I generally refrain from commenting publicly about eating disorders and self-harming however I’ve noticed an alarming number of young people (mostly young women) posting photos on sites such as Instagram and Tumblr depicting self infliction, extreme weight loss, discontentment with their bodies, and disturbingly graphic drawings of “ideal” women that look nearly skeletal.
Most recently I discovered the account of a young woman I mutually follow on Instagram clearly suffering from an eating disorder and from self-infliction. I began to notice weeks ago that she frequently posted photos of her abs and bare legs with self deprecating captions and hashtags. She would write “fat” under a photo exposing her bare abs where she hardly looked fat at all. In fact I would say she looked even skinnier than average though by no means “stick thin”. But perhaps that’s what she was working towards? Other girls commented on her photos saying, “You’re my thinspo” which I later concluded meant “thin inspiration” and it upset me to see them encouraging her already askew self-image. I decided not to comment on any of her photos because I know that my appearance prevents me from discussing weight and sizes out loud.
A few days later a young woman publicly asked me my height and weight, describing me as “perfection”. I replied that I am far from perfect and that I am 5’7” but unaware of my weight. Realistically, I know the ballpark figure of my weight but I am not consumed by that number nor did I want to share it publicly for fear that other young women might deem it as “aspirational” or whatever. The fact is I am a very thin person and always have been. It is in my genetics. My mother was a very thin girl until she reached her 30s and I have a fast metabolism. Although I have rather poor eating habits, I exercise frequently and rarely eat desserts (not to deny myself but because I don’t really like sweets). I don’t do anything out of the ordinary to keep my size but I am aware of my profession and the standards that are set.
Several days ago the same young woman with the self-deprecating abs photos posted a stream of highly disturbing photos. She had carved the word “FAT” into her very not fat stomach and slashed her forearms numerous times. Her captions and hashtags clearly showed she was in an intensely volatile state of mind. I felt tears sliding down my cheeks as I looked at her photos, witnessing someone in such intense pain. Naturally people commented “please stop” and “you’re not fat!” but others commented with encouragement for her behavior! I was stupefied. I explored some of her hashtags such as “depression” and “ana” (meaning anorexic) and was shocked by what I saw. There were whole communities on Instagram devoted to encouraging suicide, self harm, and eating disorders. Instead of the obligatory motivational quotes written on cheesy filtered nature photos, I saw depressing and hopeless quotes written on dark and melancholy photos of people crying, rain, dark skies, and cemeteries. I felt compelled to write this young woman but I didn’t know what I could possibly say to make her feel better. I also considered the possibility that I might offend her by saying anything at all because I myself am very skinny. In the end I wrote her, “You are a beautiful person but you have to first believe it.” Her most recent photos show her knees touching, a perverse endeavor I imagine she undertook by losing more weight. Again, she received praise for being “thinspo” to other young women and I shook my head in frustration.
When I was a young adult I certainly went through phases of self harm and one minor eating disorder but the difference between now and then is the overwhelming online influence one can find to either destroy or strengthen their suffering. As a teenager and young 20-something, I felt alone in my pain that I bottled up my feelings without communicating and exploded violently against myself when I couldn’t take it anymore. I always knew in the back of my mind that what I was doing was harmful but I also felt like I had no choice, that there was no other way. Teenagers nowadays have the internet at their disposal where they can find support groups and inspiration if they so choose but on the other hand also have access to negative influences where people get together and “show” each other how to best hurt themselves and wallow in their sadness. I am glad I discovered such groups now in my mid-20s rather than as a teenager because I can see now what emotional force fields these groups are and how they can easily suck a person into even more self pitying and despair! Had I discovered these things as a teenager, I might have gotten even worse in my ways.
But where does this leave me now? I went through years of therapy on 3 different continents, 2 anti-depressant medications, several overdoses, a case of extreme calorie counting, 1 hospital stay in a foreign land, endless tears, loss of friends, and 1 forced intermission from school. I had one relapse but have since done the work needed on myself to truly understand that self harm - whether through an eating disorder, wrist cutting, pill consumption, or just a very negative attitude – would never get me any closer to peace of mind or fulfillment. I realized these tactics were mere distractions from dealing with my problems head on in a compassionate, yet deliberate way. I wish I could have conveyed these words to this young woman (who cannot be older than 20) but again, I worry that my appearance would deem my words artificial or worse, glib.
My sister pointed out to me that I am in a unique position where I can encourage young woman who might be following my model career on Instagram or Facebook to see the beauty in themselves and realize that whatever suffering they are experiencing now in their adolescence will change as they grow older. But I’m afraid I do not have the answers. I don’t know what to tell these girls. Sometimes when I am suffering I even wonder to myself if it will ever end. Deep inside I know that life is constantly changing and that we must experience all these emotions as they come, and allow them to leave when they do, but I am also guilty of holding onto negative scenarios that do not serve me; another form of self-harm, post-adolescence.
I posted a photo of myself at age 14 on Instagram next to a photo of me now. The 14 year old me was an awkward, nerdy, bespectacled child wearing a goofy grin and shapeless clothing. I probably received more positive feedback for that photo than any of my professional modeling photos. I wanted to share that I am human, too, that I also went through an extremely awkward phase in my youth, and was definitely not the beautiful girl in class. And I also admit that I have days where I feel unattractive and awkward and to compensate, I might post a rather edgy photo of myself in an attempt to prove something to my inner-self. Because again, I am human, too. And sometimes I hate the fact that I might be encouraging eating disorders because of my size or encouraging negative self-image among young woman because of the industry I work in, which we all know sure as hell does very little good for societal expectations and image. I do what I do because I love it, because I have fought for it just as I have fought to be in the mental state I am in now, a place where I see things more balanced and rationally; where I finally feel compassion for myself and my place in the world; and where I can finally realize that no matter how terrible one of my days can be, there will always be the next day to make it better.