If I ask you about the things you love, you’ll likely have a list. You’ll tell me that you love your boyfriend, your job, the colour blue, sunny days, roast chicken, dancing, swimming – but how long could you go on before you tell me that you love yourself? Most people go a lifetime.
When we look in the mirror we are no longer seeing what we want to see. We are seeing more and more of what society expects us to see. We are told to look this way, to present ourselves like this, to say certain things, to be a certain person – and with each and every blow or hit to what we once were before society found us, we lose a scrap of self-worth and self-love until there is absolutely nothing left.
Take yourself back to when you were in primary school, when you were seven or eight years old, and the world hadn’t quite hit you yet. You got up each morning excited for the day, being with your friends and having fun. You relished days at the beach, without makeup, skinny jeans, or hair styling. You didn’t care what you looked like, your mum dressed you, and as far as you were concerned, life was simple. Now, think back to when you were fourteen. You’ve hit high school and you suddenly realise that kids can be mean. You realise that, for some unknown reason, your hairstyle matters. You have pimples and that’s not okay. You’re too fat, too slim, too tall, too short, you’re all wrong. It is here, in the formative years of our life, that the damage is done. We begin to look in the mirror and see ourselves not through our own eyes, but through the eyes of the media.
When I was nearly sixteen, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Somewhere in my brain, I had calculated that being 5”2 and 55 kilograms was wrong. I had seen the girls in the magazines, with their perfect flat stomachs and their thigh gaps, and I decided that I wasn’t good enough. My first school formal was coming up, and my dress made me look like a whale. I was sure.
I started counting calories, cutting back on meals, and being so conscious of every single thing that went into my mouth that I was scared of standing near people that were eating fatty foods. The crazy part is, I was thin. And I think somewhere, deep in my mind, I knew that. But it had been drilled into me, both through backhanded comments from bullies and from the media itself that I wasn’t. I was no longer seeing what I wanted to, I was seeing myself as others wanted me to.
Unrealistic body standards that had been hammered into my psyche had taken away the beauty of my own body. I was on 300 calories a day and weighing less than 45 kilograms when I realised I needed help. I assure you, there is nothing easy about recovering from an eating disorder. And it’s not something that can be forgotten or dismissed. Body dissatisfaction has been identified by the Mission Australia Youth Survey in 2013 as being one of the top ranked issues involving young people.
And it’s not going away. The number of people suffering from an eating disorder has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, and it is only going to get worse as the media throws images upon images of size 0 models walking the catwalk. As youths of today are bombarded with what we supposedly want to see, apparent perfection, we are quickly losing our grip on our own beauty. I’m proud to say that since my diagnosis, I have gained upwards of 12 kilograms. I will happily sit down to KFC with my friends if the situation calls for it, and I won’t pass up a second helping of apple crumble. But for others, it is not as simple.
In January 2004, Brazilian teenager and aspiring supermodel Ana Carolina Reston was told during a modelling casting call that she was ‘a little too fat’. Two and a half years later, Ana passed away from mass organ failure and septicaemia as a result of anorexia and bulimia. She was 21 years old, and weighed less than 40 kilograms. She became a cover story, but for all the wrong reasons.
Where we once looked in the mirror and saw what we wanted to, and saw who we really were, we now look in the mirror and see ourselves as a means to impress somebody else. We live in a culture obsessed with shrinking, where confidence is controversial. Where a women’s magazine will tell you to love yourself for who you are then on the very next page give you 16 sure-fire ways to lose that extra weight. When did it suddenly become more attractive to have less of yourself? When did the size of our waist suddenly become proportionate to the size of our worth? We cannot continue to let what others think about us define who we are. And it’s time to change.
There’s no certain path to self-confidence. I can’t give you a step-by-step guide. But the key to loving yourself does not come from those around you, it comes from deep within yourself. I take you back to the list of things you love, and how you were not on that list. I encourage you to take the time to rendezvous with yourself in the mirror. Look at yourself. Look yourself in the eye and say ‘I love you’. Do it every night, over and over, no matter how awkward and strange it feels. Pause for a second and say, out loud, the things that are beautiful about you—the little things. And eventually, you’ll once more see what you want to, and you will be happy. You will mean it when you say ‘I love you’.
Marilyn Monroe once said ‘Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person that you are’. If you go about your everyday life acting in order to impress those around you, you will lose yourself. It is not your responsibility to be beautiful for others. You are not alive for that purpose. Your existence is not about how desirable others find you. It’s time for us all to take a step back, and look in the mirror, and to start doing things for ourselves. This morning I put on eyeliner and lipstick for myself. I dyed my hair, for myself. I choose to be beautiful, for myself, and I choose for that beauty to satisfy me and nobody else. If you distance yourself from the negativity of what society wants to see, beautiful things can happen. You can take it a step further and pay it forward. Look at those around you and see their beauty too—see that that lady is totally rocking that skirt. See that your mum has the prettiest eyes. When you start seeing everyone as beautiful, at some point you realise that you’re everyone too. It’s time to look in the mirror and see what we want to, and love it.
Words by Cass Teunissen
Artwork by Amber Hall
Eds note! If you need help, please contact:
Eating Disorders Association of South Australia (EDASA):
Butterfly National Support Line & Web Counselling Service:
Phone: 1800 ED HOPE / 1800 33 4673
Phone: 13 11 14