Society is constantly throwing at us new ways in which we can compare ourselves to others and sometimes it’s hard to ignore. With Facebook, Instagram and Twitter providing a real-time feed of the lives of others straight into our homes, handbags and back pockets, not judging ourselves based on someone else can be easier said than done. For women, this comparison seems to occur primarily around body image and weight.
As a little girl, I was anything but little – I was obese. At the age of 12 I weighed more than I do now as a 22 year old. People would always tell me “you have such a pretty face”, as if deliberately leaving out the rest. I knew I was larger than all the other kids, but it never bothered me. I never thought it was something that needed to be changed and I felt confident in the person I was. All I knew was that I loved pasta, and it loved me back.
When I was 13, I moved to a private school that placed a heavy emphasis on athletic skills – so many of the other students were fit, athletic and sporty. It was an entirely different culture to the school I had come from – everyone was on their phones constantly, and Myspace had just begun to take off. Wanting to fit in, I followed suit. The more I used social media, the more I began to compare myself to others. My previously confident self suddenly didn’t want to be seen. I was ashamed of my body. In comparison to all the other girls around me who were so pretty, popular and fit, I felt disgusting.
I set a goal of losing 10kg to get me to a healthier weight by cutting back my portion sizes and eating healthier, and achieved this goal. People looked at me differently – like I was worthy of attention, and not just because it was funny to look at the fat girl. I validated my self-worth based on the number of positive comments I received on my pictures on Myspace, telling me how great I looked. It felt good to feel like I was one of the “hot girls” that I had idolised. If strangers on the internet told me I was hot, it must be true right?
One day, two of the girls in my class began to send me hurtful messages on MSN messenger about my weight, and sent me thinspo websites to look at – telling me that maybe I could get a boyfriend if I looked “normal”. It hurt. I thought I looked good, so why were they still telling me I was fat? Their cruel actions played on my insecurities. I joined some thinspo chatrooms and asked strangers for advice on starving myself. One girl told me that as long as I didn’t make myself vomit, then I don’t have an eating disorder. “Starvation is the best diet you can get,” she told me – and I found myself agreeing. I began a nightly ritual of stalking those girls’ Myspace profiles endlessly – I envied the male attention they got. Why did my photos have fewer comments than theirs? In my mind, skinnier was the solution to getting more comments and thus more male attention.
The more weight I lost, the better I felt about myself. I got a boyfriend, which I attributed to my weight loss success. “Just a few more kilos”, I told myself as I forced myself to eat less and less. My original plan of healthy eating had bordered into a full blown eating disorder as I stopped eating almost entirely. I ate basically nothing every day for a year and a half. My weak body was temporarily boosted by energy drinks, which gave me a false sense of vitality and health.
But I was anything but healthy.
In total, I wound up losing 45 kilograms – a shell of the person I used to be. No one told me I was fat anymore, instead the comments on my photos were all on how sickly skinny I looked. A few friends showed some concern, but I didn’t listen. It felt so good to be thinner than everyone else. Deep down, I knew I was too thin, but I misinterpreted people’s concern as a compliment to my appearance.
I felt “perfect”, but couldn’t I let it slip. I couldn’t let anyone weigh less than me and take my crown of “skinniest girl in school”. I would check the photos on the social profiles of every girl in my year, trying to guess if they weighed more than me. I wouldn’t let myself go to sleep until I found at least one person who I thought might weigh more than me, if only by a little bit. I kept a set of scales underneath my bed, and would weigh myself at every chance I got. The mean girls from school kept sending me hurtful messages online – but instead of calling me fat, they began taunting me as “Anorexic Anastasia”. It became daily abuse – and not abuse that I could get away from once I left the school grounds. It was in my house, in my laptop and in my bedroom each night as I meticulously scrutinized every inch of myself in the mirror.
It hurt, but I’d settled on my obsession with perfection and a tiny figure as not just a diet, but a way of life.
One day, I knew I’d gone too far. I realised I had lost so much weight that my period had stopped. In fact, I hadn’t had one in almost a year. This terrified me – was I damaging myself forever? I wanted to be able to have kids one day! I looked at myself in the mirror and saw something different to what I’d been seeing every other day – I no longer saw a perfect, tiny figure.
I saw an emaciated girl with stretched out skin where her once full boobs and bum used to be. I saw a gaunt face filled with sadness and insecurity. It wasn’t me, and that scared me.
The fear changed me immediately. I went into the kitchen, and grabbed as many carbohydrates and fatty snacks as I could carry back to my bedroom. I was desperate to put some weight on again and make myself healthy. I ate as much as I could per day, and would go to bed feeling full and bloated. It worked – I put on around 30 kilograms of what I’d lost, and although my method of weight gain wasn’t exactly healthy, I eventually got back to a healthy weight. I initially was saddened that I could no longer see my ribs, spine and hip bones poking out, but I knew I had done the right thing for my health.
I began receiving negative messages on social media again, this time through Facebook. Almost by default I began stalking their photos again and checking the thinspo sites for the images that I had learned to worship… but this time, something in my head clicked. I knew it would lead me down a harmful path again.
So I deleted my social media profiles and I made a deal with myself not to reactivate them until I felt confident in my body and my emotional state – and to this day, I maintain that this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Had I kept in my cycle of self-inflicted negativity and comparison through social media, I think I’d be in a very different place today.
It took about a year, but I began to love myself again. I learnt that loving yourself is the most important thing of all, not conforming to something that you’re not. And from that point onward, I was passionate about promoting a positive body image and letting others know that there was no such thing as perfect. The truth is that there’s no magic secret that will give you the perfect celebrity hair, makeup, skin, body, weight, lifestyle, career or relationships. There is no such thing as perfect. We can only ever be the best version of ourselves. And that’s awesome.
If I could give any advice to people struggling with their body image, it would be to allow yourself time to disconnect from social media and focus on reality. Delete your profiles temporarily. Set an embargo on yourself, be it for a day, week, month or year. You are in control of your life, and you get to choose whether you feel happy in yourself or compare yourself to everyone else.
Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle… or to any other part of someone else’s life, for that matter. Social media is there to enrich our lives, not to give us a tool with which to hate ourselves.
Stay beautiful, stay wonderful, stay unique, weird, flawed and imperfect… stay you.
By Anastasia Sproull