By Ella Clair and Jake Amy
CW: Eating disorders, body dysmorphia, self harm, suicide
At the start of August, the Attaboi team put out an invitation for you to share with us your experiences with your own body image. The submissions we received demonstrate the vast complexities and intricate nuances of people’s relationships with their bodies. Touching on intersections of invisible illnesses, bullying, representation, racism, appropriation, career pressures and mental and physical health, these stories are compelling, raw and at times hard to read. Thank you so much for trusting us with your words. Your voices deserve to be heard and forge open a space for further conversations surrounding body image online and within our day to day lives.
Submission 1: Being Black is Beautiful
I’ve found that stories of BIPOC navigating predominantly white spaces all have such similar narratives and underlying issues. For me, in regards to body image; growing up in Australia was a very uncomfortable experience that ultimately led to a lot of self-hatred. The prejudice and racism start young, but given this country's history, I can't say I’m overly surprised, unfortunately.
Tokenism has been a recurring theme through my experience, and there were always constant comments (some well-intentioned, others not) on my "womanly" figure from a very young age. My hair has also been a huge point of contention for me; ridiculed for having "poodle hair" if I wore it natural, but similarly humiliated and called stereotypical names if I wore a protective style like box braids.
Following some of these experiences, I spent years trying to erase my blackness. It took a few years to reconnect with myself, decolonize my mind and unpack internalised ideas of what beauty should ‘look like’.
The irony isn’t lost on me that now being black is ~trendy~: the very things I was bullied for are considered desirable on white bodies;
...a rise in Brazilian butt lifts, fillers and appropriation of hairstyles such as cornrows and box braids.
With all that being said, I still need to actively recognise my privilege of being a light-skinned biracial black woman as being half-white has actively benefited me as well. We need to celebrate blackness. Being black is beautiful, being black is a blessing and ideas of European beauty being the default need to be dismantled.
Submission 2: A Body with a Story to Tell
I’m really passionate about being an advocate for invisible illnesses and disabilities. From the outside, I am someone whose body looks healthy and "normal", but on the inside, my body tells a different story. Some days I find something as simple as walking a very difficult and taxing task - physically and mentally. This has led to a love/hate relationship with my body, the tubes that kept it alive and the scars that changed my life.
In so-called Australia, I am yet to see these bodies shown. Bodies with marks, scars and mobility aids.
I think there is something so undeniably beautiful about a body with a story to tell. I am proud of the uniqueness of my body and how it works differently. I wish more people could see disabilities in the way I see them.
Submission 3: Living with Bulimia Nervosa and Body Dysmorphia as a Musician
It’s late 2018 and I’m lying on the examination bed in a radiology clinic, staring up at the holes in the ceiling. This has become my new normal, having multiple appointments per week while trying to balance a busy life. It feels like a big shameful secret - not many people know or would guess by looking at me that I have so many health issues, and I’m scared to tell people. I have recently developed a chronic pain condition and am finding it difficult to concentrate, my hair is falling out, I’m constantly anxious and constantly have a sore throat, on top of that some of my teeth are rotting and I've started experiencing issues with my heart. I take a deep breath in and think about how all of the ceilings in these places look exactly the same.
From all other angles I appeared to be a happy, healthy young person who was about to graduate from university and had an established, growing career in music. How had it come to this? The truth is that this had been going on for years, I was just so in denial. And honey, I had a big storm comin’.
My eating disorder (ED) began when I was 12 years old, though I didn’t begin to accept I had a problem until I was about 19. It started out with restricting my meals and exercising a few extra times a week, and gradually developed to going days without food, self harming, binge eating, and purging. Looking back, I was actually a very active and healthy kid. I played a few sports at school and swam or rode my bike with other kids in my neighbourhood every day. One of my parents had worked in nutrition so I ate well and really enjoyed food. It’s hard to pinpoint, but I would say my ED started to develop because I had an extremely turbulent, abusive and volatile home life and found it hard to fit in with the kids at my school, plus we moved around a lot. The only places I felt safe were at the pool or at my school’s library. I barely had any autonomy, safe space or validation as a young child, and this had led me to want to have some control. I had an intense need to be perfect. I thought that if I was perfect then everything would get better, and everybody would love me. As it often happens with eating disorders, I became very good at hiding my behaviours and became very secretive, and so this craving for perfection grew.
My adolescent years were extremely unhappy. I was constantly buying into diet culture, reading problematic magazines and discovered "thinspo" blogs. I reckon that if you asked me for the amount of calories in any food when I was 14, I would have known the answer in a split second. I memorised all of this information - diet tips, exercise/workout routines, make up that made you look slimmer, my weight and body measurements. I constantly wrote out my plans in my diary, detailing how I would achieve my weight loss goals, as well as recording every single calorie I ate that day. I was too scared to eat in public, and wouldn’t order anything substantial at family meals whenever we ate out. It was just a pure obsession that I couldn’t ignore.
In high school I realised that my passion in life was music and that I wanted to pursue it as a career. This became an extremely difficult conversation between my parents and I, who were very unsupportive at the time. Again, I felt like I was losing control of my decisions in life and this fuelled the bulimia even more. I spent my days at school working hard but barely eating, and then got home, raided the pantry and binge ate. Then I would work out or go on long runs to burn all the food off, and after a long shower I would lock myself in my room, play guitar and sing. Even though this daily routine made me feel absolutely miserable, it simultaneously felt so good feeling like I was in control, and holding onto the hope that I was going to lose an obscene amount of weight and instantly be popular, successful and beautiful. I spent hours late into the night reading through fitness and thinspo blogs, and saving pictures to keep myself motivated - a somewhat morbid looking collection that I didn’t end up deleting until I was 22. I was borderline anaemic, fatigued and extremely depressed. I thought that once I got out of my hometown and moved to the city for uni everything would change and I could be a different person, a better person. Spoiler alert: things did not change.
My second year of uni was when my eating disorder was living its best life. It had truly taken over every aspect of my life with no signs of stopping. I was drinking up to 8 coffees a day to get through all my classes, practise and rehearsals. My grades were terrible, and I would usually get way too drunk at social events and make huge fool of myself. My go-to dinner before a gig was a red bull and a lollipop, or a piece of red liquorice. When I was getting ready to go onstage I would so often cry when I looked at myself in the mirror. I truly hated my body. Being a frontline musician is so incredibly difficult to deal with negative body image and low self esteem. I dealt with an unholy amount of body dysmorphia through the early stages of my performance career. I was constantly out of money, spending way too much of my budget on food, most of which I would eventually purge out my body. I tried out several diets, all of them extremely restrictive and leaving me with barely any energy. After years of this abuse against my body, I just gave up. I was so burnt out and couldn’t do it anymore, I could barely get out of bed let alone have enough energy for a gig. I wanted to stop but just didn’t know how.
When I was 21, I got some help from my therapist, who referred me to an outpatient program. With a little hesitation I booked myself in and the treatment lasted for nearly a year and a half. It was really intense, turbulent, confronting and emotional, but I was getting so much better. The comparison between my life then and now is honestly hard to put into words. I’m still not 100% "cured", but there is a huge difference. I managed to stop purging a year into treatment, my energy has come back, I feel happier and healthier than I have in years, and I’m able to play more gigs and be present and energetic on stage. Once you harness the fear, there is something so immensely empowering in putting on your favourite outfit and going out for a meal purely for the pleasure of it, knowing it is nourishing your body and helping the process along.
When I started my recovery journey I opened up to more of my friends, family and coworkers about what had been going on. Some of the responses I got taught me a lot about how we view eating disorders on a societal level. Someone once said, "But you don’t look like you have an eating disorder", and that has been one that has always stuck with me. In my experience, people still don’t seem to know enough about eating disorders, so I want to finish off my story by ruling out some common misconceptions with these points:
People don’t have to be very skinny or emaciated in order to be incredibly sick.
Eating disorders don’t discriminate, and can affect anyone regardless of gender, though a common misconception is that they only affect women or young girls.
There is more than one type of eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa seems to be the one that people know most about, or at least have heard of. Bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, ARFID (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder) and other disorders also exist and are just as serious.
Ok, maybe this one’s a bit of a rant: eating disorders are not glamorous. I am filled to the brim with sheer exhaustion because of the amount of times I have seen eating disorders romanticised in the media, casually spoken about, or even joked about in public or in social settings. These are serious illnesses we’re talking about, folks! The effects caused by/linked to eating disorders include but are not limited to: sleep apnea, muscle weakness, hair loss, tooth decay, chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, low heart rate, irregular heartbeat, heart failure, malnutrition, pancreatitis, and many more.
Suicide is often linked to eating disorders, and can be a major cause of death amongst sufferers, and Anorexia Nervosa statistically has the highest death rate of any mental illness.
I hope one day I’ll be ready to share this publicly, with my name attached to it, but for now it’s still too scary. I hope it makes sense to someone out there and helps them to know that they are not alone. If you’ve read this far, thank you. If you are struggling with similar issues, I encourage you to reach out to someone you love and trust, and know that support is out there. Recovery is possible, and I stand with you.
If you or someone you know is struggling, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, I highly recommend these resources:
Eating Disorders Victoria: (+61) 1300 550 236
Butterfly Foundation: (+61) 1800 33 4673
Lifeline: 13 11 14
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.
Illustrations by Ella Clair