. We still live in a society in which the media continues to perpetuate unrealistic expectations of women and men. From the fashion industry to the workplace, backward ideals continue to influence the choices we make about our lifestyles and even the way we think. Reshaping my diet and exercise routine was important in learning to accept myself. I eat three good meals a day, but I don’t deny myself a snack or two if I need one. With the increased amount of exercise I do at the gym, plus my regular running, I have realised that I must fuel myself in order to physically perform well. Counting calories can be dangerous, therefore I avoid it as much as possible. If I’m doing a lot of exercise, I know that sometimes I’m going to be eating over two-thousand calories a day. With these steps that I have taken, I am a much happier person than I have ever been. I am both physically and mentally stronger. Yes, there are days when I look in the mirror and think ‘God, I look bloated’, but I’m okay with that. My body is being its natural self.

In her recent stand-up show The Leather Special, Amy Schumer talks about her Father’s battle with Multiple Sclerosis. ‘I don’t give a fuck about what I look like anymore. My Dad can’t move. We are so lucky. In our bodies we can move, sing, dance and do whatever we want!’ These comments resonated with me after I watched the show. Our bodies can do almost anything if we love and respect them back. I have realised that our bodies are vehicles for creating change whether it’s on a local or global scale. Our bodies were made to be unique. The world would be a boring place if we were all the exact same shape, colour, and height.

To anyone reading this who is suffering I urge you to talk to someone, it can be a friend, family member or counsellor. Having this conversation sounds like the hardest thing imaginable, but trust me, when you open up, everything seems better and brighter. I want to end this piece with a pithy and inspirational maxim. In the words of the icon that is RuPaul, ‘If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?’.

Illustration by Emily Godbold

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