By Megan Jayne Crabbe
As a teenager Megan Jayne Crabbe’s anorexia was so severe she was hours from death. Then she discovered the body positive movement – and learned to embrace her natural shape.
It was the summer of 2014 and I was having a perfectly ordinary day. I’d woken up in the morning, taken my two diet pills, washed them down with a smoothie of apple, berries and kale and forced myself to start a full body workout. Two hours later I was slumped on the living room floor getting my breath back, and beginning my daily routine of searching through Instagram for pictures of washboard abs and toned thighs to remind myself why all the pain, sweat and ignored hunger pangs were worth it.
Except that day I stumbled across something different: a woman wearing a bright red bikini and writing about loving her body as it was. In her own words, she was fat and daring to be visibly happy in a body I never thought people were allowed to be happy in. There she was embracing all the parts of herself that I’d spent my whole life hating – her soft stomach that rolled when she sat down, the cellulite that covered the thickness of her thighs, the jiggle of her arms as she moved.
I had discovered the body positive movement, which celebrates women’s bodies in all shapes and forms. As the days went by, I started to question my daily routine of exercising and dieting more and more. Could I really do this for ever? Because that’s what it’s going to take to get that ‘perfect’ body that I’d been striving for since I could remember.
For six years, I had a festering, scary eating disorder. I alternated between eating huge quantities of food and purging through over-exercising and restricting my food intake. When I think back to that time I remember the clichéd things: the coldness that starts in your bones and travels through you; the dizziness; feeling my blood pressure plummet when I stood up and wondering whether that was it – lights out.
I remember when I started to lose my hearing and the whole world sounded as though it was underwater. I remember hair and nails as thin as crepe paper. And then there’s the madness: how minutes feel like weeks, how you wonder whether five o’clock will ever come – the only time you’ll allow yourself to eat that one apple, which you will make last until 6.30pm and think about for the rest of the night.
The voice that takes over, that counts, calculates and accuses every second of every day. The voice that eventually replaces your own until all that plays are reminders of your worthlessness on repeat and nothing else gets in.
My rock bottom wasn’t being pulled out of school or losing my friends because of my illness. It wasn’t even when the doctors told my parents that I might only have hours to live since my organs were slowly shutting down. It was when I saw my dad cry for the first time in my life.
My solid oak tree of a father, eternally patient, forever trying his utmost to understand, broke. And in words that spilled out with his tears he told me that he couldn’t do it any more. He couldn’t keep living like this; I couldn’t, we couldn’t. Before he left the room he threw down the single tissue he had been clutching to where I was sitting.
I was suddenly furious about all the years I had wasted on becoming less and less every day, all the dreams I should have been following starved into oblivion. All those moments that should be the most vivid years of your life – foolish teenage mistakes and bad first kisses – faded into the greyness of anorexia. And I was enraged by how much hurt this had caused. It dealt blow after blow to everyone I loved most in the world.
I spent all of my teenage years consumed by the need to shrink my body when I could have been learning, growing, exploring and living. Just think what we’d all be capable of achieving if we stopped believing the lie that the most important thing is to be thin; if we stopped forcing ourselves to go hungry all the damn time. The physiological effects of hunger alone stop us from engaging in the world and reaching our full potential. Our bodies and brains don’t function properly if they’re deprived of nourishment.
Now I wish that all women could fall in love with their bodies like I have, at 24. Our bodies are not lifeless objects, pieces of art for people to gaze at and critique. Our bodies are for doing. How they look on the outside isn’t the purpose of their design. I want all women to be wonderstruck by all the ways our bodies work to keep us alive instead of feeling shame over every ‘imperfection’.
When we go to the beach and bare our skin we’re not there to be visually appealing to others. We’re there to feel the sand, hear the waves, smell the salt, take in the view. We’re there to make memories. The dimples on our thighs or whether another beachgoer disapproves of our size is irrelevant. Being aesthetically pleasing is not the purpose of our existence.
Body positivity celebrates women as we are, not how we feel we should look and it’s a movement that is growing fast. Here are some of the ways you can change the way you feel about your body, too.
This teaches us to listen to our bodies and make peace with food for life. This is not a weight-loss gimmick or a quick fix so you have to decide to turn off the diet mentality – the idea that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, guilt and shame for ‘failing’ when you eat so-called ‘forbidden’ foods, the magical ‘when I’m thin’ fantasy where having a smaller body is the only thing that will lead to romance and a more satisfying career.
– Write a diet pledge and sign it before pinning it up somewhere visible.
– Instead learn to listen to your hunger signals. Your appetite is telling you something and is not your enemy. Some intuitive eating programmes recommend using a 1–10 hunger chart to get in touch with what you’re feeling, ranging from empty (1) to completely stuffed (10). The aim is to respond when you are fairly hungry (a 4 or a 3), giving you a better chance of choosing only the food you really want, rather than waiting until you are ravenous (a 2 or a 1), when you are more likely to eat everything in sight.
– Stop eating when you’re full and not when you think you should stop eating according to some outside rule. Slow down, pause and take your time. Ask yourself as you eat if this food is satisfying and whether or not you are still hungry.
How many rules do you have about having your picture taken (such as stand behind someone else or don’t smile too wide)? Seeing ourselves in photos can take away our self-esteem in an instant. But unless you are doing a professional modelling job, it really doesn’t matter how you look in them, it just matters that you’re there. Photos are taken to capture a memory, that’s all. They’re supposed to be keepsakes to remind us of a moment, not opportunities to pick ourselves to pieces.
When you next see a photo of yourself, instead of zooming in on all the parts you think are wrong, try to remember the moment it was taken. Think about that sight, that smell, that experience, how you felt. Every photo is a moment that you can’t get back so cherish the memory. Get into the picture, smile as wide as you want and, for the love of God, don’t suck in your stomach!
I asked people on my blog, bodyposipanda.com, to tell me how their lives have changed since discovering body positivity. I woke up the next day to more than 1,500 comments: ‘I wore shorts for the first time since I was 14 this summer’; ‘I am finally enjoying my life again, not counting calories but collecting beautiful memories.’ When you stop believing that you exist just to fit an impossible physical standard, you’re free to live the life you deserve, to finally stop putting ‘when I’ve lost weight’ conditions on your dreams and go out and achieve them instead. The key to starting the lives we want isn’t hiding in a number on the bathroom scales. It’s already in us. It’s reclaiming the space our bodies take up and learning to exist in them unapologetically.
There was one comment that hit me the hardest. It was from a girl called Carrie who was battling anorexia. Finding body positivity meant she could keep fighting and she shared this victory: ‘I’m finally in recovery and on 28 August I will eat my birthday cake.’ So eat the cake and live now because life isn’t waiting on those ten pounds and neither should you.
THINGS TO DO TODAY
– Get mad. Get mad about the first time you were ever made to feel bad about your body or the fact that the average age for girls to start dieting is eight years old. Gather up all that anger and refuse to keep tearing yourself apart hoping to finally be good enough. Channel that anger and use it to decide that it’s time to make a change.
– Have a diet culture detox. Throw out diet foods that you hate but forced yourself to eat. Go through your drawers and fish out that cellulite reduction cream that never worked. Throw out diet pills and diet books.
– If you have apps on your phone that track your calories or encourage you to see your body as a work in progress, get rid of them. All these apps do is alienate you from your internal hunger signals and make you obsess over the numbers.
– Look at your social media feeds. It’s time to cultivate a safe online space where you can log on and feel celebrated. Unfollow those friends who keep trying to sell you diet products or those ‘fitspo’ models who post ‘what’s your excuse?’ quotes, or those celebrities you’re following as ‘body goals’ inspiration. You don’t need them any more.
THINGS TO DO THIS MONTH
– Clear your wardrobe of everything that doesn’t fit you: those ‘when I lose ten pound jeans’ or that one dress you’ve never worn but pull out every once in a while as proof of how hideous you are because you still can’t get it on. They are just hanging reminders of your insecurities.
– Stop hiding. Wear the clothes you love and not just the ones that disguise the shape of your belly. Catch yourself whenever you start sucking it in. Take a deep breath and let it go. You don’t have to be ashamed of having your belly on show. Remember there’s nothing wrong with the size or shape of your stomach; the only thing that’s wrong is how you’ve been taught to see it.
– Fight negative self-talk by replacing it slowly with positive affirmations instead such as, ‘I might not be OK with my body yet but I’m fighting to be and I’m proud of myself.’ Or ‘I am grateful for everything that my body allows me to do and all the ways it works to take care of me.’ Or ‘My softness is beautiful,’ or ‘I deserve the space I take up in the world and I’m good enough.’
– Get rid of the scales. Every time we step on to them hoping to see that magic number, we’re handing over our happiness to an inanimate object. We’re going to start trusting our bodies instead and accept that fluctuations are normal
– The sole purpose of exercise is not weight loss. Forget those obnoxious charts that tell you how many miles you have to run to burn off a doughnut. Forget picturing your ‘dream body’ while you force yourself through a workout you hate. Instead find an activity that you enjoy. It could be something you liked as a child or something completely new. The possibilities are endless.
This is an edited extract from Body Positive Power – How to Stop Dieting, Make Peace With Your Body and Live by Megan Jayne Crabbe, published by Ebury, price £12.99. To order a copy for £9.74 (a 25 per cent discount) until 24 September, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free for orders over £15. Visit thebodypositive.org and Megan’s website bodyposipanda.com for more information on the body positive movement. Megan is one of the faces of Dove’s 60th anniversary advertising campaign, photographed by Mario Testino.