I was about 12 years old, still a child, when somehow I worked out ‘the magic number’ – the one I thought I needed to see on a scale in order to finally find happiness. I’m not sure if it was calculated according to the flawed Body Mass Index (BMI) system we had just learnt about in school, or if it was just a number I thought would help me escape the daily fat-shaming I was experiencing.
Regardless, it’s a number that’s stuck in my mind ever since. Fast-forward to today and my weight is the lowest it’s ever been, less than a kilogram short of that magic number, while my mental health is also at its lowest point yet.
Phew, that was hard to admit…
Imagine suddenly realising that something you’ve wanted for years, something you’ve been fantasising and obsessing and working hard towards for most of your life has turned out to be worth very, very little. It’s a crushing realisation.
I've read numerous articles and blog posts about unhealthy eating patterns that resulted in extreme weight loss, with every woman speaking out about what a bad idea it was and how much they regret falling into this trap.
But every time I read those articles I always skip forward to the part where they tell you how they did it, the anorexia, bulimia, like some wild person looking for the least traumatic solution to weight loss. So I’ll spare you the effort and tell you my exact secret for ‘success’.
Take little care of your mental health & even less care of the physical, romanticise the idea of an over-worked, stress-induced burn out and instead of seeing it as torture, consider every sleepless and foodless hour that passes a sign of strength. Add a little personal or family crisis, and it’s the perfect recipe for disaster.
Now, I'd be lying if I said this weight loss hasn't come with at least a few benefits. I'm now (at least) able to go to clothing stores and enjoy the majority of those small-to-smaller fashion ranges, without fearing the, "Sorry, ma'am, we don't stock that size" response.
I can keep (at least) a few more holiday photos without deleting all the ones that made me feel disgusting or regret ever wearing that skirt, dress or top. And now the compliments I get are full of praise for my seemingly successful weight loss journey, at least. But compliments can be dangerous things, while some soon turn from praise to concern.
You probably also have that one (or more) family member who always makes your apparent weight loss or gain the talking point at lunch gatherings. (Let’s not forget that mental health strain can present itself in multiple different physical forms). Meanwhile, December comes with its own special brand of humiliating and hurtful questions on those said changes.
I know they mean well and I've been somewhat honest with them till now. However, the family lunch table isn't exactly the easiest spot to get into conversations about mental health, eating disorders, anxiety or a cry for help.
So my usual response to my outspoken and concerned aunt (who notices every kilo lost) is: "Yeah, it's just stress, I'm just stressed", which seems to pacify her long enough.
It's the same lightly-salted honest answer I've started giving to the people with less concern than admiration for this loss. I recently had a woman, at a pizza lunch, in front of nearly a dozen other people, shout out to me from across the room "Oh em geee! You've lost so much weight! It's like 20kgs, right?! What's your secret? What are you doing?".
Everyone listening suddenly stopped eating their cheese-covered slices, not just to hear my answer, but also take a moment to scrutinise my body shape and contents of my plate just a little more intensely.
I gave her a little smile as if surprised and humbled at the back-handed compliment, and then, through a jaw-locked, strained grin I said, "Ag, I've just been on a strict diet of high-stress and work lately, no workout required, hehe". The crowd giggled.
"Oh, well you're looking great either way, hey."
That was the turning point for me and one of the big reasons why I decided to write this piece. I mean, when someone says 'stress' has been the reason for an extreme amount of weight-loss, what do you think that means?
Do you think a special stress-chemical in my brain is making me take up boxing or sprinting or some intense sweat-yoga? Or that it's like a magical diet pill that allows me to eat whatever I want without gaining?
My family understands my answer as a short explanation of a difficult time in my life, which is met with hugs and love. They don't fully comprehend the mental degradation that's making me forget to eat or the anxieties stopping me from finishing a plate of food, but they know it's not good.
That other woman, together with the crowd, saw no red flags. I'd essentially admitted that I was struggling to care for my own body due to being unable to care for my mind and it went straight over their heads. Just like me reading an article like this, they'd skipped forward to the part where I explain how I did it, because the answer was more important than the truth.
In that moment I realised they too, had been willing to overlook the mental health issue and rather potentially focus on the solution needed to help them reach their own magic number.
We see this culture of toxic compliments play itself out every day, even on social media. Beautifully positioned Instagram photos flooded with affirmation for their new look and weight loss. Every "like" and "Wow, you're looking great!" comment left is like the crack that either helps fuel your next workout session or makes skipping another meal seem more worthwhile.
As I said, compliments can be dangerous because they feel good for a little while. And trust me, when you're in a deep, dark place where hating yourself is way too easy, the temporary good feeling of someone admiring the physical embodiment of your pain makes it a little easier to bear.
It's crazy how talking about someone's weight loss or gain has become so normal. Is it because as society, holding women (and men) up to physical expectations of western beauty standards is the norm? Is it that we've likened appropriately adapting your body to winning or unlocking some great life achievement?
Is it perhaps that we still have entire competitions centred-around judging and praising people for their physical appearance? Or is it perhaps, just that we don’t recognise that in our compliments (or lack thereof), we perpetuate a psycho-social violence against women’s bodies?
I know it's hard reading another post about some woman who lost weight and is still sad if you can’t picture it for yourself, but if you’re feeling like me imagine this: if you travelled to the moon tomorrow, you’d instantly weigh less, see a much lower number on the scale, and would probably feel just as empty, if not worse.
Because when you do, or even if you never reach that number, if you don’t have a healthy view of your own body you’ll quickly realise that it’s not some magical reflection of your happiness or value as a human being – it’s just an indication of how hard the earth’s gravity is pulling down your body.
I’m still trying to figure this all out and it’s been easier with friends who I’ve been able to talk to. I cannot emphasise support systems enough. After admitting all of this and from my experience I’ve realised there are ultimately two ways with three possible outcomes going forward. You can either 1) Change your body or 2) Change the way you see it.
If you want to make a physical change, doing it the healthy way and for the right reasons needs a lot of emotional strength, time and will power to work (of which I have very little left at this stage).
Doing it the wrong way is not just terribly dangerous but also dangerously easy too, and it will, I guarantee, end up disappointing and hurting you. After basically reaching my goal weight and still feeling terrible, I think the only way to find happiness is by changing the way we see our bodies, how we love, value and care for them.
It’s a mentally healthy, body positive option that I rate only really goes one way and that’s up. It takes admitting that you’ve been a bad friend to your body, mind and soul, but I think it’s the only solution that works and is sustainable in the long term.
Instead of a magic number, perhaps it’s time for me to try find a magic frame of mind. I need the kind of change that makes me love my body whether standing on earth, Mars or the moon, irrespective of its gravity or the stupid number on the scale.