What’s the one question that sends many a single girl into a panic? “Who are you taking to the formal?”
It’s 2018. Surely we’ve moved beyond pressuring young women to find an attractive man-bag to hang off their arms.
When I supervised formals back in my teaching days, I always felt sorry for the poor lads who had been dragged out for these events, and were then all but ignored once they had performed their obligatory photo duties. I felt sorry too for the girls I knew would look back at pictures from the night and cringe when they saw who they went with just because they felt pressured to pair up.
Let’s encourage more solo operators. As sassy singles, our daughters will be able to enjoy the company of their schoolmates and celebrate all their in-jokes together one last time (which is, after all, what an end-of-school formal is supposed to be about).
At one high school, a girl bragged to me that her mother had flown her to Paris to buy her formal dress. I was speechless when, in the next breath, she revealed that there was a down side: as it was a Parisian label, only diehard fashionistas would know the designer, so she would have to explain to the other girls how prestigious her dress was (surely the very definition of a first world problem).
But it’s not just the finances that take a hit. For many girls, the angst over what to wear not only drives them to scrutinise their bodies, but seems to provide an open invitation for others to critique them as well.
I recently heard of a school that had teachers run a seminar for their girls on which colours might best suit them, and on which styles would prove most flattering.
Yet much of the information presented actually focused on how the girls should cover their flaws.
One teen girl who swims competitively was told her shoulders would need to be disguised (she hadn’t been aware her strong arms were considered unattractive until this was pointed out in front of her peers).
Another was told that despite being larger, she could still achieve an hourglass figure with the right garment choices.
We mustn’t spend six years telling our girls they should never be defined by their looks, only to encourage them to conform to narrow standards of beauty once they reach the finish line.
The lead up to formal season is peak dieting time for teen girls with many going to extreme measures to lose weight rapidly, including starving themselves, purging and using laxatives.
Jade, 19, says her battle with anorexia began after she made the decision to drop a dress size for her formal: “But on the night of the event, I’d lost so much weight that my dress just hung off me. I spent the night anxious, scared and hungry. And I stayed that way for years afterwards.”
Let’s not ruin this milestone in our girls lives by offering them anything other than words of affirmation — and the tools they need to critique marketing messages and beauty myths that don’t serve them.
It is a big night; yet only one of the many they’ll have in their diverse, sparkling lives.
When I first started working in schools with young women to give them the skills they need to move beyond mean girl machinations and body image blues, I envisioned I’d be working only with high schools. The frequent SOS calls from primary school teachers soon made it apparent, however, that this type of proactive work needed to start in Year 6.
And yet in the past twelve months, it’s been Year 4 girls that seem to be causing the most concern. Although it is well known that relational aggression tends to peak in the middle school years (Year 5-Year 8) this demographic does seem to be more vulnerable than ever before.
Why might this be the case?
1. A significant number of girls are hitting adolescence at a younger age. Over the past 20 years, the average onset of menstruation has dropped from 13 years to 12 years and seven months (although it is increasingly common for girls to start menstruating as early as eight and nine years of age). Significantly, the hormonal surges associated with puberty, known as adrenal puberty, will be happening even before any physical traits become apparent and can cause heightened emotions. There is also often a divide that forms between girls who may look very childlike still, and others who will begin to look more like young women.
2. Rather than finding childhood carefree, many kids of both genders report feeling overwhelmed. They may be in families that are experiencing financial hardship, or relationship breakdown. With only childlike strategies to fall back on, many can’t cope alone; a recent University of Sydney study found the largest increase in the use of antidepressant medications was among children 10-14 years old.
3. There is increased external academic testing happening in our primary schools. Parenting expert and passionate proponent for play, Maggie Dent, blames NAPLAN for damaging our children. “Too much emphasis in the younger years on testing steals time away from the vital work of play” says Maggie, “and it through child-led play and caring human interactions that we learn how to build relationship and resilience.”
4. The average age for first exposure to porn is 11 years old. The type of messages young people receive about their emerging sexuality via this medium are often both confusing and confronting. One Principal shared with me how a young girl at her school was being asked by a male peer to send nudes, “This little girls was literally playing with dolls one minute, and being thrown into a situation where she had to try to cope with sex based harassment the next.” Parents who bury their heads in the sand and think there’s plenty of time for conversations around sexuality and respectful relationships later are doing their children a dangerous disservice.
5. Social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram stating the minimum age to sign up is 13 years. Despite this, surveys have shown that three-quarters of children aged 10-12 years have ignored the age limit, many without any parental guidance or monitoring. While we tend to be (rightfully) alarmed at the possibility of our girls being groomed by predators online, or bullied by their peers, we put far less thought into how we can support them to make sense of the narrow definition of beauty and messages around materialism they will be bombarded with when following their favourite influencers. Teachers tell me they are concerned about students in Year 4 who are already dieting, or refusing to participate in swimming as they fear looking fat in their costumes.
Once our girls reach double digits, we might be fooled by their increased desire for independence and more grown-up appearance to take a step back. Yet the reality is they still desperately need us to hold their hands just a little longer and support them to safety navigate the path to womanhood.
Mental health issues are taking a terrible toll on our teens.
But it’s time we also acknowledged the damaging ripple effect carrying the burden of worrying about their suffering friends may be having on their peers too. Because while it’s encouraging that young people are asking each other “are you OK?”, if the answer to that question happens to be “no”, what are kids meant to do with this information?
Make no mistake, there are plenty of young people out there currently serving as inexperienced, unqualified counsellors to their highly vulnerable mates. In fact, a struggling adolescent is actually more likely to first talk about their problems with a close friend before reaching out to their own family. And often, the conversation will be couched as one expected to be kept private; “Please don’t tell anyone but …”
For teens on the receiving end of a disclosure that a friend is struggling, there may well be a reluctance to pass on their worries to an adult for fear of being accused of betraying a confidence; secrets are a particularly powerful form of social currency for teenagers and often shared to solidify friendships.
Through my work in schools, I have in fact noted a generation burdened with feelings of responsibility for the mental health and safety of their inner circle. In a misguided attempt to maintain their friend’s confidence, often teens acting as a support person will struggle alone. “I guess the best I can do is just to be there for her, ” one 15-year-old girl told me. And thanks to the always-on social media world our teens inhabit, the support is often delivered 24/7. She concluded: “Whenever she feel like hurting herself, she calls me first and I talk her through those feelings. It actually is really stressing me out, but I can’t let her down. She told me if it wasn’t for me, she’d want to end it. I am so scared something bad will happen to her if I don’t respond to her messages.”
Some young people are, however, at least reaching out anonymously to seek direction in knowing how to support friends they are worried about.
Kids Help Line, a telephone counselling service for young people, recorded almost one thousand calls in 2017 alone from kids concerned over the mental health of someone they know. Over half of these related to concern that their friend was suicidal (Kids Help Line are in fact so highly aware of how prevalent this concern is that they offer downloadable resources on this topic, front and centre on their website’s homepage).
Jaelea Skehan, director of Every Mind (one of the organisations behind the latest mental health #youcantalk campaign) explains: “There’s a lot of young people holding heavy stuff for others. Being a good friend is about reaching out and checking in on our friends, but it is also about recognising when we aren’t equipped to manage complex issues and involving professionals who do have those skills.”
We need to very clear. Yes, we can talk. However, young people urgently need to be reassured that reporting concerns they hear to trusted adults is vital — and isn’t a betrayal of their friend’s trust.
How can we break this message down for them?
I teach teens that we should never keep dark secrets for people. When a young person begins talking to me and says something to the effect, “I want to tell you something but you must promise not to tell anyone.” I respond with the following; “You may tell me anything. And I will listen with my whole heart. But if you have been hurt, or could be hurt, I want you to know that I care too much about you not to do something about that.”
All young people need to know that reporting concerns to trusted adults is not a betrayal. Rather, it shows the depth of their compassion and bravery.
Tools to know how to best manage the conversations they are having are also important to share with our kids. They don’t need to solve complex issues, but simply acknowledge their friend’s feelings and tell them they care. They can also gently point out the consequences of their friend’s actions, for both themselves and the people that care for them. And if their friend has been hurt, or could be hurt? They can support their mate to get the professional help they deserve.
Teens should also be encouraged to take care of themselves during this process. They can reach out and debrief with a trusted adult if they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious by what they’ve been told (this is particularly important as we know that suicide can have a contagion effect on vulnerable youth).
By caring for themselves too, these accidental counsellors will be modelling for their mates that while sharing with those closest to us is a helpful first step, healing comes from also talking with professionals.
This week I am sharing a guest post by my colleague Nina Funnell. Nina is a freelance writer, social commentator and author. This post was originally posted by RendezView.
Well this is depressing.
Lily James, who plays Cinderella in the latest Disney remake of the film by the same name, has admitted that she had to go on a liquid-diet in order to fit into the corset she wore for the part, adding that the outfit was so physically constricting that “if you ate food [while wearing the dress] it didn’t really digest properly”, causing her to burp continuously while trying to deliver lines.
Disney has already defended itself against claims that the actress’s waist had been digitally manipulated to appear smaller, stating that “Lily’s waist hasn’t been altered – she’s wearing a corset.”
Yes, indeed. A waist altering corset. A corset worn so tight that not only does it change its owner’s normal physical appearance, it also interferes with the functioning of her internal organs too.
In response to criticisms about the depiction of her character’s tiny waist, Lily James has hit back saying “why do women always get pointed at for their bodies? … I feel like I’ve got to go: ‘I’m sorry I’ve got a small waist’”.
And you know what? Ordinarily I’d be right there with you, Lily. It sucks that women’s bodies get scrutinised and judged so mercilessly by the media and others. And it sucks that actresses of all different shapes and sizes are subjected to such endless criticism about their looks.
But right now people aren’t talking about Lily’s body as it naturally exists. They are talking about what’s been done to her body. By Disney. By the wardrobe department on the film. By the dress itself. And what’s been done sucks the big one.
Because while I agree that we should all take care not to skinny-bash celebrities, it’s not skinny-bashing to point out that an item of clothing which is so restrictive that it stops a woman from digesting food properly is not something we should be parading around in front of small children and holding up as the defining standard of beauty.
This issue hits close to home for me. Over the past couple of years five of my friends have given birth, all to girls. And while it delights me to no end to think that pretty soon we’ll have enough to start our own junior girls soccer team, I also know that what I want for those girls is for them to grow up in a very different world to the one I grew up in.
I want them to grow up feeling strong and happy in their bodies. And I want them to grow up seeing a wide range of female bodies being positively portrayed in the films that they watch.
Because I was six years old when The Little Mermaid came out at the cinemas and I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember catching the 506 bus into town. I remember going to George Street Cinemas in Sydney. And I remember sitting in my seat and staring up the giant screen. And what I saw – and what I yearned for in that moment- was the skinniest waist I had ever seen.
In fact Ariel’s waist had such a profound impact on me that when my brother later teased me that if I ate a big meal, my stomach would look like I swallowed a soccer ball, I had to hold back tears of despair. And I remember everything about that moment too – where I was, the exact words that were used, and how I felt at the time.
And no matter how much we might talk to girls about image manipulation and corsets and photoshop, nothing can ever truly erase the power of an image.
Perhaps the images we should really be showing to girls are those which capture the disfigurement which results from extended use of a corset. (While we’re at it, we could also show them the disfiguring results of foot binding, since the story of Cinderella was originally adapted from a Chinese tale about maiden who slides her foot into a tiny slipper, thus proving she has the smallest foot in the land, and is therefore the most virtuous and kind woman for the Prince to marry.)
And we could also show girls these images of Disney princesses with realistic waists and hair.
But what we shouldn’t be showing them is complacency in the face of Disney unnaturally shrinking down its female stars, through any means, including the old fashioned ones.
The following guest post is shared with permission from the author, the wonderful Matt Glover from MGA Counselling Services. Matt wrote this following a discussion I had with him and two other professionals I admire, Sarah McMahon from BodyMatters and Jacqui Manning, The Friendly Psychologist. Sarah has also put together an excellent resource on how to select a therapist for eating disorders which may be viewed here.
Recently I was having a discussion with Dannielle Miller from Enlighten Education about what to look for when choosing a counsellor or psychologist. In Australia, we still live in a culture that places some stigma on seeing a mental health professional, and so we are hesitant to ‘ask around’ like we do when looking for a plumber or dentist. If you’re wrestling with a mental health issues, a relationship problem, a personal issue, or just feel plain stuck, make sure you check the following before booking a session with a counsellor or psychologist.
1. Check the qualifications. While Psychology and Social Work are regulated industries, Counselling is not. Anybody can set themselves up as a counsellor and charge a premium without even a single hour of training. Online certificates and diploma’s abound in counselling, but these are little better than nothing at all. Many of them do not require any sort of supervised placement and barely scratch the surface of best practice when it comes to the different models of therapy. For counsellors, I would suggest sticking with those that have a Bachelor degree or above, from a reputable university. When you ring to make a booking, ask where the therapist did their training.
2. Check the accreditation. Make sure the counsellor you see is accredited at more than student level with one of the professional bodies. The professional bodies maintain a code of ethics for the industry and ensure that individual therapists are engaged in ongoing professional development and supervision. As a counsellor, I’m accredited through the Australian Counselling Association, but there are equivalent associations for Psychologists and Social Workers.
3. Check the experience. Regardless of your heart for helping people, it takes a while to become really proficient in the helping industries. I say to aspiring counsellors to try and get work with a larger agency before thinking about private work or opening your own practice. I worked for 14 years for other organisations before opening MGA. When you ring a therapist, ask them how long they’ve been practicing. If they say “two weeks”, wish them well for their career, hang up, and call the next person on your list.
4. Check the specialty. Most of us have a field that we specialize in, based on our own interests and history. In my practice, we focus on sexuality, spirituality, and mental health, with individual therapists at MGA having more focused areas like relationships, eating disorders and the like. If you’re after some help with depression, for instance, make sure your therapist has experience working in that area. Associated with this point is the model of therapy. There’s lots of different ‘therapies’ – some will suit you and others won’t. CBT has been popular in the past but seems to be going out of fashion in recent years. Gestalt is still popular, as is person centered therapy. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is the model we use at MGA, but each client is treated according to their needs, not pushed through a conveyor belt.
5. Check the “fit.” If you find you don’t really click with your therapist, find somebody else. I don’t have any research to back this up at all, but my feeling is that at least 50% of a good outcome in counselling depends on how well you get along with your counsellor. If you have a counsellor that is rude, irritating, talks about themselves all the time, seems uninterested, hurries you along, doesn’t listen or even smells funny, then you won’t get the most out of your time together. You may even miss some important, helpful suggestions because you really just don’t like them very much. Sometimes a good outcome does take time, but you want to take that journey with somebody who you connect with well.
6. Check the reputation. This is a little harder to do, but ask around to see what sort of reputation a therapist has. Personal recommendations are not a rock solid guarantee (you have to get along well with them remember) but it’s nice to know that there is some good reports about the person you are seeing.
7. Check the responsibility. By this I mean, check that you have responsibility for where the sessions go and what it is you cover. I do a lot of work with the transgender community and I’ve lost count how many times clients say to me that their previous counsellor talked about nothing but their gender transition, despite the client wanting to see them for an entirely different reason. (Eg, bullying at work) In sessions, make sure you talk about what YOU want to talk about. As things unfold, you may uncover other things that you need to work on – a skilled therapist will help you do this. But if your counsellor insists on making you talk about things that seem irrelevant and they won’t give you a reason why, think about whether you should continue with them.
8. Check the practical stuff. Ask how long the sessions are, what the fees are, whether it has disability access, whether it is close to public transport, is there parking available, what are the opening hours and so on. Whatever practical things are important to you, ask about them. Also check to see if your therapist has any long holidays planned – sometimes a break in momentum can set you back, so if they’re going to be away for six months, ask for somebody else.
Jacqui offered a few final thoughts in addition to these I thought worth sharing here too: “Also, I’d say that if the work feels confronting, that’s OK, therapy is meant to make shifts and sometimes these can feel uncomfortable but it shouldn’t stay that way for long. The therapist should be skilled at going at your pace, but if they’re not, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them to slow down. And if you don’t click with one therapist? Don’t give up on the process. It’s like finding a good hairdresser, it can take time to find the right person to trust, but you don’t stop getting your hair done if you have had one bad haircut.”
Designer Alex Perry has apologised after sending 21 year old model, Cassi Van Den Dungen, down the runway at Australian Fashion Week, looking extremely thin. But it has renewed debate about the health of models in the industry, and the example being set for young women. Nicole spoke to Dannielle Miller, an educator, and an author of books like ‘The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power’, and also to former model, now author and mum, Chloe Maxwell.
US retailer Target recently made the ridiculous choice to (poorly) photoshop an already svelte teen model in order to give her a thigh gap and alien-like limbs.
On-line news site Mamamia were the first to expose this insanity here in Australia: “What’s disturbing here is not only is someone with inferior retouching skills attacking catalogue images, but that images of teenagers are being slimmed down in the first place.” Amen!
I appreciated the opportunity to discuss this on channel 9’s Mornings program with Mia Freedman:
This week I am sharing a guest post by my colleague and friend Nina Funnell which first appeared in The Age. In this Nina attempts to make sense of alarming new findings which suggest teens (girls in particular) are engaging in digital self-harm.
In recent weeks, media outlets around the world have reported on the tragic case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire, England, who committed suicide, after receiving cruel and harassing messages – including to “drink bleach” and “die” – on the social media site Ask.fm.
Critics of the site have urged parents to keep their children off it, saying that the anonymous question/ answer format leads to harassment, stalking and bullying.
Now the case has taken another tragic turn. In an inquiry into the matter, Ask.fm has uncovered that 98 per cent of the abusive messages sent to Hannah came from the same IP address as her own computer. Only four of the abusive comments came from other IP addresses.
While there are still a lot of unknowns in this case, it has now been reported that the abuse sent to Hannah appears to have come from Hannah herself. Following this latest development, many people online have expressed their utter bewilderment: what could drive a teenager to attack herself and then put it on display? Why would anyone self-sabotage in this way? And are other teenagers doing this?
Last year, researchers at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre found that up to ten per cent of first year university students had “falsely posted a cruel remark against themselves, or cyberbullied themselves, during high school”.
And this is not the first time that online ‘self-harassment’ or ‘self-cyberbullying’ has been identified and written about. In 2010, danah boyd, a leading social media researcher wrote about an emerging trend she had discovered on Formspring, where teens were ‘anonymously’ posting vicious questions to themselves, before publicly answering them.
Similarly, in 2008 I conducted research into the pro-anorexia community – a community set up by individuals with eating disorders. I discovered that it was not uncommon for members on these forums to write letters of worship to their disease referred to as ‘Ana’ or ‘Mia’ (anorexia or bulimia). The same member would then write a reply to themselves as though they were the personified disease. These second letters ‘from’ Ana or Mia would inevitably be full of abuse, insults and vicious put downs.
So what motivates this phenomenon and why have we heard so little about it?
According to boyd, online self-harassment like that observed on Formspring or Ask.fm, may represent a cry for help, a grab for attention, an opportunity to demonstrate toughness and resilience, or a way of phishing for compliments from friends who jump in to defend against the abuse. Boyd also describes the behavior as a form of ‘digital self-harming’, stressing that teens who are in pain do not always lash out at others: very often they lash out at themselves. And occasionally they invite an audience to watch on.
For the ‘digital self-harmer’ the presence of an audience appears to serve other purposes too. Anonymously calling oneself a “loser” online allows them to test out other people’s attitudes: do other people see me this way too? Is my perception of myself shared universally?
Secondly, by inflicting harm on themselves before an audience, it makes their pain visible and therefore more ‘real’. Finally, by giving others the impression that they are ‘under attack’, the afflicted individual is able communicate to others exactly what they are feeling: overwhelmed and under siege. And they can achieve this without ever having to risk saying the words: “I’m in pain, I need your help”.
What this means is that while the abusive comments might be manufactured the feelings they speak to are very much real.
Looking back at my own high school years, it is clear that aspects of this behavior are nothing new. Teens have always had a propensity to document their negative self-talk and self-loathing in one form or another, often in journals, angst ridden poetry and other forms of art. Sometimes teens keep these things deeply private out of secrecy and shame. At other times, they deliberately share and show these things to friends, as if to say “see my pain. See me.”
For all of us, pain is not simply something we feel, it is something we ‘perform’, often with the purpose of eliciting certain responses from others. For teenagers especially, these performances can become avenues through which they bond, ask for empathy or sympathy, and experience a sense of connectedness – something which most teenagers crave desperately. While this strategy might serve a need, it is also deeply dysfunctional.
Today this impulse is moving online. In recent months I have had two conversations with different mothers after they discovered that their children’s friends were self-harming, then posting photographs of their injuries online for their peers to comment on. Perhaps most disturbing of all was that one of the children shrugged it off as “nothing new”.
Experts are right to worry that by normalising or even glamorising self-harming behaviors, such overt displays might produce a contagion effect. This is why it’s considered dangerous to even mention the issue in schools.
Despite this, it’s important that researchers continue to look at why young people are externalising their self-hatred in this way and what can be done to help them. Moreover we must remember that sometimes the cruelest things a teen will ever hear are the comments they say to themselves.
Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. Nina and I also recently co-wrote a book for young women on navigating dating and relationships; this will be published by Harper Collins in February, 2014.
I am always incredibly honoured when I receive correspondence from women who want to meet with me to discuss more about my work, and their vision for girls.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to meet everyone who requests a catch-up; not if I actually want to get on with driving my own vision for girls and supporting my own amazing Enlighten Team. But, every now and then, an email screams out at me as being written by someone truly special.
Samantha Power originally emailed me as she has just finished teaching Drama at the Australian International School In Singapore, a school Enlighten had a particularly powerful experience working in last year (this event will always remain one of the highlights of what has been a very blessed career; I am thrilled we will be returning in 2013):
…As a young, fresh teacher I am extremely passionate about what it is you’re doing with Enlighten Education…I have received many emails from some of my ex students telling me what an amazing and powerful experience your workshop was. Thank You from the bottom of my heart for empowering them and giving them the confidence they need to believe in themselves in a more positive and affirming way.
Since hearing from them I have read your book The Butterfly Effect and in doing so have also been propelled to make a difference. My love for teaching came about from a love of teenagers and a strong need to ‘help’ them. Help not in the sense of saving them but, like you, in allowing them to look at their lives in a different way and to realise that they are so much more than what they themselves may even realise. I aim to use my platform as a teacher to try and make them realise their potential, encourage them to be compassionate and caring towards others and to always strive for their dreams…
Samantha went on to explain she had moved to Texas but would be back in Australia in a few months time to visit her family. If she paid for an airfare to Sydney to meet me, could I find the time to meet with her she asked?
How could I say no to this level of enthusiasm for our girls? Suffice to say that after we met, I was so taken with Samantha that I offered her the role as our Program Manager for the USA and, after staying with me and travelling all over Australia as part of her Enlighten training, she has been establishing our programs there ever since (trust me, if you ever meet Sam, you’ll want to adopt her too. I only hope she never uses her powers for evil, or we are all in trouble).
But, bringing our brand of girl-power to the USA is not all that she has been up to. Completely unprompted by me, Sam decided to set up her own Facebook Page and blog aimed at teen girls – Real Girls. These sites are inspiring, empowering and much-needed on-line platforms for real girls to share their personal stories and learn from each other.
So, this week, I am handing over to 16 year old “Real Girl” contributor Zoe. Zoe is a 16 year old girl living in Melbourne, Australia. Here she candidly and bravely talks about her body issues and her goals for the future.
You may read more “Real Girl” stories at Sam’s site . Do check it out and share it with the girls in your life.
Trigger warning: Please do not read on if you are prone to be triggered around eating and health or body-related themes.
I’m a 16 year-old girl from Melbourne who has been lucky enough to live overseas and see various parts of the world. My life, however, over the last couple of years has been filled with ups and downs. I am thankful in a way though as it has made me a much stronger person and taught me to appreciate and make the most of every opportunity. I’m a naturally energetic, hyperactive person who is a strong believer in the law of attraction – what you put out into the universe is what you get back! Therefore, I try to put out as much positive energy as I can. I don’t do things by halves, its 200% or nothing.
For me, hindsight is an interesting thing. I don’t live with regrets but if I could, I would prevent my 12-year-old self from feeling the need to starve herself to get to a weight that was way below the healthy weight range. For anyone out there who has had or currently has an eating disorder and faces the challenge of being in the “Zone” then you will know what I am talking about – Experiencing that voice inside your head that takes over any reason, obsessing over calories, weight, how many bones are showing, how many calories to burn and how to eat the least amount at the next meal.
Four years of yoyo dieting, excessive exercising and mentally stressful events caught up with me this year and although I had maintained a relatively healthy weight for the last two years my outlook towards my body has been constantly up and down. I would only feel confident or like my body when I was exercising a lot. If I wasn’t I would feel the need to not eat. I also would over analyze every part of my body, and focus on everything I hated about it and where I wanted to be thinner, constantly comparing myself to other girls around me.
My exercise regime had been given a massive boost towards the end of last year and the beginning of this year due to cross country season. I began exercising for 11+ hours week and pushing myself more than I needed to. I found I began to tie my confidence and self-esteem with how much I exercised – the more I did the better I felt about myself. I justified this in my mind and thought it wasn’t the same as my eating disorder – I was happy, getting good marks at school, at a healthy weight and my family life was stable. I used all these excuses to make what I was doing ok – even though I still had the voice in my head telling me I needed to do the extra exercise class, run an extra hour, burn another 100 calories.
I knew that my body could only handle so much but still I ignored the warning signs of over training and pushed through. In May this year however, the “crash of exhaustion” finally came. I experienced a whole month of heart palpitations, constant elevated heart rate, unable to think clearly, insomnia, Increased PMS symptoms, periods of exhaustion and days where I was unable to get out of bed.
Blood tests showed that I had sub clinical hypothyroidism*. One of the most noticeable symptoms associated with hypothyroidism is unexplained weight gain. I was suddenly faced with weight gain of 7 kilograms in one week.
I was told by my doctors to come back in six weeks to get another blood test to see if my levels returned to normal. I felt extremely trapped and hated not being able to do anything to help myself. I had done some research and had found there was a lot of information linking hypothyroidism and Adrenal Fatigue*, which I discovered is surprisingly common and even more risky than chronic fatigue.
I had gained weight and had lost most of the fitness I gained over the last few months. I felt very lost as I associated my whole personality and lifestyle around exercising. I suddenly had two choices: I could continue the way I was going or I could learn from this experience. In a sense there and then I had to confront my eating disorder face on and promised myself I would work at being the healthiest version of myself.
This required a lot of self-control, and there were slip-ups. There were days where I would just go back to my normal routine but I was at the point where if I stressed my body out too much, I would find myself bedridden the next day. This really taught me that there is a consequence for everything you do. In those months I came to realise that my weight was just a number – nothing more! It didn’t change who I was as a person. I still had amazing friends and family, and a supportive school, and they all were there to help and make sure I didn’t too much.
What have I learnt from all of this? I have learnt how important it is to have a balanced lifestyle. Our body’s sole purpose in life is to function. It cannot withstand large amounts of stress, bad eating habits and being surrounded by negative environments. We need to respect our body and treat it in a way that allows us to live to our full potential
It’s taken me six months to get back to normal energy levels and only in the last two weeks have I finally felt back to my normal self. I’ve learnt to appreciate every single opportunity that is thrown at me and realise now how lucky I am: I go to an amazing school with unlimited opportunities, have a great group of friends both in school and out, have a positive family life and an inspiring mentor and coach.
My goal from now on is not let excessive exercising control my life and to see food as fuel, and something my body needs. My goal for the future is to help as many people as possible to live a balanced lifestyle by exercising in a functional way and eating in a way that makes them feel good and excited about life. I have recently completed my Certificate III in Fitness and aspire to have a career in the fitness industry as an Exercise Physiologist/Personal Trainer.
I hope to use my personal story to help others make better choices for themselves and to know that their body and their outer appearance does not define them as a person. It is more important that you are healthy and that you can live in a way that allows you to be the best version of yourself you can be!
Hypothyroidism*: Hypothyroidism (under active thyroid) is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of certain important hormones. Source: MayoClinic.com
Adrenal Fatigue*: Adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms known as a syndrome and occurs when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level. It is most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress, but can also arise during or after acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis or pneumonia.