Content warning: this post contains eating disorder references.
Positive body image is always something that I’ve struggled with, ever since I was a kid, and it is definitely something that has always fed my eating disorder. As a child I would make all of the dolls and Barbies I played with look as skinny as possible, wrapping their dresses tight around their waists and stuffing their tops with toilet roll. I remember I would get frustrated if the Velcro on their clothes was a looser fit. To me, this was how I thought women should look. Once I hit my teenage years I would purposefully wear shoes with practically no sole in the bottom as I didn’t want to feel ‘big’ or take up more space than I already did. If I could go back to my younger self, I would tell her repeatedly; “take up space, take up space!”
My whole life I had known that I wanted to be an actor and once I finished school, at 18, I knew that I now had the opportunity to finally pursue it. Because of the way women are presented in the media I consumed, I always had this idea that to be successful I had to look a certain way. Since I was a child I had watched TV shows such as Friends. Because of the female representation in this program in particular I was convinced that successful actresses had to be as slim as Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox. Now I am in recovery I know that this is not the case; appearance does not equal talent. These women were put under such scrutiny about the way the look, Jennifer Aniston having to lose 25 pounds to play the role of ‘Rachel Green’ is a prime example of this, all because of diet culture and the male gaze.
When I was 20 I moved to New York to study acting, I would eventually stay there to start working. The programme that I was on called for being on camera, in front of our class, nearly every day. When I was a child I had always been praised for how photogenic I was and how comfortable I was in front of the camera. Once my eating disorder had started to run my life, however, this changed dramatically. Although I still loved acting and loved being on camera I constantly had this voice in my head telling me I looked awful and that to be successful, in acting or any areas of life, I must lose weight.
Even though my weight was the lowest it has ever been in my teenage/adult life I still had exceptionally bad body image issues. But, because I had bought into the idea that being slim makes you happy and magics all of your insecurities away, it still wasn’t enough. I put my body through hell to achieve something that could only be reached by changing the way I think about how I look, not changing the way I look. Once I came to terms with having an eating disorder my body image issues went up and down like a yo-yo. One hour I could love everything about my body; the next I may not even want to exist because of how I looked.
It took me a myriad of ways to achieve even partial positive body image. One was taking clothed mirror selfies, and eventually taking part in Come Curious’ 30 day nude challenge, where I would take an un-posed naked picture of myself every day, with the aim to just accept the way I look naturally. Eventually I decided to start being open with the world about my struggles and journey, through posting about them on my instagram, @esmemichaela, and by having open and honest conversations with my friends and family. Even though at first I found this exceptionally scary, and still do sometimes, it has given me a body freedom that I have never felt before. I am able to look deeper into how the media doesn’t reflect reality and that social media, or fiction media is never an accurate representation of real people or real life. We are meant to have curves, fat and wobbly bits. People are beautiful because of who they are, not because of what they look like.
Learning to love myself and the way I look naturally, without restricting, dieting or over exercising, whilst still doing and eating the things I love and enjoy, is the best decision I ever made. Now I am a year into recovery I still have body image issues and I still have relapses, but I have to remind myself that, although it feels permanent, it is not. And I will feel better again, eventually.
by Esme Michaela