Fun fact: I once endured a diet of cayenne pepper and water shots eight times a day alongside my meals because I read in a magazine that it would speed up my metabolism. I stuck with this for almost an entire month before the cramping in my stomach became unbearable. Mind you this cramping had begun almost instantaneously with my first shot, but it took me two weeks to realize I was probably burning a hole in my stomach. Weight lost: 0 lbs.
If you smiled reading this story you are not alone. We are constantly bombarded with rapid weight-loss strategies and fad diets. Everyone has that friend, or sister, or mother who's tried some wacky diet like eating grapefruits with every meal, or only eating cabbage soup. You might even have that friend who almost burned a hole through her stomach with cayenne pepper.
This yo-yo or extreme dieting may be seen as harmless or even vain but we must recognize it stems from a very dangerous place. Negative body image is the negative self-perception of your body. It is often accompanied by shame; the unworthiness we feel due to our flaws. This combination of negative body image and shame is what leads us to take desperate measures with our bodies.
Let me tell you a story of my own decline into a world of shame, diets, and finally an eating disorder.
One day I woke up and realized I was taking up too much space in the world, and I felt bad about it.
I had no idea what I was doing when I decided to put myself on my first diet. I didn't know anything about nutrition, and had only a vague understanding of exercise. All I knew is that one day I woke up and realized I was taking up too much space in the world, and I felt bad about it. I developed painful stage fright and stopped speaking up in class; I did not want anyone to look at me.
On TV I saw a commercial for the ab-roller, which showed people using a strange gadget to do sit ups. I didn't own an ab-roller but I quickly developed a secret habit of completing 300 sit ups in the morning and 300 sit ups before bed. I also started throwing out my lunches at school. I was 8 years old.
At fourteen my weight-loss strategies evolved. Once a week I would pick a day and try not to eat. Some days I was successful, and other days I gave in to my growling stomach. This was before fasting was a buzzword in fitness community. I loved the overnight change I could see on the scale after a day without food. I loved feeling empty.
For the remaining six days of the week, I ate, but as little as I could. I tracked my progress in my journal or at least I thought I was tracking it. Reading back on the journal I bullied myself to keep motivated. I called myself names, I wrote that I was not worthy of friends because of my body, and I picked apart my body -- detailing everything I hated about it.
I quickly developed a secret habit of completing 300 sit ups in the morning and 300 sit ups before bed. I also started throwing out my lunches at school. I was 8 years old.
By the time I turned sixteen, my food restriction had caught up with me. My body began rebelling and the cycle of binge eating began. Binge eating is when you lose complete control over your eating -- in my case I could eat an entire loaf of bread and four bowls of cereal in 15 minutes.
The shame and anxiety I felt after a binge mixed with the physical discomfort of having the entire contents of the pantry in my stomach was torture. My inner bully would take over filling my head with cruel thoughts. This would be followed by extreme restriction until once again my biological needs would take over and I'd find myself unable to stop eating and feeling that unbearable shame.
This continued until one day after a binge I made myself throw up. All of a sudden the anxiety and discomfort was lifted. I had found a way to deal with the repercussions of my binges.
By the end of my first year of university, my weekly secret habit of finding relief through purging had begun to surface at every meal. It no longer took an extreme binge to trigger my anxiety, discomfort, and negative thoughts around eating. A cup or grapes was as bad as three slices of pizza. I fixated on every morsel of food that passed through my lips. I needed to get it out.
The bulimia took a hold over me. I credited my new body for every good experience, every new friends and of course my boyfriend. But I felt like a fraud for going through such unnatural measures to get my body to cooperate.
Every public meal was anxiety ridden. Where was the closest washroom? What kind of stalls did it have? How would I avoid the goddamn people? But I also lost weight for the first time in my life. I was getting compliments from people; I had a huge group of friends, and got into my first serious relationship. It felt as though by finally getting in control of my body I had also gotten control of my life.
The bulimia took a hold over me. I credited my new body for every good experience, every new friends and of course my boyfriend. But I felt like a fraud for going through such unnatural measures to get my body to cooperate. I had hated my body since the age of 8, and now I also hated myself for what I was doing, but I was terrified. Terrified of losing everything by gaining weight; terrified of everyone finding out my secret and shunning me; terrified of losing my hair and teeth; terrified of dying.
I lived paralyzed in this fear until my mid-twenties. I tried counselling, and anti-depressants to try to manage my disease but nothing seemed to work. Then one day I woke up and decided I would no longer live like this; I did not want to die. I started to manage my disease through shear will-power; I would force myself to eat and keep meals down.
At the same time I was still terrified of gaining weight, my self-image was still negative, and my thoughts were cruel. I would continue to try harmful diets like the cayenne pepper experiment, and could not keep all of my meals down in a day.
This all changed when I went to my first CrossFit class and endured my first workout. It included lifting a barbell over my head, and some running. I left that class feeling physically defeated, but I had felt a shift. For a few moments in class I had felt strong and proud of my body -- something I had never felt before.
Every day I still need to work on keeping my negative thoughts at bay.
I saw my body in a new light. I started going to more classes, got stronger, and educated myself about my nutritional needs. I discovered books by self-love gurus like Louise Hay, Gabrielle Bernstein, and Gala Darling. Slowly my negative thoughts started to be crowded out by new positive ones. I started to keep more meals down.
Today I live without symptoms of bulimia but it took me years to get to this point. Every day I still need to work on keeping my negative thoughts at bay, and there are days where I feel that same exact painful shame I felt about my body when I was eight years old.
The difference is that now these moments are brief; I understand how to change my own inner dialogue, and I have made it my mission to change the conversation around me. I know too well the downward spiral a negative body image can send you on.
If you have a friend, or sister, or mother that constantly criticizes themselves or jumps from one fad diet to the next, change the conversation, be compassionate and remind them that they are and deserve to be loved.
If you read my story and recognize your experience within mine, there is a light at the end of a tunnel. Whether you decide to seek counselling or go buy a book that teaches you about self-love; I promise that you do not have to endure the shame forever.
Frame Of Mind is a blog series inspired by The Maddie Project that focuses on teens and mental health. The series will aim to raise awareness and spark a conversation by speaking directly to teens who are going through a tough time, as well as their families, teachers and community leaders. We want to ensure that teens who are struggling with mental illness get the help, support and compassion they need. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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One in five Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime Source: Canadian Mental Health Association
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LGBTQ youth face about 14 times the risk of suicide and substance abuse than their heterosexual peers Source: CMHA Ontario
First Nations youth are at a higher risk. The suicide rate among First Nations youth is roughly five to seven times higher than that of the general population. Source: Parliament of Canada study, 2014
People with mental illness and addictions are more likely to die prematurely than those without. Mental illness can cut 10 to 20 years from a person’s life expectancy. Source: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
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If you need help, visit ementalhealth.ca to search for services in your area. Or call the Kids' Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868, it's Canada's only free phone counselling service for youth under 20.
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