When you think of a moment that had a lasting impact on you, what comes to mind? Do you think of that time that you won a medal at the sports carnival? Do you think of the moment you got your first family pet? Or the day you graduated high school.
I will never forget the day I was food shamed for the first time. I was in Year Seven. Young, vulnerable and impressionable. Not even 13 years old.
Food was, and is, an integral part of my culture. Growing up in Greek household, food wasn’t just for sustenance. It was a way to come together. To connect. To gossip, laugh and share. Food was also for pleasure and for taste.
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This one lunch time, I went to pick up my lunch order. I rarely got a lunch order from the canteen and mostly packed food from home. My parents, on this occasion, had allowed me to have a special treat. A lunch order on a Friday afternoon.
I had been looking forward to it all day. I was anticipating sitting in a circle on the bitumen with my high school friends, relishing the taste of my Milo Cup.
So I sat down, opened up that brown paper bag and took out the warm potato pie and milo cup I had been anticipating all day. The one part of my day I was looking forward to.
“Well, THAT’S not a very healthy lunch is it?” one of the girls said.
If I could pinpoint a moment when everything changed for me, that one sentence, dripping with sarcasm and judgement, was the one.
I looked down at the lunch order I had wanted so badly and I felt my hands grow cold. The blood drained from my face. I had been utterly humiliated by someone I thought was my friend.
I had never thought of food as good or bad. As long as I ate my fruit and veggies it was okay to eat foods that tasted nice. Wasn’t it?
That little Year Seven girl went from loving food and the experience of eating, to being utterly terrified of solid meals within less than a year.
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That girl, once full of anticipation at eating her special lunch order, was hospitalised the following year and was force fed through a tube.
Did this one comment cause what would become a pervasive and insidious six-year battle with an eating disorder? I can’t be sure. But it was certainly part of a series of events that would set the wheels in motion. I developed an aversion to eating in front of people for fear of what they would say. I started second guessing everything that was on my plate. Everything I put in my mouth.
I don’t blame this person for what they said to me or what happened to me in the months and years following this one afternoon. The blame can only be placed on a society that breeds this idea that food can be wrong or dirty. The blame can only be placed on our society that makes us believe that what we eat represents who and what we are.
I have no doubt what I went through over six years ago now happens to young women across Australia every single day.
“Are you sure you want to be eating that?”
“You know that’s BAD for you, right?
It may not even be a comment, but the brief look of judgement and scrutiny when you take out your lunch or your snack.
It’s taken me many months of hard work to stop judging my own food choices. To return to my child-like state in which I could enjoy and appreciate food for more than just nutrition and fuel. To challenge the labels I created about what was “good” and “bad”.
It’s been a struggle, not only because of the labels I have created as a result of my illness, but as a result of the labels I see perpetuated every single day. On Instagram. On Facebook. On TV. In Ads.
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More than ever, society wants us to believe we are what we eat. That the choices we make about what we put into our bodies can make or break us as people and can determine our character. That is what we have been told to believe, by companies that make billions of dollars off our insecurities.
There are some moments when the memories of that small girl who just wanted to enjoy her lunch order come back to me when I’m eating in front of other people. And I know it’s not just me. Women all over Australia and all over the world are frightened of that judgement. Of making the “wrong” food choices. Of slipping down the good character hierarchy.
But now I eat like I would as a child. With gusto and freedom and no shame. Because what you eat is not what you are. It never has been and it never will be.
For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected]. You can also visit their website, here.