Trigger warning: self-harm, eating disorders, depression.
By the age of thirteen, 53% of girls are unhappy with their body. This number only grows, as by seventeen years old, at least 78% of girls report feeling this way. I’m one of these girls, as I have hated my body for as long as I can remember. I was never satisfied with it and self-conscious for as long as I can remember. I felt trapped in a form that was bigger than I’d like, that didn’t have the breasts I wanted, that didn’t have the cheekbones to make me look malnourished. I enjoyed food, and I hated myself even more for it.
I was a large baby. My family loves to talk about that; it’s a joke frequently passed around. They liked to call me ‘Michelin Baby’ after the Michelin logo of the tire man that replicated my fat rolls. Things didn’t improve as I aged, I was never hugely overweight, but I just wasn’t skinny. Even when I started exercising more, I could never reach that same level of petite. I saw all of these girls around me eating whatever they liked, and I was achingly envious, not only of their slight frames but their carefree attitude to food. I was aware of food; I was aware of each bite.
My mother had been going on and off diets as long as I could remember. She would put potatoes on my plate and then loudly exclaim how she wasn’t having any as carbohydrates would make her fat, how she would love to order one of these desserts but couldn’t, with the unsubtle pat of her stomach. We underestimate the effect a parent has on their children, and this includes the relationship the child will develop with food. It’s common for mothers to be on diets, to complain about their post-baby body. To work hard on appearing as they did before they carried a child as if trying to erase that part of their body’s history. A ‘Mom bod’ is an insult, thrown around by tabloids and gossip columns. But a ‘Dad bod’ is a type, an interest, a fetishisation of a larger stomach.
At the age of thirteen, I started exercising more. Puberty was only heightening the dissatisfaction I had for my body. So I went to spinning classes three times a week. I tried to eat healthier. My mother supported this; she wanted me to be healthy, she bought me the hummus and rice cakes, drove me to the gym. It helped me to slim down a bit, to feel more comfortable in shorts or a swimsuit, but it wasn’t enough. Every summer and Christmas break, I would dream of coming back to school far thinner, to have everyone notice and ask about it, compliment my appearance. This was most likely the rumblings of my personality disorder, desperation for the attention I felt I missed at home. I wanted to be noticed; I was desperate to be liked, to be loved.
My depression started at around fifteen, but it was also always there, a heaviness that seemed to weigh only me down: a serious nature that I couldn’t quite shake, a hurdle to a smile. But at fifteen, it clasped me fully, and I don’t remember the first time that I intentionally hurt myself. It should be this big moment, a turning point in my consciousness, but I can’t even remember it. Maybe I blocked it out to protect myself; perhaps I would hurt myself so many times after that I can’t even remember it. But I began self-harming, littering my body with the pain that I couldn’t comprehend. I was miserable. I was lonely in a crowd. I was trapped in a body that I hated. I mainly hurt my thighs, finding them easy to cover up and hide. To this day, I wonder whether I hurt my thighs because I hated them, or if I grew to hate them because that’s where I was hurting myself? I would continue to hurt myself, on and off, for about seven years. My body bears the brunt of that pain. I know the location of each scar, the way they criss-cross over my skin in the map of my desolation. I hurt my body every way possible, even when I was ‘doing better’ I used bruises, convincing myself that they weren’t permanent and so they didn’t count.
One of these ways was purging. I do remember the first time that I did this. Alone home, making my own dinner and eating more than I would’ve liked. I was just trying to fill the emptiness, but all it did was fill me with regret. So I tried to make myself sick, and couldn’t even manage to do that. But it was too easy to find advice on the internet, and the next time I was successful, and every time after that. I was eating as little as I could function on, meticulously tracking every calorie in an app. I was exercising every day for about two hours in total. I was throwing up anytime that I ‘messed up’. And I felt like I was hiding it all perfectly. But I didn’t want to be; I was desperate to be seen, to be noticed, to be asked. I was flaunting my path of self-destruction and waiting to be caught. I wanted to stop all of the harm I was inflicting on myself, but I just needed someone to tell me to do so. I was thin, and looking back; I don’t know how I was able to keep going. Anyone who met me after this period is disturbed by photos of how I appeared. They see it instantly, and maybe everyone then did too, and simply didn’t have the power to speak up. I was thin, but I was never thin enough to be alarming, to raise concern, to be treated correctly. I was thin in comparison to how I should be naturally, but I was not thin enough.
It took a long time to stop hurting myself and start eating correctly, but what took even longer was wanting to do those things. Wanting to get better is difficult, and it is a lifelong journey I take. There is no happy ending, no quick fix, but there is the hope of being better than you were yesterday. I get to say to people ‘it gets better’ and mean it with my entire heart. My therapy treatment last year for my personality disorder is what truly made me stop wanting to hurt my body. It flares up in moments of extreme stress or sadness, but I now have the tools to not act upon it. And to stop hating my body? I’m still working on that currently, at the age of twenty-four. I am the biggest that I have ever been, and I am finally working not on how to get smaller to a size I like, but on how to love the size that I am right now. I am trying to exercise for health, mental and physical, rather than to lose weight. I am trying to stop using food to fill my emptiness, but also allowing myself to find pleasure in it.
I got my first tattoo at sixteen; it was an act of rebellion, a way to grasp at the adulthood I craved. I find it embarrassing now, to have my star sign stamped on my hip. I’ve thought about getting it covered up, but something stops me. As that little Scorpio symbol is a part of my journey, covering it up feels wrong. At twenty, I got another tattoo on my forearm. It was not only important to me due to how visible it is, but because of the self-harm scar that is incorporated. It’s an outline of a figure writing, drawn through a photograph taken of me, and the pen stops by the scar, as if having created that line itself. It’s an acknowledgement of my history with self-harm, to be drawing attention to a scar rather than covering it up, as the tattoo artist offered to do. My struggle with mental illness contributes hugely to my writing, and this tattoo represented that to me.
My body is imperfect. It is imperfect in its size, larger than what magazines and television tell me should be beautiful, larger than many of my friends and those surrounding me. I am fatter than my boyfriend. It is larger than ‘beautiful’, but if it were anyone else’s figure I would still love it, I would not let myself be constrained by such societal ideas, and so now I must apply that to myself. In promoting and loving larger women, I must include myself in that highlight.
My body is imperfect in its scars. People will see them when I wear a swimsuit, maybe they will ask, but more likely they will hide from this scary topic. But we need to talk about self-harm, we need to help people to stop hurting themselves, we need to show them that they can and deserve to get better. We have to start talking about the things that scare us most because by doing so they become less scary.
I will see them almost every day. But I will not hate them, because those scars are proof that I am still here. That I have seen such darkness, suffered through days that felt like they must be my last, and yet continued. They are scars, not fresh cuts, and for that, they are an imprint of aged pain. They are the history of my life, the ups and downs. They are imperfections, but is life not filled with imperfections? They are my story, and my scars, stretch marks, freckles, birthmarks, cooking burns and tattoos all congregate to create the museum of me.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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