An Open Letter to Anyone Dealing with Body Image Issues

TRIGGER WARNING: This article or section, and pages it links to, contains information about eating disorders which may be triggering to survivors.

Dear College Student,

Allow me to preface this letter by explaining why I chose the neutral word, "student" in particular. It is because this way of thinking can affect anyone and everyone - young or old, male, female or other. Unfortunately, it does not discriminate.

Next, I would like to remind whoever is reading this, for whatever reason - be it that you are learning about body image issues and/or eating disorders to help a loved one, or are just trying to learn more about the issue to gain affirmation that you are not alone in your struggle -  please know that you are not alone. The main reason I am writing this letter is because I know that someone, somewhere needs this. It is always important to know that although you feel like you are alone in your struggle, you never are truly alone.

For those who are not entirely sure of what body image is and how it relates to the body, the National Eating Disorders Association defines it as, "How you feel about your body, including your height, shape, and weight." Everyone has their own perceptions of their bodies, which is perfectly normal. However, what shouldn't be deemed as normal is someone who constantly develops recurring, negative thoughts about themselves and/or body image. An example of this would include having "a distorted perception of your shape--you perceive parts of your body unlike they really are." According to the National Eating Disorders Association, if an individual harbors these thoughts about themselves, they have "a greater likelihood of developing an eating disorder and are more likely to suffer from feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem, and obsessions with weight loss." Which brings me to my main point:

Eating Disorders.

They come in many forms and levels of severity. Therefore many different types of people find themselves becoming a victim to it. 

They are somewhat of a taboo, something that is pushed under the rug far too often. Much like many other mental illnesses, the mentality of restricting certain foods to achieve a goal is not considered a problem, because it is something that starts from the inside. Many people who are uneducated on the subject think that since it is not visibly ruining the health of an individual, then it is not something that needs immediate attention. Given the circumstances of today's world, with many more teenagers and young adults becoming aware of their mental health, this should not be the case for someone with a severe body image issue.

Many people across the U.S. find themselves grappling with these intrusive thoughts, that never seem to leave them alone. The voices are always there, and they're always angry or disapproving. At times, it feels like you can't breathe due to all of the thoughts racing in your mind. For some, this could happen during early childhood. But for most, they develop between the ages of 12 and 25, according to Adolescent Growth Treatment Center.

So, reader, if you are someone like me, who has experienced what I am referencing, or are an outsider trying to gain insight, picture having these ideals that cling to you like wet clothing on your back, pestering you and holding you hostage 24/7. Now, imagine having these thoughts while being a college student. 

College is a time filled with new experiences, new people and new ways of life. If you are living away from home, then another layer of freedom is granted to you, which can be great. However, if you're dealing with these issues, then hearing about the "freshman 15." may sound like a horror story. I remember well before my first day of my freshman year, hearing adults tell me about that infamous beast that is supposed to ruin lives (or that was how I saw it). I was determined that I would NOT let it happen to me. If you read that statement and can recall yourself feeling the same way, please be aware that this is a red flag right away.

I know that while it can be very difficult to try and think positively about your body and how it looks, having a healthy mindset about your body can literally be the difference between life and death. Try not to look at your body as something fighting against you, but do what you can for your body because you love it. Eat. Eat good foods, eat healthy things that are great for you and sometimes eat some things that aren't so healthy. Try to feed YOU, NOT the monster that's in your head. For me, to this day, I've learned that the voices never completely stop, I just have to learn how and when to tune them out.

So, the next time you feel guilty about eating more than a couple of meals one day, or having a late night treat ask yourself, "Do I want this? Does eating this make me feel good, even if there are voices telling me not to eat it?" If the answer to those questions is yes, then please eat. 

Don't take for granted the power of food. It doesn't matter how "good" you feel for restricting or controlling your eating habits, your body literally needs nutrients to function. Imagine having a car and never filling it with gas. What's the point of owning it if it can't go anywhere? It's the same scenario with your body. You need fuel to carry out tasks for the day. Your brain may tell you otherwise, but your body never lies. 

I know that eating is hard sometimes. Developing healthy eating habits are sometimes helpful ways to combat those feelings of guilt. For example, if you are hungry and want to eat something that may be high in sugar, try eating light snacks, like granola bars, fruits or vegetables. This way, you are filling the requirements that your body needs to function properly, while doing away with those feelings of guilt for eating. I know that this isn't a perfect way to solve all problems when it comes to being afraid to indulge, but this is a step. Another helpful thing to do may be to talk to a nutritionist, who can advise you on what foods to eat that will make you feel better about your body and help you develop regular eating patterns.

Another point: just because someone doesn't "look" like they are battling with severe body image issues/eating disorders, doesn't mean that they don't have one. It comes in all shapes and sizes. If you are reading this letter to gain insight, one of the most frustrating things you could say to someone dealing with body image issues is that they "look fine," or possibly unknowingly trying to boost their mentality of wanting to lose weight. If someone you know brings up a concern to you about themselves, and it is particularly specific in terms of caloric intake or how their body looks compared to others, then please keep a close eye. There have been too many cases of things like this going unnoticed, when the last thing needed is for someone to spiral into a pattern of restriction and self-hate. If you are on the outside and do not understand someone's obsession or fear, just know that it is very real and should be seen as a red flag. Do not EVER try to dismiss someone's thought process or feelings about themselves as something trivial or nonsensical. Listening is the key to finding help for yourself or for a loved one.

I'd like to end this letter by saying this: you are loved. It will get better. I know that some days it's hard to look in a mirror, and others you feel sick or incredibly guilty after eating one thing all day. But AGAIN: it's ALL about mindset. Don't forget that you have to get to the root of why you feel you aren't enough, and then you can further work on the issue of being the best caregiver to yourself. Please, you deserve all of the love. 

Remember that your worst days in recovery will always, always be better than your best days in relapse.

Stay healthy AND happy. Those two go hand in hand. It may not seem like it at first, but I promise it will pay off. Changing eating patterns is just one step, you have to remember to train your mind to shift your way of thinking as well. Give yourself permission to be okay. Give yourself permission to live. 

Sincerely, 

Someone who understands

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org (NEDA) or call 1-(800)-931-2237.

Photo credits. cover, 1