By Emma Volard, Jake Amy and Hugh Heller
CW: eating disorders, suicide, body dysmorphia
Every day, we receive messages about our bodies: from the media, from people around us and from cultural norms. A constant barrage of information tells us how to look and how to feel, contributing to issues ranging from low self-worth to mental illness. This is especially true for women who are inundated with ideals of a “healthy” and “beautiful” exterior. For music artists in the public eye, these standards are extremely hard to transcend. Ahead of Body Image Week, Emma sat down with Rya Park, an Australian singer/songwriter acclaimed for her presentation of hard-hitting topics such as toxic relationships and mental health, to discuss her relationship with body image and mental health transparency. What follows is an abridged version of the conversation.
Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with your body?
My relationship with my body is very negative - I’ve had body image issues since I was about 8 and eating issues since 13. Initially, it took a long time to understand that I had an eating disorder, because when I was first diagnosed, I was of “average weight” and didn’t think there was a problem with what I was doing. I’ve been extremely underweight, I've been extremely overweight. I’ve gone through phases of eating nothing, I’ve gone through phases of eating everything. But I’m trying to love my body more as I get older. The more I understand that the “patriarchy” has made me feel this way, the more I’m like, “Fuck this, I need to love my body”. Some days, I’m super grateful about what my body can do. Right now I am on the track of recovery and am starting to believe that it’s possible to recover from this.
How has your identity impacted your perspective on body image?
All I’ve ever been told by the TV or magazines is that “a woman's ultimate goal is to be thin and white”. They might say that “cellulite is bad” and that “putting on weight is the worst thing you can do, so here are 5 ways to lose it”. The amount of times I’ve been congratulated on losing weight… and I just don’t see that happening to my male friends. Even though we’re in 2020, being a woman is really hard.
Most of my friends still have a negative relationship with their body image. And it’s only through expressing my own struggle on social media that others have shared their story with me. Even people who I had no idea struggled, such as my close friends. It makes me really sad, and I think we need to do more about it. I want to figure out what that is and then do it.
In your experience, can transparency about mental health on social media be beneficial or harmful?
Overall, I’ve had a positive experience, but at times it’s bittersweet… It’s amazing that lots of people have opened up about their issues. I mean, it’s so important to talk about. But it’s also sad to see the amount of messages I get from people that hate their bodies. These conversations aren’t being had in mainstream media, so I feel very privileged to have had an opportunity to create a safe space, however, after sharing an experience about my eating disorder, I am quite vulnerable. I think it’s important to have self-care strategies in place, just to make sure I’m taking care of myself too.
Sometimes I’ll post something and feel like I’m being annoying or like these issues aren’t worth talking about. But people who thank me for my honesty keep me going…
E: Do you feel that being this transparent has helped people engage with you on social media?
As a musician, I always thought that social media was about sharing music and just that. Now, I’m starting to realise there’s so much more than that. If I can help even just one person on a bad day, that’s amazing… But it’s so contrived: I post pictures I think I look the prettiest or the thinnest in.
Do you see yourself represented in the Australian music industry?
I do, and I’m very privileged in that way. I mean, I’m a cis-gendered white woman. That’s where I see myself represented. But I believe there still needs to be more space made for women, and more conversations about body diversity, body image and mental health. There’s heaps of information out there, but there’s definitely not enough people talking about it.
E: How does the lack of those conversations make you feel?
Very alone, especially when I’m having a bad day. I wish there were more platforms I could turn to in those times. I do try to follow quite a diverse range of people on social media, such as body positivity pages that showcase a range of female body types. It makes me feel good about myself when I see my body type (which fluctuates all the time) represented. I don’t see those different body shapes in mainstream media.
It can be really detrimental if we only post about our good days, because it can definitely make others feel bad about themselves. I think it’s important to highlight when we’re feeling crappy.
Has being transparent in your music about your eating disorder shaped you as “Rya Park”?
Being able to talk openly and honestly about my eating disorder has been a therapeutic experience, for both myself and so many others. It’s also validated the kind of artist I want to be - open, transparent and compassionate for those who are struggling. If I can be an advocate for young women… I feel like that transparency carries into my songwriting.
Has the music industry exacerbated your relationship with your body?
Yes! Many of my male friends wear the same thing to every gig they play and there’s never a single comment about it, yet I feel that women are always expected to “look the part”. When women perform, some of the first things people ask are, “What is she wearing?”, “Who is she wearing?”, “Is she wearing heaps of makeup?”, “Why isn’t she wearing heaps of makeup?”. Yesterday, I decided that I’m going to wear the same black trench coat to every single gig for the next two years. That’s my goal.
What do you do for self care?
I play with my dog, do lots of yoga and meditate. Seeing friends makes me feel really good. And it was amazing to realise that these are the things I need to do to feel good. For a while there, I got a bit confused with what “self care” was, because I would compare myself to friends and think, “Well they don’t have to meditate to feel calm... Why do I have to do it?”. For a while there, I would resist doing the stuff that made me feel better and then get into a spiral, feeling more and more shit.
At the start of the year, I was admitted to hospital for some deep depression. I realise now that the eating disorder is the crux of my issue - it feeds the anxiety and depression in a cycle. Now my medication has been sorted, I no longer feel depressed and I only get a little anxious at times, but my eating disorder issues are still there.
In my last admission, which was my third for the year, I wasn’t coping with lockdown at all - it made me feel so down. I know a lot of people have felt this, but at the time, I just needed to put my hand up and say, “I’m not coping. I need extra help right now”. So, I went to the clinic for a month, which was great. I’m doing much better now.
Coming out of hospital, I had to plan my strategies. At first, I came home and thought, “I'm so ready for the world. I’m going to do all the things - I’m going to make a music video and I’m going to write new songs”. But by day four, I just crashed and cried. It was a really hard transition. It takes me so long to process things. I’ve still been struggling with the eating disorder, but I just joined an eating disorder support group, which has been an incredible way to share my experiences.
How did you figure out that you had an eating disorder?
I remember thinking I needed to lose weight around 8. I remember thinking I was “bigger” than other kids. I look back at photos now, and I wasn’t. I was “average” sized, even “small”. From Year 5 onwards, I only wore black clothes. And I did that up until I was 23. I wore black to make me look slimmer and hide my body. In summer, I would wear long sleeves. I still struggle with being in swimwear… I don't think I’ve been seen socially in my bathers for about 12 years.
When I was around 20, a really toxic relationship with a partner took my eating disorder to its lowest point. It was my best friend who kept telling me I had an eating problem, but I was in complete denial and losing weight rapidly. It was so fucking shit - people were congratulating me on losing weight, which made me want to lose even more. It wasn’t until my best friend literally said, “You need to see a psychologist about your eating problem”, that I accepted I had one. Until then, the eating disorder was everything. It controlled me. The start of letting go was like saying goodbye to a friend. I’m still learning how to let go of it.
E: Do you feel that having a healthy relationship with your current partner has helped to shape a healthier relationship with your body?
I've been with Nick for three years now, and it's definitely the antidote to my previous relationship. He's very supportive and we're in a very happy relationship. He is very across all my issues with body image, and eating, and he is just the most gentle and kind person, and doesn't put any pressure on me to ever get better quick, and he's been there throughout all my admissions. But even though I’ve been with Nick for three years, I still struggle being naked around him. That can be challenging. I’m so self conscious.
We’ve come up with a funny little phrase for my tummy. We say that my “tummy is cute and yummy”, and then he tickles me. It’s been really nice having that. It’s made me feel more comfortable with my body around him.
What is your opinion on “skinny privilege”?
I find it hard to speak on “skinny privilege”, because the eating disorder distorts my perception of what “skinny” is. There is skinny privilege, because being skinny is so highly regarded in mainstream media. If someone is “skinny”, but actually has an eating disorder… it’s hard to say whether they would be privileged or not. I would never wish that upon anybody. At the moment, I’m only a size 10 to 12, which is below the average size (14 to 16) for women in Australia. Some people might ask, “What is she complaining about?”. I’ve been a size 16, and I’ve been a size 6. I’ve kind of been through it all. Body image is a complex issue. It’s sad to see these problems, even when it is on a very small scale.
Some of my friends have admitted to not liking their bodies. They get into their bikinis as a size 6, a size 10, a size 16, but still don’t feel fully comfortable in what they see. I think that’s got a lot to do with the patriarchy and how women have been treated over countless years. Deep down, I know that my own negative relationship with my body is reflective of these imposed structures. But, I also suffer from an illness. Maybe without the patriarchy, I wouldn’t have had an eating disorder.
I feel the Australian music industry could be more diverse. I would like to see more body diversity. Often, people who are highly regarded and highly celebrated tend to be thin.
E: Do you feel that people should ever comment on body weight?
Personally... no. It’s not necessary or important. But then again, it feels so contradictory to say that, because I have an eating disorder.
Do you think that the male gaze is a prevalent power construct within the Australian music industry?
I do. If you’re a woman and “dressing up”, there will be comments. If you’re “dressing down”, there will be comments. And if you are dressing down, people will think that it’s some form of rebellion against being a woman. Really, women should just be allowed to wear whatever the fuck they want to wear, and have no comments made about it. Whatsoever. Even at my shows, I’m still pretty wary to cover up and not show too much skin, because I’m scared of how I might be seen.
I wish that you could literally just go up to any stage, naked, and sing.
Should we be talking about body image when there are more pressing social/political issues?
Yes, especially considering suicide is the most common cause of death among people with eating disorders. Even though there is a lot going on in the world right now, body image is definitely a pressing issue. It’s something that needs to be addressed and that needs more support. It can seem very trivial to some people, but it’s a really important topic.
Keep up to date with Rya Park here
If you or someone you know is struggling, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, we highly recommend these resources:
Butterfly Foundation: (+61) 1800 334 673
Lifeline: (+61) 13 11 14
Eating Disorders Victoria: (+61) 1300 550 236
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other First Nations people who have read this article.
Our inbox is always open if you need to talk. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Article first published 13 September 2020.
Photos provided by Tom McGenniss-Destro.
Written and edited by Emma Volard, Jake Amy and Hugh Heller.