Warning: This article discusses mental health, weight loss and eating disorders. If anything in this article raises issues for you or someone you know, talk to a trusted healthcare professional.
So, for whatever reason, you’ve decided to lose weight.
Maybe it’s for an event or to fit into that pair of jeans. Maybe it’s simply to feel better about yourself, to physically be fitter, to grasp the challenge of fitness with both trembling hands and finally ready to propel yourself into your ‘journey’.
You start off and it’s harder than you imagined, but you keep coming back for more. You like feeling the sweat drip down your temple, each bead slowly trickling down your cheek like a tear of the former you left behind.
You start to see the kilograms drop off, slowly but surely. Then finally, you reach it: you’re at your goal weight. It’s here, you’re at the end. You’re finally happy with yourself and that’s how the story ends, right?
Body image ideals fluctuate like seasonal trends and to many have become a trend in and of themselves.
Big butts and slim waistlines are the trending ‘ideal’ body shape currently. Yet, a little over a decade ago, extremely skinny frames with boyish hips were the desired silhouette.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, a size 12-14 female frame with a full bust and hips was the norm and celebrated as so – with the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren considered the ideal female figure.
The point being? What’s categorised as the ideal figure changes with such regularity it’s hard to keep on top of it and can lead to a much larger problem.
An obsession with self-image isn’t a new or revolutionary occurrence. However, it can develop in an individual after they’ve reached their goal weight or seen themselves as a smaller, more ‘perfect’ individual than they believed was the case previously.
The fear of returning back to the larger version of themselves is something that becomes a dangerous form of motivation and can lead to extreme measures.
At a time when their self-esteem should be at its highest, it’s often decreasing as the individual becomes more and more self-critical. The goal posts, it seems, are constantly moving.
Clinical Psychologist Dr Sharon Robertson, says that individuals who have a well-balanced and realistic approach to weight loss tend to be satisfied when they reach their goal, and those who remain unsatisfied may be influenced by external forces.
“I tend to find patients who ‘change their own goal posts’ are being unduly influenced by their initial weight loss success, social desirability to be thin and/or they may be developing an eating disorder where no amount of weight loss seems to be enough,” says Robertson.
“Any of these factors may result in an unsatisfying weight loss experience.”
While it’s common to blame social media for warped perceptions of issues and or public figures, there’s a definite case for these platforms holding monumental influence on and individual’s perception of their weight loss shifting from healthy to obsessive.
Instagram has a much darker side, with a community of individuals who share their anorexic and bulimic lifestyles on the platform using hashtags like #proana and #thinspo to cultivate a group of likeminded individuals.
“Print and social media platforms like Instagram and others use ‘tricks’ to look thinner in photos, and even though this is a widely-known fact, young women in particular tend to judge themselves harshly against this false standard,” says Dr Robertson.
“Sometimes this can be the trigger for psychological disorders, including body dysmorphia –in which the person becomes highly critical and fixated on a particular part of their body – and a range of eating disorders characterised by obsessive thinking and body image distortion (e.g. anorexia nervosa).”
It’s estimated that 15% of women will develop an eating disorder in their lifetime and 20% of women will not realise that they have one – instead believing their low-calorie diet is an extension of their healthy lifestyle.1
Based on these statistics, it’s likely that you or somebody close to you will struggle with a form of weight fixation in their lifetime.
Often those who have lost a large amount of weight may be oblivious to the detrimental nature of their attitudes and behaviours.
In particular, drastic reduction and obsession with calories can lead to serious health problems.
“People may not realise they have become eating disordered, so they find themselves preoccupied with their body image and thoughts about food, menus, recipes and ways to get food.”
One individual who’s experienced this is Stacey*, who’s relationship with food deteriorated in her mid-teens. For Stacey, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this pattern emerged.
“I’m not sure it was ever really about body image to begin with,” says Stacey.
“I definitely got caught in the numbers, calories, clothes sizes, weight on the scales, and never liked what I saw in the mirror but it always came back to control.
“I’ve always been a worrier and to this day I still prefer to feel in control, but in my early teens this manifested in some hefty mental health issues.”
Gradually, this impacted Stacey’s social life, with her obsession with calorie counting encroaching on time spent with friends and family. It became a constant fixation.
“Looking back, I think the emotional weight that I gave food is demonstrative of the problem.
“I would let it ruin family meals, dissuade me from going out with friends, or force me to exercise extensively in response to eating what I deemed as ‘bad’ food, which at one stage could mean milk in a cup of tea or one too many nuts.”
Stacey herself also could not recognise her approach to calorie counting and exercise was to her detriment, admitting she was in a state of denial. “I didn’t think I had a problem with exercise or food, or my mental health at large for that matter,” she says.
“Ultimately, I was called out by those around me and when I eventually sought help for my depression and stress, the need for control around food gradually loosened its grip.”
Sadly, Stacey’s experiences aren’t uncommon.
Dr Robertson says afflicted individuals often mightn’t fully recognise when they’ve developed issues concerning their relationship with food and exercise.
While there are a number of red flags that can serve as indications that something might be wrong, it’s also helpful to be aware of how easy it can be to become trapped in a dieting cycle.
“Often in an effort to restrict calories, we cut out a number of food groups from our diets, eat irregularly and perhaps engage in purging behaviours to reduce calorie absorption,” says Dr Robertson.
“Our body has an inbuilt mechanism that responds to this ‘energy starvation’, with obsessive thoughts about food, and how to get food.
“This may lead to binging episodes on foods we were trying to avoid, leaving us feeling guilty, triggering the strong desire to ‘get it right’ and rigidly follow the diet again.
“Being caught in this cycle creates a number of physical, cognitive, social and behavioural changes indicating fixation, well summarised in the Centre for Clinical interventions eating disorders handouts ‘Starvation Syndrome.’”
These are just a handful of signals that it might be time to seek assistance. It might also be helpful to ask a trusted friend or family member if they’ve noticed any changes in your attitudes and/or behaviours towards food and weight.
“As your own perception may be skewed by the effects of too little calories, this may be a difficult question to ask, let alone accept the answer.
“If fixating on your weight is resulting in medical, personal or professional consequences, then it’s definitely time to consult your GPs for assessment and referral to a psychologist for treatment. There are excellent treatment strategies in place, and Medicare have just approved an increase in numbers of rebated psychological and dietetic sessions for eligible patients.”
For Stacey, a life changing decision and prioritising her mental health problems assisted in her relationship with food becoming healthier.
“For a whole I was paranoid about people watching what I was eating and so I would eat whatever was offered to me to avoid people thinking I had ‘a problem,’” she says.
“Somewhere along the line, I fell back into more normal eating patterns and I think ultimately, for me, it always comes back to addressing the bigger issues, because even when I’m having a bad body image day, it’s rarely because anything drastic has changed in my appearance.”
It’s still an ongoing process for Stacey and her recovery from what was a drastic, exacerbated period in life for her physical and mental health.
“I still struggle with the urge to fall back into unhealthy habits when life gets a bit crazy, and my digestion still hasn’t fully recovered from what was ultimately an extremely restrictive diet spanning a couple of years,” she says.
“Like most mental health problems, it’s a matter of keeping on top of it day to day.”
They say, ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’ They’re wrong.
Nothing tastes as good as a balanced diet and a healthy dose of self-esteem. It’s easier said than done to rectify a problem so ingrained in a person’s day-to-day life, but having the necessary conversations around the issue is certainly a good place to start.
*Editor’s note: name has been changed to protect the identity of the person in this story.
1. The National Eating Disorders Collaboration. (2012b). Eating disorders in Australia. Sydney: NEDC.
Image by Rachel Darling