When I was 16, I would watch the Victoria’s Secret fashion show five times a week. The host called the models the “most beautiful girls in the world”, and I always thought about how perfect their lives must be. Every morning, I’d wake up and spend two hours on the treadmill at my family home, dutifully rewatching the show and fantasising about how much better my life would be if I looked like the models, with their visible ribs and tiny waists. It was an obsession and it fuelled dangerous thoughts.
During that time, I was in the throes of a serious eating disorder. I would weigh myself every morning before eating an orange and using all my energy to run. For the rest of the day I’d try not to eat again, though sometimes I’d fail and end up bingeing food before throwing up or taking laxatives. Even though I was a teenager, I felt like I was 90 years old. I was always exhausted and light-headed, my hair was very thin, my periods had stopped and my scars took forever to heal.
It didn’t take long before I’d lost almost 4st. I remember someone once telling me I should be a model when I was out shopping and I thought they were making fun of me because my body dysmorphia was so bad: I thought I was disgusting. I’d look in my full-length mirror at least ten times a day to analyse my flaws and became more and more consumed with hating my body. No matter how much weight I lost, I’d look at my hips, thighs and stomach in the mirror, and grab at them, picturing them smaller and smaller.
I’d never have believed then, that six years later, I’d be a 14st model with an agent. My current weight would have been the scariest thing for 16-year-old me. Today, I have a completely different outlook – although the journey to get here hasn’t been easy.
I first started thinking negatively about my body when I was 11. I loved watching The Simple Life and desperately wanted to look like Paris Hilton. I thought being tall, super-thin, blonde and white was the source of her happiness. At the time, I was bigger and curvier than all my friends. I’m half Haitian and half Irish, so I always felt like I stood out being a tall, mixed-race girl with curly, poofy hair. I had a good group of close friends, but sometimes other kids at school would say my thighs were too big, or mock my stretch marks. I started to dislike myself.
Still, these thoughts weren’t ruining my life – I was a happy kid with a loving mum and sister. It wasn’t until I was sexually assaulted on a school trip, aged 15, that I began to truly despise my body. The trip wasn’t well chaperoned, so the teachers didn’t notice when my friends and I sneaked out to a bar one night. An older man assaulted me, but one of my ‘friends’ spread a rumour that I had hooked up with a stranger. I was so devastated that I pretended to be sick and took two weeks off school, but when I went back, people bullied me and kept calling me “slut”. I refused to go back to school after that -– I didn’t tell my mum about the assault, so she was confused and upset.
We started arguing a lot, and over the next two years I fell into a severe depression, hardly ever leaving the house. It meant that I had so much more time to assess my body in the mirror – and hours and hours to work out.
I didn’t think about having an eating disorder; I just wanted to get smaller. My body was something to focus on at a time when I didn’t want to think about the things that had gone wrong. I believed the assault was my fault. I felt so ashamed and guilty, so I pushed the memory down – and started hating my body instead. I remember wondering, “What’s the solution to me hating my life?” and seeing diet ads everywhere. I watched films and TV shows where the only people who were happy and considered beautiful were thin. I thought if I could change my body, I could change my life. If I was thin, everything else would get better.
The Thinspo Trap
After my assault, I started looking at thinspiration pictures on Tumblr. It was a few years after the site first tried to ban pro-anorexia content, but because it didn’t want to silence people in recovery, there were still triggering images everywhere. I’d look at pictures of wrist bones and ribs, and be motivated to work out or purge. I could log on and see myself as ‘normal’, and people would encourage me to restrict my eating – we would exchange tips on how many calories to eat, how to purge safely, and which laxatives to use.
I used to write food items on my mum’s shopping list so she didn’t think I had a problem. So if I asked her to buy peanut butter, I’d have a spoonful in front of her and then secretly bin it. It was so wasteful and my mum probably thought I was eating more than I was – she worked a lot so we didn’t eat together as a family. Still, a year into this disordered way of eating and exercising, when I was clearly exhausted, she became very concerned and started trying to get me to seek help.
Even though my mum and sister were worried, ironically, neighbours and extended family had begun praising me for losing weight. To the outside world, I was conforming to the acceptable standards of health and beauty. If you’re curvy and people see you getting thinner, they think it’s great. But I was becoming more unhealthy: my hair was falling out, I had big bags under my eyes, I wasn’t menstruating, and would constantly get out of breath. Mentally, I had never been worse – and I felt suicidal most days.
Mum and I would row for hours at a time about me going to see a therapist or going back to school, but I still couldn’t face either. Then, when I was 17, after a particularly bad argument, I swallowed two bottles of sleeping pills. My sister found me in the bathroom and called an ambulance. I spent two days in the hospital and met mental-health professionals who, instead of being supportive, were unkind. They probed me with questions and told me I was too young to be “sad”. I remember lying there, my brain feeling like mush from all the sleeping pills and everyone around me talking to me like I was an idiot. I just wanted to go home and take a shower, but I wasn’t allowed to leave.
I felt so helpless. I thought that my eating disorder gave me some kind of control over my life, but when I woke up in hospital, I realised I’d lost all control. I couldn’t even get water or change my outfit without asking permission. The doctors said if I didn’t go back to school, I’d have to take classes there. Even after just two days, I knew I didn’t want to be back in the hospital ever again. But it was seeing my sister – who is normally very unemotional – look so shaky and scared for me that made me snap out of my mindset. I’d thought about nothing but my depression and body for years, but during that first overwhelming night, I started thinking about her and her feelings – and the future. For a long time I hadn’t been planning my future; ending my life was the plan. In that moment I knew I had to change the way I was living. I looked up new schools and booked an appointment with a therapist straight away.
A change of mindset
Therapy was scary because I had to talk about my assault. But it led me to open up about my eating disorder. I began trying to eat more foods, but only the ones I considered ‘safe’, like apples, oranges and nuts. It was very hard to cope with the guilt of having a full meal and not purging, even if that meal was healthy. But with my therapist’s help, I slowly started letting go of some of the crazy rules I had about food, and I deleted my calorie-counting apps. It was harder to stop exercising, so instead I stopped pushing myself to breaking point by finishing workouts earlier each time.
Gradually, I started gaining weight. At first, it felt horrifying. Four months after leaving the hospital, my jeans stopped fitting. My heart raced and I ran to the mirror to analyse where I’d gained the weight. I fell back into my old thinking immediately and vowed to exercise for hours the next day. But the next day came, and I didn’t work out to punish myself; instead, I decided to talk to my therapist. Then I went and bought some bigger jeans.
It’s very difficult to change your mindset from self-loathing to self-love, but my illusion that a perfect body equals a perfect life had been shattered in the hospital. I’d gone back to school and been put on antidepressants, both of which helped me gain perspective. One of the side effects of my specific brand of medication was that I gained some weight. At first, I didn’t love my new, larger body, it was more a case that I simply didn’t care – I was more focused on being healthy and recovering. Then I found the body positivity community online. Seeing other women happy with their bodies was crucial to me. I couldn’t see my therapist every day, but I could curate my feed and see other people being positive about the way they looked – and I found many women who had felt the same way as I did. I realised I could ‘unlearn’ the hate I’d been taught to feel for larger bodies.
Now I’m part of the community myself. In 2016, I started using Instagram to post about my journey – I was inspired by how much other people’s posts had helped me. Shortly after, a Canadian fashion brand DM’d me and offered me a modelling job – they wanted to showcase all body types. Everyone on the shoot was so kind. When I first started modelling for them, I was terrified that a client would say something about my stretch marks and I’d get fired. Yet, as more calls for shoots came my way, a lot of my insecurities started to fade – I had to ‘act’ extroverted and confident in front of the camera, and in turn, I really started to feel it in real life. For the first time, I could finally appreciate how beautiful my body was.
Leading by example
Over the past two years, I’ve earned my income by modelling plus-sized clothes for fashion brands and gained over 100,000 followers. But I’m always careful on social media because I remember how much I used to compare my life to others’ online. Young people are looking at images that are highly edited, and so many girls are Facetuning their own faces and bodies. It’s why, when I post pictures, I’m honest about all the depression, shame and embarrassment I used to feel so that anyone who reads my posts can see that no matter how much you’re struggling, you can be happy again one day. Whenever I look at my high school-graduation photo, I think about how I thought I’d never get to that day. So when people see my posts, I want them to feel like anything I’ve done, they can do too. I want every person of every size to feel good and be part of this movement.
It wouldn’t be fair to say I never think negatively about myself now – I have occasional bad days where I’m bloated and feel unattractive. I think it’s unrealistic to tell people it’s possible to love your body every single day for the rest of your life, especially if the media at large is negative about your body type. And it’s OK to accept that this negativity hurts. We’ve moved on from only seeing bodies like Paris Hilton’s, to a diverse range of women being represented. But we still have a long way to go. When trolls tell me I’m promoting obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle, it frustrates me. At my thinnest, everyone thought I was healthy, but I was rotting away – and struggling so much. Now I feel physically healthy, and mentally at peace. To me, health isn’t about size and weight, it’s about our minds too. I no longer weigh myself, and I exercise by hiking with my three dogs. Working out used to be a punishment, but it’s impossible not to have fun on a hike.
And when I do feel bad about myself, I think about how much someone being positive about my body type would’ve helped a younger me. There’s a long way to go with the body-positive movement – not everyone is represented, yet. But people don’t have to wait for brands and agents to see their beauty; they can showcase it themselves. Of course, social media can be a dangerous place for anyone who is vulnerable. I unfollowed influencers who only ever post about how beautiful and rich and well-travelled they are, and now I enjoy the platform a lot more. I advise everyone to do the same: follow people who are thought-provoking, who have similar life experiences to you, and who are open about mental health, healing and self-love. It’s these communities that help me stay grounded.
Since being in the hospital, I’ve probably had about seven new pairs of jeans. And each time I think, ‘Is this really what I was afraid of? It’s nothing! So what?’ A size is just a size. You don’t have to like your body every day, but you shouldn’t hate it every day either.
A defining moment during my recovery was standing in front of my mirror, naked, at my heaviest weight, last year. I saw stretch marks and cellulite and rolls and I felt… grateful. Six years earlier, I used to wish I would get hit by a bus, so I didn’t have to be alive any more. The mental pain felt like it would never end. You can’t change that overnight – and sadly, I had to reach my lowest point in order to start getting better. Talking to experts, getting the right medication, finding a trusted community; it all brought me to a place where, looking at my happy, healthy face in that mirror, I realised I did love myself – for who I am. Finally.
If you’re struggling with disordered eating or negative thoughts about your body, contact the eating disorder charity Beat on 0808 801 0677 or use its online support groups at beateatingdisorders.org.uk.
For help with suicidal thoughts or depression, see your doctor or reach out to the Samaritans at 116 123