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Navigating a new body: adolescence and self-perception

A Young Champion talks about her experience of body image. 

The toilets at the 02 Leeds Academy were pretty grim. I remember that this, as a thirteen-year-old, accentuated for me the place’s general ambiance of grunge, and heightened the awe with which I beheld those standing about by the sink, reapplying their make-up. They were everything I wanted to be at that age. They weren’t kids, they were young women. They wore skinny jeans and tank tops, they had their hair styled and wore thick black eyeliner. It was 2009, and to perfect the ‘emo’ look was the pinnacle of my most desperate dreams and ambitions.

I carefully moved myself between them to wash my hands, making myself as inconspicuous as possible. I kept my head down. I kept my head down because this was a sacred day. It was my first ever concert and I was going to watch one of my favourite bands play. When it had transpired that Liverpool had sold out, and that there weren’t even any tickets left in Manchester, my dad had promised to drive myself and two of my best friends all the way to Leeds to see them. If I were to look up and see myself in the mirror now, it would ruin everything. I wouldn’t be able to think about anything except what I looked like. I wouldn’t be able to shake that horrid sensation of ickyness which made me want to crawl out of my own skin.

I did manage to avoid all mirrors that night and consequently had an amazing time. We even met the band members before the show and breathlessly gathered about them for a photo opportunity. It wasn’t until the next day, when I actually saw the photograph, that my happiness was dulled by that familiar sickly feeling of self-loathing. In retrospect my mother always says that this was the beginning of my anorexia, but really it was only the catalyst. I hated the way I looked. Standing next to me, my friends still looked like little children. They were thin and gangly, all elbows and knees. I was more developed but I didn’t look anything like the women I wanted to. I didn’t recognise myself. I felt frustrated, I couldn’t seem to make my body do what I wanted.

Curiously when I look back on that photo now I see nothing particularly offensive in it, only a slightly awkward looking kid in a slightly awkward stage of transition. Truthfully speaking, it’s not the best I’ve ever looked but I don’t look anything like I remember thinking I did. It’s hard for me to fathom now, the constancy of that icky feeling, but I know it was hard to bare. It’s so normal to feel alienated from your own body, particularly during adolescence, and it sucks but it’s not forever. The problem was I thought it was forever. Moreover I thought that what I felt was directly related to what I saw in the mirror, and it simply wasn’t. I was confused, I was going through changes and was trying to navigate a new relationship with my body. I thought there was something wrong with the way I looked, because I clearly wasn’t a kid anymore, I thought I must now be a woman and I had very narrow ideas about what a woman should look like. I spent all my free time watching videos of the bands I worshipped being danced about by women with very specific body shapes. I thought then, as a thirteen-year-old child, that it was of paramount importance I should make myself attractive, and that the only way to be attractive was to emulate these women.

The short cut, the key to curtailing this awkward stage of transition, seemed straight forward. I had to lose weight. At once I began and fairly rapidly dropped to be about a stone underweight. I became obsessed with maintaining this new body of mine. The next year I was officially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. I was terrified of gaining any weight because I was terrified of feeling that ickyness again. I wasn’t scared of being fat, I was scared of being unhappy. My confusion was manifested in the paradoxical fact that I was at once skinny, like the women I wanted to be like, but, at the same time, my body had regressed into a child-like state, I was flat-chested, I didn’t have periods, and this made me feel safe.

I wasn’t happy though. I was exhausted. The obsession of staying as thin as possible eclipsed all other concerns in my life. I was constantly anxious and I isolated myself from my friends. I developed non-purge bulimia and then binge-eating disorder. It caused health conditions which became permanent and prevented me from properly enjoying the rest of my childhood. The thing was that, even after I became skinny, my problems didn’t go away. The only thing which helped me, honestly, was age. I didn’t know myself back then. I thought I was all wrong. I didn’t know how to grow up, and I thought I could tailor-make who I was. If I could give any advice to kids who feel that way now it would be to talk to someone. I didn’t. People need tools to help them navigate these tricky parts, because it’s not forever. When it comes to loving yourself simply losing weight isn’t going to cut it, it’s just going to make it all longer, and much, much harder. 

If you or someone you know needs help right now, you should, if possible, try to talk to a parent, carer or trusted adult. If talking to an adult is not possible, visit our urgent help page which includes organisations that are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

You can also find free mental health support services for young people aged up to 25 on the Youth Wellbeing Directory.

We also have contact details on our urgent help page for BEAT – BEAT provides support to help young people beat their eating disorders.