After I Was Hospitalized With Anorexia, a Brave Photo Shoot Helped My Recovery
My eating disorder landed me in the hospital. When I got out, I wanted to do something daring to help myself heal.
by Brittany Roberts[Content warning: discussion of eating disorders]
A few months ago, this would have terrified me.
A few months ago, I was still crippled by fear at the thought of seeing myself in my underwear, let alone anyone else seeing. Then it took all my effort just to keep myself clean every day, so scary was the prospect of exposing my naked body and having a shower or getting dressed. I hated rubbing soap into my skin, feeling my hands skimming over every ounce of fat. I would find myself agonizing over each contour, each lump and bump. But once I had started, I was compelled to carry on, fingers delving into my flesh until I was satisfied, having come across a sharp bone or two jutting out, or else a thick layer of flab to prod, poke and pinch and berate myself for.
And, of course, I avoided mirrors and fitted clothes at all costs. Yet, at times, I couldn’t help but spend long, torturous minutes scrutinizing my own reflection, wrapping my T-shirt around my waist as tight as it would go, eyes boring mercilessly into that sad image.
It was strange. These rituals petrified me, repulsed me at times, made my stomach ache. I felt as small and helpless as my shrunken frame. But it was alluring somehow. I suppose I must have derived some sadistic pleasure from what I was doing and I wanted — no, needed — to sustain it. At least, that’s what my anorexia told me.
I knew it wasn’t healthy. I certainly wasn’t healthy. But I was getting better, determined to make the most of my stay in the eating disorder/psychiatric hospital I had been admitted to, determined to battle my demons and work toward recovery.
I decided to undertake this photo project as soon as I was discharged.
It had to be then, before I was corrupted again by the pressures of society and my own unrealistic expectations and compelled to “better my body” and resume losing weight. Before my body had fully healed from the traumas I had put it through, before my weight had had a chance to redistribute. While I was still uncomfortable in my own skin, still vulnerable, but spurred on by the strides I had made in treatment. If I was going to confront my fears, it made sense for me to do it now.
I asked family, friends and acquaintances to tell me the first word or phrase that came to them when they thought of me. I wrote their words all over my underwear-clad body. Then I stood in the middle of my living room against a makeshift backdrop — makeup-free, hair hastily washed and brushed — and posed for the camera.
It was exactly what I wanted. Just an amateur photo shoot. Intimate, authentic and strangely fun — once I had gotten over the initial awkwardness and was no longer camera-shy.
When I saw the photos for the first time, I didn’t hide behind my hands, didn’t pull back in horror, didn’t let that critical voice in my head pick everything apart. No. I had made my choice. My attitude was going to change. I took a breath and smiled.
And although there are certainly days when these photos fill me with that familiar sense of disappointment, when I wish those words decorated a body that was slimmer, curvier in the “right way,” more toned, I make sure to look at them and smile. Not because of how they look. Not because I have miraculously come to love the weight restored to me, to feel affection for my fuller cheeks, my thicker arms, my jiggly thighs and protruding tummy. Not because I am proud of my so-called flaws and imperfections. I am not confident enough to celebrate them yet.
The photos make me smile because of what they represent. Because they make me feel brave. It was a liberating and empowering experience, as cheesy as that sounds. I took a huge leap of faith revealing my body, leaving myself nowhere to hide. I allowed someone — admittedly, someone I trust implicitly, but still — to get up close and make those marks on my skin, and gave someone else – whom I also trust with all my heart – license to stare at me intently through the camera lens, to approach me at all angles, to zoom in on those parts of me that at times have brought me shame, to treat me objectively as a subject matter while capturing the integrity of what I was hoping to portray. Because I touched myself without flinching, without panicking when I couldn’t feel the bones I had been able to feel before, when I squeezed my thick thighs and belly rolls just because I could, without using them as a weapon with which to bully myself. Because I felt strong enough to face my insecurity head-on, prepared to withstand any backlash that may come from it. Because I let my loved ones’ words sink in and help me feel whole and rounded. Because they remind me that I am more than just a body.
One thing my illness has taught me is that my body is unquestionably an integral part of me, one I must have compassion for and look after. It’s not an external add-on I can run away from or abuse without consequences. My physical and inner selves are inextricably linked; this wasn’t obvious to me at first. Now I know that when one self suffers, the other can’t help but follow suit.
At the depths of my illness, my body was no longer mine; it belonged solely to my anorexia. That feeling coincided with when I was at my emptiest, when I had completely lost my sense of self or any pull to this Earth.
I should be grateful for this body, which has worked so hard to keep me alive. It has grounded me, prevented me from floating away into nothingness. By re-engaging with it, reestablishing that lost connection, I’ve maintained my recovery.
My body led me to the other side of the world when I went traveling abroad. It has allowed me to dance on stage (and in my kitchen!). It carries visible traces of my beloved grandparents and parents and reminds me where I came from. It lets me hold the people I care about when they’re happy, when they’re sad, when I just want to feel close to them.
But it’s important for me to remember that my body is in no way a comprehensive reflection of who I am as a person. It does not define me, nor will it dictate the path my life follows — regardless of how beautiful it looks, how big or small it gets, how “well” it functions at any given time. That is down to me. And “me” is a partnership between my outsides and insides.
I never assumed for one minute that doing this photo shoot would solve all my problems, that it would “cure” me of my ills. Body insecurities are arguably one of eating disorders’ most valuable weapons, but an eating disorder is certainly not all to do with body image. It really isn’t. It is very much a complex psychological issue that happens to manifest in a very physical way.
The self-doubt that comes with eating disorders runs much, much deeper. What goes on beneath the surface is so much worse, I can’t convey it. What goes on within, the part that no one sees — that is where the true brutality occurs. But I thought that confronting my body issues might help me heal, regardless.
After the hospital, after these photos, I can’t claim to be “recovered.” I still have certain issues with food and an irrational fear of getting bigger. I get frustrated each time I remember I’m not losing weight any more. But this project has been beneficial, and I’m sure looking back on the experience will be of value to me. I have confronted a fear that, just a few months ago. was debilitating. I’m working toward a healthy, harmonious relationship with myself and my body. I’m more motivated than ever to question society’s, and my own, preconceived notions regarding our bodies and appearances.
I hope that next time I start to obsess that my stomach is not as flat or as toned as it “should” be and I’m tempted to engage in behaviors that will surely become anorexic in no time, I will be inspired to ask myself, “why am I doing this? For whose benefit is it — my own?” And, all being well, I will remember that by indulging my insecurity I am only colluding with the (wrong) opinion that I am not good enough the way I am.
In sharing these photos, I’m not looking for judgement or criticism, validation or praise. Maybe, when you see them, some of you will understand a little bit about me and my story, might see yourselves and your own struggles in what I’ve written, might feel the same fight I now feel, might want to take on a similar challenge. Not just those of you who have suffered or are suffering from an eating disorder; any of you who are tired of being defined by your bodies, as lovely as they are. If I can encourage you to participate in an exercise like this, then all the better. It feels good, I promise you. #rewritewhatdefinesyou.