Reprinted from the "Body Image" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 12 (1), p. 35
I don’t think anyone can be fully prepared for working in the field of eating disorder prevention. It is frustrating, empowering and challenging all at the same time. Having struggled with an eating disorder and negative body image myself, I felt that this was an area in which I could contribute. Through my own experiences, I understand the desperate need to prevent eating disorders; I would never want to wish that dark, controlling prison on anyone else.
I was in high school when my relationship with my body began to deteriorate. I started to feel that my body was never thin enough, and that I was never good enough. I couldn’t look in the mirror without feeling disgusted with my reflection. I began to change my eating and exercise routines, gradually at first, until it felt too late to stop the patterns I had developed. I ate just enough to maintain the numbing, zombie-like fog that had become my existence. I starved myself, berating my body, limiting my caloric intake during the day while running for miles like a ravenous machine during the night in order to burn more calories and lose more weight.
There were dozens of times where I wondered if I was going to faint on the SkyTrain as I clung to the pole in the early morning hours on my way to school. Yet even then I was more concerned with my weight than anything else. I felt more empowered the less I weighed, rather than having any concern for my health. Sure, my heart would beat irregularly, my hair was falling out in tumbleweeds, my skin yellowed and my throat was raw and bloody from purging—but all of those health problems, among many others, were acceptable to me if they were the price I had to pay to remain thin.
But despite all that effort and the trauma I was causing myself, I still hated by body. I still hated me.
Every day was a struggle. Finally, exhaustion hit me—even my white flag of surrender felt too heavy to carry. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I wanted my life back. I didn’t want to see my mom’s tears any more, or wake in the middle of the night to find her checking my pulse to see if I was still alive. I wanted to contribute to society, make my family proud—eat a French fry without an internal battle, exercise as a gift to my body rather than a punishment.
Roughly eight years have passed since then. I went through months of eating disorder inpatient treatment, hours upon hours of therapy, and I cried gallons of tears—but I will save that chaotic rollercoaster narrative for another time and simply say this: In eight years, the practicalities of daily life haven’t changed one bit—but I have. I have learned that who I am—my identity—is not just my body. I am so much more than that. My body is just a vehicle to get me through the day. It allows me to express my talents, goals, passions, humour and emotions. The eating disorder no longer takes up “rental space” in my mind; I now have the room and freedom to appreciate other things in life rather than focusing on thoughts of weight, calories, food rules, body size, exercise, diets and routines. Battling and overcoming an eating disorder left me with a strong, vengeance-like desire for prevention—to demonstrate to others that they aren’t put on this earth to look a certain way or be a specific size. And that’s exactly where the Love Our Bodies, Love Ourselves movement comes in.
Love Our Bodies, Love Ourselves is part of the provincial eating disorders awareness campaign led by the Jessie’s Legacy eating disorders prevention program. Jessie was a young woman who took her own life after a long battle with disordered eating and depression. The program continues to carry out her legacy of eating disorder prevention in order to help ensure that no other person is ever in the position she was in, facing the challenges she faced. Love Our Bodies, Love Ourselves includes activities and events throughout the year, as well as a vibrant social media presence. We’ve organized flash mobs, educational videos, photography contests, and city mural paintings in order to raise awareness in BC about eating disorders prevention and positive body image. Just recently, we held a virtual, online scavenger hunt in which people completed missions to promote positive body image within their communities. These missions included things like writing a positive note on their workplace bathroom mirror and completing an online quiz about loving their body. We also managed to convince various organizations to decorate over 55 local landmarks across BC with purple lighting in honour of Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Purple is the official colour for eating disorders awareness. We also distributed over 10,000 Love Our Bodies, Love Ourselves purple wristbands across the province. I have delivered presentations on disordered eating and body image at more than 30 local high schools. Following the presentation, some students vowed to never again speak negatively about their bodies.
A trait common to those of us who support or work at the Love Our Bodies, Love Ourselves program is a passion to encourage all of us to make a promise to love our bodies, no matter their size, race or gender, and a commitment to educate others in order to prevent the sort of negative thinking that can lead to disordered eating thoughts and patterns. It’s incredibly empowering to use my experience to give back and provide hope for others that eating disorders can be overcome.
These days, when I look back at that girl clinging to the SkyTrain pole, I can hardly believe she existed within me. I have such deep compassion for that terrified and exhausted individual. Sometimes when I see others whom I suspect are struggling with their body image, or worse, battling an eating disorder, I wish I could look into their eyes and tell them that this is not how their story has to be. More often than not, I want to scream and shake them, force them to see the beauty in themselves and the world around them, and show them they have a purpose in this crazy world. But I can’t make others see what is now so clear to me. That insight needs to come from them. But my frustration constantly reminds me that my torturous journey should never (and will never) go to waste—each and every instant of pain and suffering I experienced had a purpose. Through my suffering and subsequent recovery, I was given a second chance at life, and now I choose to use each moment to emphasize body positivity and eating disorders awareness through the Love Our Bodies, Love Ourselves movement. I invite you to check out www.jessieslegacy.com to help spread the message to all people that every body is beautiful.
About the author
Amy works for the Jessie’s Legacy eating disorders prevention and awareness program, where she coordinates the Love Our Bodies, Love Ourselves movement, part of the Provincial Eating Disorders Awareness (PEDAW) campaign. Amy also presents at schools, conferences, and workplaces on disordered eating, self-esteem and body image. You can contact Amy at [email protected]