Love Your Body: After overcoming an eating disorder, I no longer care if my wobbly bits are on show
"I was tired of hiding it and of lying about it"
Many women have a complicated relationship with their body, often starting from a very young age when they become aware of what society considers 'normal' and 'attractive'. In a new series, Her meets a selection of Irish women who have transformed their thinking and learned to love their bodies as a result...
For Co. Clare woman Orlaith, the idea that there was something wrong with how she looked started around the age of 10. "I had started gaining weight, and by the time of my Confirmation I was pretty heavy. I was also very tall for my age so I stuck out from the other kids, some of whom would pick on me."
As a result, Orlaith began to shy away from anything that she felt could draw attention to her.
"I didn’t allow myself to do the things I really wanted to do because I was embarrassed of how I looked; I love playing music but I don’t like being looked at so I rarely performed. I stopped going to swimming pools for a long time, I'd only swim at the beach where I could wear long shorts and T-shirts.
"No matter what I did, the weight would not shift. I felt like I just wasn't good enough because I wasn't able to do what everyone else seemed to do so easily."
At age 14, Orlaith joined online forums that encouraged disordered eating. She began restricting how much she ate and started over-exercising, mostly at night.
"I became obsessed with getting in a certain amount of crunches or squats before bed. There were many days where I would only eat lettuce and cucumber because they were considered 'negative calorie' foods.
"I would say I was taking my dinner to my room while I did my homework, but I would instead throw it in the bin. At 15 I began throwing up after eating. I went through cycles of restricting and over-exercising, to binging on foods and purging."
Despite this extreme behaviour, Orlaith was gaining weight. "I could see it in the mirror, on the scales, and in my clothes. I heard it from family members, other students at school and doctors. That made it easy to hide; people don’t usually think that if someone is overweight that they could have an eating disorder."
Orlaith is happier in her own skin now
Orlaith realised that there might be something else wrong with her body.
"Not only was I not losing weight no matter how hard I tried, my periods were very irregular, and I had extra body hair growing. I was young and embarrassed, and didn’t want to mention this to anyone."
Researching her symptoms, Orlaith learned about about Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). She went to see a series of doctors to investigate whether she had the condition, but she says she was repeatedly told that she just needed to lose some weight.
By age 22, she says that she was "fed up with being ignored" and demanded an ultrasound scan. It showed that Orlaith had cysts on her ovaries, and subsequent blood tests confirmed the diagnosis of PCOS.
PCOS is an endocrine disorder caused by a hormonal imbalance. Symptoms include weight gain/inability to lose weight, irregular periods, excess hair on the body, thinning of hair on the scalp and cystic acne. It's estimated to affect up to 10 percent of women and is a leading cause of infertility. In about 70 percent of cases, PCOS also causes insulin resistance – which results in weight gain.
Following the diagnosis, Orlaith learned as much as she could about taking care of her body. Sadly, this triggered old habits and her eating disorder, for which she had never sought treatment, returned.
Orlaith realised that she needed to change something radically or she would continue to get sicker.
"I was tired of hiding it, I was tired of lying about it, and I was also tired of worrying about my future if I didn’t do something to get better."
Slowly, she changed her behaviour towards food and readjusted her exercise to healthy levels. Now aged 26, she follows body positivity forums and has joined PCOS support groups.
"I began trying to love my body the way it is. It was tough at the start, and while I still have the odd day where I can't look at my reflection, I am slowly becoming more comfortable and confident in myself.
"I no longer care about “hiding” myself. I’m no longer scared to show off my flabby upper arms in a string top. I couldn’t care less if my wobbly legs and cellulite are on show at the beach, I will wear my swimsuit like everyone else!
"I’m not afraid to embrace the styles that I always felt like I was too fat, too tall, too this or too that to be seen in. I still love my tracksuit pants, but now I wear them for comfort, not camouflage."
Learning to love and accept her body has been a long and difficult process, but for Orlaith the change has been liberating.
"I have seen what life is like without being weighed down by an eating disorder, and I know which side I prefer, and will strive for."
If you are affected by the issues in this article, contact Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, by calling 01 210 9706 or clicking here.