Recently, the Australian 60 Minutes ran a segment about social media, influencers, clean eating and orthorexia – a condition where the desire to be healthy becomes an unhealthy obsession. One girl featured on the show shared her experiences, recounting how her initial inspiration from social media to live a healthier lifestyle escalated to anorexia and being force fed by her parents.
If you knew me a few years ago, you might remember when I got really into health and fitness. Thankfully my story isn’t as extreme as those shared on 60 Minutes, but it’s been playing on my mind how easily it could have got out of hand, and that other people might be going through similar experiences, controlled by a pursuit of health or fitness that has gone past the point of healthy.
As a teenager, I never really had body image issues. I was active, ate whatever I wanted and exercised for the feeling it gave, rather than a body I was trying to achieve. I knew what foods were healthy and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until I went to a health seminar during university that I got a better understanding of nutrition. Inspired to eat better, I upped my intake of fruit and veges, and cut down on junk. I became vegetarian, and as my research continued, slowly made the transition to veganism.
Around the same time, I also got into fitness, joined the gym and got involved with Nike Training Club. I became well acquainted with battle ropes, sledge hammers, tyres, barbells, punching bags and medicine balls. My Instagram feed was a constant stream of health and fitness inspiration and I too started posting similar content – food I had made, runs completed, workouts with Nike. I felt positive, motivated, energized and healthy.
Over time however, something in my perception shifted. Instead of just trying to nourish my body, healthy foods became attached to emotionally loaded connotations like “clean” and “good”, while unhealthy foods became demonized and associated with words like “cheat” and “bad”. I couldn’t just enjoy a treat without thinking about the exercise I would do to burn it off. Opening Instagram and seeing a stream of toned, fit women had started as inspiration, but gradually became punishing.
When I went to classes, the trainers would demonstrate movements and explain what parts of the body they were targeting. I vividly remember the day a trainer got us doing side planks and said “love doesn’t need handles.” A friend of mine who was a personal trainer also gave me a skin fold test to evaluate my body composition. Never had I felt so aware of my own body fat until the moment it was being pinched and pegged. I started to think that the less fat I had on my body, the better. I had lost about 10 kilos and looked the most athletic I ever had, but when I looked at my body I just saw all the ways it could still be “improved”, and was determined to make more “progress”. The goalposts just kept getting further and further away.
One day, I woke up and did a high intensity workout at home with weights for 30 minutes. Mid-morning, I went for an hour long walk with my mum. In the afternoon I headed into town and ran 5km with Nike Run Club. Afterwards, I went to my dance studio and did 2 hours of classes. Another day included a 45 minute workout with Nike Training Club, a Les Mills Grit class and a workout with a friend who was a personal trainer. Exercising more than once in a day was not an uncommon occurrence, and I didn’t feel satisfied unless I had done something. In hindsight, I can see that it was excessive, but at the time I was really proud of myself. Being around trainers and athletes also normalized the behavior, and positive comments from friends affirmed my belief that I was doing a good thing.
I had been off the pill for about a year, and my period hadn’t come back. At about the 6 month mark I had seen my family doctor about it, but she had said it wasn’t anything to worry about as it can take a while for the body’s natural systems to kick back into gear after being on contraception. When a year had passed, she sent me to a hormonal specialist. This was the wake-up call.
Once we had ruled out that there wasn’t anything abnormal going on internally, the specialist asked me all sorts of questions. She wanted to know about my weight, diet, exercise regime and how they had all changed over time. When she got the full picture, she was very open and honest, and told me about this thing called the female athlete triad. In short, I was exercising too much and not eating enough to compensate for all the energy expenditure. Yes, I looked and felt “fit” on the outside, but the constant energy deficiency, low level of body fat and high levels of physical stress on my body was communicating something else to my reproductive system – that I wasn’t in a healthy and safe state to carry a child. Hence the lack of period.
I also naturally have a more muscular build, so where the low level of body fat might have looked skeletal and unhealthy on someone else, it just looked lean and athletic on me. Besides, since when has lots of exercise and healthy eating been reason for alarm? The specialist however, told me I needed to slow down and gain weight, or else I was putting my fertility at risk. The scary part was, she mentioned how many girls she was seeing in the same boat, girls who were completely oblivious to the damage they were doing, some of who were so deep into it they needed professional psychiatric help. I wasn’t the first case she had seen, and I certainly wasn’t going to be the last.
A couple of years later, I still eat healthy, I’m still vegan and I still love to exercise, but I’m far more relaxed about it and am at a healthier weight. Absolutely, there are days I can feel my mind slipping back into those old patterns, but I now know that thrashing my body is not a healthy remedy. Something that came as a bit of a surprise, was how when I first cut back on exercise, several people admitted they were worried and had wanted to say something, but didn’t know how or thought it wasn’t their place. I also discovered that a girl I knew was going through the same struggle, but had given up. She had seen a specialist years ago and been told the exact same thing I had, but couldn’t overcome it. She had simply come to terms with the fact that she might never be able to have children.
If someone you know is heading down the same road, put on your big adult pants and say something. When the rest of the world is preaching a message of fit, tight and toned, be a cheerleader of slowing down and ditching exercise for other things. If you don’t know how to approach the topic, bring up the segment on 60 Minutes or say you read a blog about it. If it’s you that is struggling, or reading this strikes a nerve, then reach out – to me, to your family, to your friends, anyone. I can tell you from experience that as soon as you start talking openly and vulnerably about it to someone you trust, it loses a lot of its power. People are incredibly supportive and just want you to be healthy. Anyone that isn’t supportive can walk.
This is a huge topic, but for now, I’ll finish up with this. Whether you are male or female, the world will try its very best to convince you that your worth as a person is bound up with how you look; that you would be better if you did more exercise, if you ate healthier, if you had a “better” body. This is just a story. A powerful, compelling, widely believed story, but a story nonetheless. It is not the truth. You are worthy regardless.
If you’re interested in watching the full segment of 60 Minutes, the link is below: