TW: disordered eating, suicide
In quarantine, where rooms are small and walls are thin, it’s very easy to become aware of the expanse of space inside your own head. Social media makes it particularly easy to fill this space with self-criticism and comparative thoughts of those who, unlike yourself, are occupied with home workouts, DIY renovations, learning mandarin, doing a thousand-piece puzzles or baking banana bread. In what, for many people, is one of the most de-motivating environments imaginable, the pressures of being “productive” can be overwhelming at the best of times. Instead of cheffing up some sushi, I’ve been spending most of my time in the company of my own thoughts. Whilst this can seem like the very opposite of “productive” (and I’ll admit, at times it isn’t), it has in fact been one of the most useful things I’ve been doing. The self-improvement and inner growth plastered all over the internet for the last month does not necessarily have to be found in taking up yoga; you can learn a lot when you allow yourself the time and space just to think.
One of my realisations? There’s something that people forget to tell girls when they reach the age of sixteen or seventeen: puberty isn’t just suddenly getting your period and a new pair of boobs. For quite a few, its changes in metabolism, flareups of acne, bigger thighs, bigger bums, tighter jeans and looser belts.
For me, it was during Christmas of Lower Sixth: my metabolism had begun to slow, my appetite had begun to shrink, and I had grown acutely aware of the fact that the size of my waist had begun to grow. Alongside this, the spots on my face were growing in number, and I developed an inability to leave the house in the morning without a full face of foundation. Desperate to get my braces off, I quickly grew reluctant to show my teeth in photos. In Snapchats to friends I would pull the neck of my jumper up over my chin and my hair over my cheeks to hide as much of my face as possible. In brief, I was steadily constructing an opinion of myself that was less than complimentary.
In February of Upper Sixth, I developed tonsillitis, and went on a two-week course of antibiotics. In March, this happened again. The pill I had been prescribed– both for contraception and my acne–sent me up two bra-sizes. I began to experience bloating, and saw little difference in my skin. By May, I was out of my relationship. By June, I was off the pill and onto a third course of antibiotics in a second attempt to get rid of my spots. I was unaware of the fact that not only was my self-esteem being damaged, but by fluctuating, experimenting with, and placing strain on these various aspects of my body, my health was being damaged too. So, whilst I went through a second bout of puberty, I also started to see early symptoms of IBS. The two culminated in an impression that changes I was seeing in the size and shape of my body were not a good thing; I was juggling with various aspects of myself that I had quickly grown to reject, with each taking their turn to sit under my own personal microscope. The reality of it was that I was in fact just growing up; for me, that meant slightly bigger thighs, a bit of a bigger bum, and a not so tiny waist.
With my final year of school came a hurricane of UCAS, personal statements, the ELAT exam and an Oxford interview. Already incredibly self-critical of my physical body, I began to be ever more critical of my academic and mental capacities too. I began looking at past papers at the same time as diet plans, ‘introductions to intermittent fasting’, carb-free meal ideas, and calorie-tracking apps. By mid-September, I had lost my period. And it didn’t return for ten months. I started to skip breakfasts, skip break-times, and only have a smoothie for lunch. I was making sandwiches with lettuce leaves instead of bread, and I developed a fear of eating bananas because of the amount of carbohydrates they contained. By the end of October, I began to withdraw, as the care I was giving myself diminished. People were asking me more and more often if I was okay, whilst I was counting more and more often the calories that I had consumed that day.
But despite all of this, within the first two weeks of 2019, I had received an offer from Oxford University, earned myself 4 A*s in my mock exams, and was representing my county for cross-country. I had everything going for me, but inside it was all going downhill. Jumpers, floaty blouses and high-waisted trousers had become a staple of my sixth-form uniform. It had reached the point where I was crying so often, I stopped being able to pinpoint why. At my absolute lowest point, I had a split-second thought of ending it all. It’s difficult to comprehend just how little credit I was giving myself. I couldn’t see past all the ways in which I considered myself to be failing, or past the risks of failing that I saw laid out in front of me. I was harbouring an obsession with the size and shape of my stomach; breathing in as hard as I could in every photo and mirror I saw myself in. I recognise it now as body dysmorphia, but at the time, I was failing to recognise it at all.
It turned out that my IBS– finally diagnosed in the June of my final school year–had worsened my restrictive eating, and the restrictive eating had worsened my IBS. Both had resulted in a chronic case of low self-esteem. In order to help my gut recover, as well as to learn how to best manage it all, I had to spend three months being gluten-free, dairy-free, red-meat-free, high-fibre-vegetable-free, seafood-free, and basically anything-that-isn’t-chicken-rice-eggs-or-spinach-free. But as my body began to heal, I did gradually get to reintroduce them all. And as I did this, I was also re-introduced to my old friend Aunt Flo, and to a confidence that I had been estranged from for a very long time.
It is now April 2020, and a lot of what I lived with in the past three years still keeps me company today. I still pull my jumpers up over my chin when I take a photo on Snapchat, and I still choose baggy t-shirts over satin slip dresses. I still get spots, I still get bloated, and I still cry. More recently, these tears have been even easier to invalidate and punish myself over, when I compare them to the tears being shed by others around the world. But the most significant thing that I have come to understand is this:
There is not a pair of glasses that you can put on, to see the things that people see in you. No one has 2020 vision when it comes to their body; mirrors and photos only leave space for so much, and they often leave out the things that are most important. And so I ask, if you could stand in a hall of mirrors, with everything but your body, what would you see reflected? The way I see it, what would be reflected in the mirrors is what you’d see through the glasses, were they to exist. Family and friends don’t love us for our bodies. They love us for all the other bits. So you would see all the other bits, like they do. This won’t be ended on the generalised note of ‘love yourself’, because I know just how hard that can be on a good day, let alone in the confines of quarantine. What I’d like to end this on instead, is the note of ‘forgive yourself’, because a lot of what we punish ourselves over, are things that we don’t deserve punishment for in the first place.