I am more than the eating disorder that tries to define me. I am more than the stomach rolls that make me nauseous. I am more than the underarm fat magazines tell me they can help me lose.
I asked for these photos to challenge my anxious thoughts and intrusive self-hate. I talked to the photographer and makeup artist about wearing clothes I normally don’t wear, boasting makeup that accentuates my features, and posing to show off my body. Collaborating with positivity and talent instead of the deal I made with my eating disorder to hide my body, hide my curves, hide my fat, hide me.
The challenge was: there is no difference between me and the gorgeous models I see, accept a talented photographer and make-up artist. You can decide for yourself, but in my mind, we came through pretty damn well.
Because, I am also the stomach rolls that look so gorgeous in this photographer’s camera lens, the underarms that show off a classic style, and, whatever happens, I am the eating disorder I continue to battle. I am these things and the grief that consumes me today is the power that I can leverage to move towards acceptance tomorrow.
These photos were my way of taking charge of my own narrative and creating evidence that can debate the hate that consumes me. This is me, my body, who I am, and I can love it, accept it, and live with it.
This is also me. I can be both.
I can be fabulous and awkward, fierce and anxious, beautiful and scared. I can choose some of the things that I am, battle against others, live with many.
This photo exudes the energy of someone who is sensual and confident and, honestly, loves their leg. Sometimes, it’s alright to stack the odds in your favour when you want to be something that you don’t feel. Book a photographer, organize the makeup artist, borrow that dress, and become everything you want to be.
And this, this is also me. I am more even than these photos. I asked for this photo, chose this proof, and love very breath of it.
An orthodontic surgeon once told me that I smile with too much gum and that, while fixing a scheduled dental issue, could fix this as well. My parents brushed off this request and moved on. I suffered for months with the first real opportunity to change my body. Eventually, I decided that although I didn’t love my smile, it was my smile. I see it in the mirror and use it to greet friends. It’s the first impression I offer and how I laugh. I may not love it, but I don’t hate it…it is simply, me.
I asked for this photo because I wanted to see me. In case these photos became something more and I lost sight of my every day me, I wanted one photo that I could connect to. In the end, this photo completed the set. It is perfect, just like me.
So, here they are. Three of the photos that I booked, posed for, selected, and now own. They are gorgeous and fierce and joyful and make me want to write, which is the ultimate sign for me that I can be passionate about myself. This was an adventure of self-indulgence, vanity, and decadence. I could not be more proud.
Growing up an aspiring fantasy author, I studied the many paths my characters could take. An adventure is a trip without a destination. A journey is where the trip itself matters most. A quest is a trip to accomplish a specific task. I dreamed of romantic journeys, wild adventures, and life changing quests. As a character in my own personal epic, mental illness was just another quest: something to overcome and move past. I did not just reject the idea that mental illness could be an ongoing journey, I completely ignored any consideration of it.
I have worn many labels in the form of my diagnoses: generalized anxiety, major depression, panic disorder, and, most recently, bulimia nervosa. Each label is a new quest, a new challenge to overcome. A series of quests to the “perfect mental health”. That was true, at least, until I sat down to an online mental health seminar titled The Imperfect Recovery.
My goal in attending this seminar was recovery: to beat bulimia and move past it once and for all. This workshop was aimed at” “imperfect recoveries”, and recovery was there in the title and thus essential to the plot. My quest was already laid out for me.
I closed my computer barely minutes in when the realization of the true title hit me. The Imperfect Recovery: they were talking about adventures, journeys…not quests. Accepting an imperfect recovery meant that the story might not end as nicely as I had hoped. A potentially never ending road of battles and…I closed my computer barely minutes in.
An imperfect recovery simply did not compute with my own, deeply held, need for perfection. Never properly analyzed, I still have no idea what this perfection meant. What is “perfect mental health”? The absence of mental illness? A never ending tirade of smiles and happy days?
As a health educator, I should have known that “perfect mental health” did not exist. As a health educator, I often describe mental health as being similar to physical health: there are good days and bad days, temporary injuries, chronic conditions, and sporadic pains. I held conversations with others in order to help them come to terms with mental health being an essential part of wellness, to overcome the burden of stigma, and to explore options for support before they were inevitably needed. I held the conversations, designed the posters, hosted the events, and yet still held on to my own internalized stigma. I would not accept good days and bad days, for I was on a quest for “perfect mental wellness”; mental illness would never be chronic, not for me.
As I battled with my latest diagnosis, bulimia nervosa, The Imperfect Recovery hit on deeply held beliefs that I had never fully acknowledged: my need for perfection and my consequently internalized mental health stigma. Although not all mental illness will be chronic, I had never properly considered that mine might be.
If perfection is defined as the complete lack of mental illness (which I would argue it’s not), we are setting ourselves up for inevitable failure. It was gently pointed out to me by my therapist that, like physical illness, the complete lack of illness is sometimes impossible. For someone with Type 1 Diabetes, this would require a new pancreas. For me, a new mind. Perfection is an impossible quest.
But, the loss of perfection does not mean the loss of joy. Similarly, accepting a life with mental illness is not giving up. It is accepting just one battle in your life, one opportunity to fight, one story where you strength will shine. It is the first chapter of an epic saga.
I can try to find joy in progress. I can celebrate every small accomplishment and search for room for innovation in every setback. My imperfect recovery with mental illness will include trials and tribulations, good days and bad, and I can continue to grow through each and every one. I can accept this journey that stands in front of me. This is not a quest that I am failing at because I have not reached the end – this is a journey where the trip matters most and a set of adventures to explore. Perhaps I will never reach my destination, but I can find joy in the constant innovation and creativity that it takes to move forward each day. Acceptance is not done – I will have to practice it every day. But, I am on the journey and that brings me joy.
I have run booths about eating disorders, organized #MirrorlessMonday events, and hosted body positivity yoga sessions. Nonetheless, today will have been two days since I last ate.
As fresh as the hypocrisy is, I have to remind myself: teaching about eating disorders and battling an eating disorder are two very different things. I had the education, and now I get the experience. Reading blogs, studying articles, even having a degree in psychology, all seem like futile attempts at understanding what I now get a front-row seat to. However, as futile as they may currently seem, I have to reluctantly admit that some of this education stuck. I swear by the counselling process, I know to take my medication every day, and I did recognize the warning signs when my eating habits started hurting my day to day life. So, on that somewhat optimistic outlook, I will join in the “futile” efforts of blog writers everywhere to share what I learned from my eating disorder. These are the lessons I wish I had known about eating disorders when I was teaching about them, with the hope that it may somehow help the next overzealous health educator.
My background is relevant to this blog façade of a personal journal. I hold a Bachelors of Science in psychology, have volunteered in health education for five years, and coordinated a peer health education program. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in 2014 that began to present itself as bulimia in 2020. I also have a dog. Each of these is equally important to who I am today – hopefully, I’ll get to choose what is important tomorrow.
Definitions don’t define everything
Yes, I am looking at past-me and my activity board that sorted symptoms into their corresponding diagnosis. Little cards with “binging-compensating behaviours” were sorted into the bulimia category, “long-lasting sadness” into depression, and so on. At the end of the day, diagnoses are important for communicating symptoms between health professionals (and perhaps your insurance company). They can help a client understand what they’re experiencing. They can create a community between people with similar experiences. But, diagnoses are not perfect. You may be struggling but not meet the exact criteria or severity for a diagnosis. Your specific health professional may decide on multiple or singular diagnoses depending on their training. You may, like me, debate your psychologist on length of whether your fasting qualifies you for “bulimia” as opposed to “binge eating disorder”. This particular argument ended with wise words of advice: “call it what you want, the symptoms don’t change”.
I’m not saying not to talk directly about anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder as official diagnoses (see the previously mentioned benefits of using official labels). Just don’t end the education with the symptom definitions. Talk about the experiences and what the struggle feels like, offering the diversity that these stories deserve. At the end of the day, call an eating disorder what you want, but it doesn’t change what it is: a mental illness that hurts you. It isn’t a rulebook to follow or a symptom threshold to be reached before you’re acknowledged. Don’t teach it like it is.
Health Education Tip #1: Don’t rely solely on diagnostic criteria for teaching what an eating disorder is. Instead, emphasize stories of struggle and success. Remind your audience that any struggle is legitimate and valid and should be discussed.
Recovery is ongoing and dynamic
Before receiving my diagnosis of bulimia, I was triumphant in having “recovered” from generalized anxiety – apparently, I was wrong. I quickly made great strides in battling bulimia and drastically improved my eating habits…before ultimately and frustratingly falling backwards after a few months. What I once called “recovery” was a binary success or failure – this is not the case. I do not say this statement lightly, as I am still learning its true importance myself. Recovery is an ongoing battle that takes strength and resilience. It requires acknowledging setbacks without letting them overcome you, and periods of working to maintain wellness.
Even treatment can be a dynamic process. I have the privilege of not only having access to therapy, but finding the right fit in a therapist on my first try. I know others who have struggled with therapists or explored different types of therapy, from group to one-on-one or mindfulness to CBT. My therapy was once enough to hold my anxiety at bay; it stopped being successful a few years back, and I reluctantly went on antidepressants. While struggling with the ongoing battle of recovery, the dynamic nature of the very treatment tools you are using can be unexpected and exhausting. As health educators, we can prepare people for this reality with the knowledge of diverse tools and resources.
Health Education Tip #2: Teach about the ongoing nature of recovery and that taking steps back is not failure. Promote diverse resources and tools so that your audience is the best equipped they can be.
Shame is real
I binge eat. I cannot control it. I hate myself for it. I do not talk about it.
No matter how many campaigns I coordinate to fight stigma: I binge eat, I cannot control it, I hate myself for it, I do not talk about it.
This thought process seems immensely counter intuitive. Somehow, I should connect the uncontrollable nature of my mental illness to self compassion and forgiveness. (I don’t.) Somehow, I should connect my experience on stages behind microphones to allowing myself to openly talk about my experiences. (I don’t.) The incoherence of these arguments hurts the logical side of my brain. It is this duality that health educators must remind themselves of: a duality between emotion and logic. I refer openly to both my logical side (the health educator) and my emotional side (a sad blanket burrito of self-hate). Some days one side is louder than the other.
I did not realize the extent that shame can affect you until I tried to explain to friends and family my latest diagnosis. I used the term “eating disorder” instead of “bulimia” in the hopes that we could leave the specifics out of the conversation. Me and my tray of mini-cupcakes would prefer to go unnoticed. It is this lesson that health educators must constantly remind themselves – shame is real, stigma is real, and the battle must go on.
Health Education Tip #3: Try to reduce stigma every chance that you can. No matter how many useful programs and resources you offer, stigma will stand in the way of someone asking for the help that they need. Include reducing stigma as one of your communication goals in every campaign.
Love yourself again, and again, and again
Not every lesson you teach as a health educator will stick. Not every post of “love yourself” on Instagram will change someone’s day. However, do not stop doing this. As a once idealistic health educator, I convinced myself that what I said would or would not have an impact. It’s far more complicated than that. Messages take time and repetition to have an impact. Your mind codes information each time it sees it. Seeing something multiple times and in different formats helps you learn and internalize the idea.
I struggle every day with thoughts of self-hate and body image issues. I repeat positive coping mechanisms and compassionate messages to myself. Many don’t stick – but some do. Just as I struggled one day, the same coping mechanism may work the next. I find these flip often throughout the recovery process, with the coping mechanism and compassionate thought sticking more and more each day.
Remind others to continue repeating these thoughts, to ride the waves of self-hate with just as relentless countering. One day you will listen, and you want to make sure that you are saying something productive when you do.
Health Education Tip #4: Don’t just say it once. Repeat successful campaigns and address the same topic multiple ways with different campaigns. You never know which time may work.
Good health education works
My last message to health educators is the importance of the work that I called futile at the beginning. I read the blogs, I studied the articles, I listened attentively to lectures about eating disorders. These did not stop me from getting an eating disorder, but they were never supposed to. My education was supposed to teach me to recognize the signs of mental illness, familiarize me with the resources to reach out to, and remind me the importance of caring for one’s mind and body. I always thought my education was there to just help others – as much as I hope that it also helped someone else, I know that it helped me.
Good health education includes talking about the difficult topics, letting experience drive education, reducing the stigma surrounding them, and repeating the message.
Keep teaching and keep learning, here are some resources to help:
NEDIC (Canada) provides information, resources, referrals and support to those affected by eating disorders. https://nedic.ca/
Kids Help Phone is free, anonymous and confidential professional phone counselling and online counselling, available 24/7 for kids and youth 20 years of age and younger. Kidshelpphone.ca OR 1-800-668-6868