I’ve had extreme issues around body image for as long as I can remember. I hated the way I looked growing up and I tried to use a lot of different methods to make myself look different. Some of these were simple things like adopting a good skincare routine from a young age to develop smooth “feminine” skin. Others were more harmful, like starving myself to look smaller and more fragile.
Having an unhealthy obsession with controlling the way I looked got me a lot of approval. My peers in school would often makes comments about how much I looked like a girl. The girls would inform me that I had a high fashion figure being so stick thin. The fact that I was living as a male never came into it. I enjoyed that. When I was really sick, I never saw any issue with having my body commented on. If my family members would give out about me being too thin, I’d get annoyed at them while inwardly congratulating myself. But most people outside of my family didn’t seem to see any problem with the size I was. That was probably part of the reason why it took my so long to admit that I had a body image disorder.
When I was in the hospital, the harmful way that people viewed my unhealthy body became extremely apparent. People were constantly commenting on my figure, even those who knew that I was battling anorexia. I wasn’t on an eating disorder specialised ward and I know if I had been, there would have been a lot more sensitivity around my disorder.
I dressed up almost everyday in the hospital. Every morning, I put on glamorous dresses, tops and skirts often over high heels and topped with a striking lipstick. This was my way of keeping a bit of normality on my days. I was trying to feel well and when I’m well, I dress up. This prompted a lot of compliments from fellow patients on what I wore. I was having conversations with people I barely knew every day, it was natural for them to make conversation regarding my fashion sense.
They’d ask me why I was there and I’d tell them I had depression and an eating disorder. “An eating disorder?” Many of them would exclaim, “Well you have a great figure!” I’d always smile and thank them, but inside I’d want to cry. I would never turn around to someone and say, “you have depression! Well it suits you to look sad all the time.”
Telling me I didn’t look sick was extremely harmful to my treatment, something that I would have expected people to know. My body image concerns were eased when I was an unhealthy weight. But my quality of life was decreased in almost every other respect. A large part of my time in the hospital was spent trying to reassure myself that I would have a better life if I got bigger. As one can imagine, people telling me I looked fine the way I was didn’t help things at all.
I’m still highly disturbed when I think of this common mentality. As though people who are underweight are successful people. As though my dietician was just conspiring against me to make me bigger. I always really trusted my care team in the hospital, because I’d had a tough road getting there and I knew that I had nowhere else to turn.
I remember people grabbing hold of a dress I had on and stating to everyone around “imagine having the figure to wear this.” I can’t count the amount of times people would smile at me when I told them how many kilos I was aiming to gain that week and say “I’d love to have that problem.” I wanted to scream at these people “do you not realise I’m ill? Do you not realise people die from this disease all the time? What is going to be too small for you?”
Comments like “you’re so tall, it’s natural for you to be skinny” are wrong. It’s not natural to be underweight. Comments along the lines of “but I’ve seen you eat” are wrong. You don’t know what goes on when I’m alone. In the height of my illness, I mastered “eating” in front of people to avoid the hassle of them asking me why I wasn’t. Comments like “can you take the weight you need to gain from me” are extremely problematic. Common sense should tell you that.
At the end of the day, I was just experiencing societies obsession with “good and bad” bodies. On my body, clothes looked good, I had bones protruding and I look “fashionably” slender. I had a “good” body. It doesn’t matter what I feel like, as long as I look good to most people. As we all know, fat people also experience irksome comments about their bodies. We are a culture obsessed with bodies.
It was only when I began the eating disorder programme that I realised most of us had experienced similar things to this. A group of people with extreme body image issues, were constantly receiving compliments on our unhealthy bodies. There’s something seriously wrong with that.
We need to do better. It’s up to us to educate ourselves on what a healthy body looks like. We need to make that the ideal image for society. A malnourished body is not healthy. A malnourished body is not fashionable. Someone with a malnourished body is most likely someone who’s sick. The sooner we realise this, the sooner the body image issues that are ruining people’s lives begin to become less common.