Words by Kate-Lois Elliott
I’m on my way back from a big day at work, followed by celebration drinks that lasted until 2am.
We’re in our second taxi of the evening because my childhood friend who came out with us decided she wanted to stop off at MacDonalds, and the Uber driver wouldn’t wait for us.
Ahh MacDonalds. I’ve visited you three times over the past 10 years, and every time you are unfailingly, unwaveringly, consistently the same: you disaster of a culinary contribution. You are the lowest form of food, and just like your adverts say, your clientele are ‘various’. You are fun for all the world: drunk teenagers on their way back from house parties, drunk adults on their way back from book launches (..that turned into dinner, that turned into drinks, that turned into last man standing,) stoned old local boys talking about politics and the mother land, Chelsea girls, football fans, the misfits of the early morning. To me you are the 3am disaster that can still be seen on my skin and bloated tummy the next morning, with the absolute knowledge that most of the things I’ve put into my system are made up of secret ingredients, void of nutrients or meaning, and are probably not from any of the known food groups.
My friend has just had 2 Big Macs. I’m not sure whether to be disgusted or impressed. ‘Do you think,’ I asked as I held my head out of the taxi window, ‘That our mums ever bought two rounds of MacDonalds after a night out?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘They were too into being thin.’
I laughed because it was funny, but something about the comment stayed with me way into my Saturday morning, deep into the afternoon and spilling into my night.
For some people, being thin is a hobby, for me it never was. For me, being thin was a compulsion, and it was all I could think of for three years of my life that I’ll never get back. Though the post MacDonalds regret caused me to skip breakfast, there was something quite empowering about that fact that I was able to happily finish off a chicken wrap, fries, an orange juice and some strange looking nacho cheese balls in a bag.
I have suffered from body dysmorphia (BDD) since I was 15. It is defined as a mental health disorder that causes the person to see flaws in their appearance. It is most commonly linked to weight issues. For me it comes when I’m feeling uncontrollably anxious, depressed or deeply unhappy, and goes when I’m feeling fine (especially if I’ve been exercising, eating and sleeping well.) It is a rare thing for me to look in the mirror and perceive myself as an unhappy weight these days, but when it comes it is a sobering reminder of how powerful the human brain is, and that we are essentially only our thoughts.
If you’re under intense stress, experiencing trauma or deep unhappiness, then your problems can sometimes escape out of you and present themselves in external ways. When this happens we are able to compartmentalise our pain: it becomes a separate entity from ourselves, something we can understand. Body Dysmorphia Disorder often accompanies other mental health disorders such as anxiety, which in turn can manifest in a colourful array of complications. At its very worst BDD can lead to Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa.
I suffered from anorexia and bulimia for many years in my teens. They are serious mental health conditions, and not stupid or attention seeking as I was often made to believe. A series of unfortunate losses, changes and traumas caused me to react to my surroundings in this way, and I blame no one for it. I don’t know a single person in this world who hasn’t experience trauma of some kind, or a single person who hasn’t made huge, consequential mistakes as well, and I do not judge them for either. I worked through my illnesses in my own way, and now I am a functioning, healthy human who suffers from mental health problems the same way I occasionally catch a nasty cold. Just as the threat of illness is always there, so is the threat that we might neglect our mental health for a span and burn out.
Our physical health and mental health are always connected. If you starve yourself you feel worse than before, much worse. You become malnourished, lethargic, your concentration wavers, you get irritable and you begin to feel more depressed. In spite of this downward spiral you see the results of your efforts, and through the exhaustion, low mood and tumbling self-esteem, the only good thing appears to be that your stomach is less full or your arms are looking skinnier. It’s all you’ve got and you can control it, unlike the rest of your life, so you keep going in a vicious cycle.
My BDD and the urge to purge never goes away fully. It’s forever bubbling below the surface, like a coldsore, waiting for my bodily defences to lapse momentarily so that it can sneak through. However, now I’m able to understand it and observe it in the same way that you’d learn to master the feeling of being stressed or anxious. We learn not let those feeling take over our thoughts or dictate our behaviour. Now when I look in the mirror and suddenly I look bigger than I thought I was, I know that I need to take a moment to check in with myself and see what part of me needs a bit of TLC.
Though mental disorders come in many forms, it’s not a cliche to say that the media has a huge part to play in the development of eating disorders in young women. Fitness junkies (as they now call them) have replaced the heroine chic looks of the 90s, and this gradual change is very positive. When I was a recovering anorexic in my late teens I went vegan for 2 months and then vegetarian, as it was a healthier way to maintain some form of control over my eating habits. It is important to remember however, that excessive exercise and obsessive healthy eating can also manifest in such a way. No mental health disorder fits into any single box and they all look different on different people. We must take the space to check in with ourselves from time to time and observe our relationships with our habits.
No longer is fashion dictating that we need to starve ourselves in order to look good. It’s certainly not a perfect change, but there’s a lot to be said for changes that promote healthy eating and lifestyles as ‘cool’. As as long as we have competition, popularity and ego, we will have an accompanying fashion that influences our choices in one way or another - isn’t it a wonderful thought that this powerful industry could be used as a force for good?
When I see that plump person in the mirror now, my impulse is not to starve myself or throw up my dinner, but to exercise and make a smoothie. Exercise is good, it gives us endorphins and energy, and it makes us stronger inside and out. However if I exercise too hard and damage my knee, I know to stop, check in with myself and tend to my knee.
Mine is not a story of a victim, nor is it a story of a hero who triumphed over trauma and came out unscathed. Everyone has a personal history filled with hardening experiences, heartbreak, disappointment and beautiful mistakes. I’m sure that in some ways my childhood was very similar to yours, and I’m sure that in some ways it wasn’t. Though we have more in common than we are different, I am certain that you and I have both experienced pain and joy that the other person couldn’t begin to understand. We are all different and once you get deep enough beneath the layers, we are all deeply complex. Our experiences are what make us learn, and what makes us better, fully formed individuals. I am sure I wouldn’t be the person I am today had I not experienced all that life has thrown at me. My pain is not nothing and I should not laugh it off, but it is a part of me just like yours is a part of you: any judgement on it, be it a shocking or underwhelming soundboard, is not yours to make.
Everyone deals with stress in different ways, and at our best we channel the unhealthy energy into something positive: yoga, meditation, Cognitive behavioural therapy, sex, wholesome food, laughing. It is simply about self-love: treat yourself with the compassion and kindness that you would a friend, and choose lightness over the dark.
I also believe that a strong part of this puzzle is connection. A few years ago I met a girl who was being pressured by the people around her for having a perceived eating disorder. They all wanted to help, but their attention just lead her further and further into denial. I told her my story, and once she'd realised that there were seemingly normal people out there who had experienced the same thing as her, she was able to talk about it without the fear of being judged. Eventually, with a lot of support and work, she recovered. When our mental health is suffering we can often feel so small, and often in the most fundamental ways possible. Sometimes, all we need is for someone to acknowledge our pain and discomfort, maybe not to make it better, but just to say, ‘I see you.’
Struggling with your mental health - body image related or otherwise - and not sure where to turn? Click HERE for a list of links to professional organisations who are here to help.
Kate-Lois Elliott is a writer, producer and actor. She has contributed for publications that include VICE, Caboodle, Femini, XYZ Magazine and Mouth London. She is also co-host of the Podcast Diversify. Kate was the assistant editor for The Shapers Project book with The Creative Society, Jazz FM and Mishcon De Reya, has had her short fiction read out on Wandsworth Radio/Either-Author and had her work staged at Theatre 503. She regularly champions first time playwrights with her company Backbone Theatre, who run workshops and readings at London venues.
Twitter and Instagram: @kateloiselliott
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