real life

"How the words of a classmate sparked a decade long eating disorder."

I don’t think I’m tall. Certainly not compared to many of the young girls today which is probably why I’m partial to my four and five inch stilettos. But when you’re 175cm (or 5’10) at age 11, it’s another story entirely.

At 11 years old you don’t want to be the girl who is quite literally head and shoulders taller than everyone at school. Instead you want to fit in, to be the same as everyone else, to be accepted. But when you’re that tall you can’t help but stand out and be noticed.

Which is why I really shouldn’t have been surprised when I started a new school in year nine and was bullied almost from day one. Which went on to be systematic, cruel and daily taunts by a small group of girls for the next three years.

Still, today in my forties, most people aren’t aware this was my experience or how it shaped me. They don’t realise I sat at the back of a class for the rest of my studies because I didn’t want to feel exposed. Or that it sparked a decade long eating disorder when one of the first kind words from a classmate was about my weight. Or how I still suffer from anxiety when I enter a room full of people I don’t know. If they do find out, they’re incredulous because ‘I don’t seem the type’.

Now, I’m not sure what ‘the type’ is to be bullied but I’m thinking a tall, gawky teenager is probably top of the list. Sure now, as a successful businesswoman who has written two books, started her own thriving accounting firm, co-founded a financial planning firm and a preschool it feels like another life. Yet, I’m surprised by how often the teenager who was bullied finds its way into my head and tries to influence my decisions.

Image via Melinda Hird Photography.

Which is why for the longest time I kept different parts of my life tightly compartmentalised. I didn’t want anyone to know I was bullied without answering back for three years. Or that my not speaking up during this bullying was the last in a series of things I didn’t speak up about or report. Instead, it became incredibly important how I was perceived and how I presented to the world and I made absolutely damn sure no-one saw me as a victim or weak.

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Which honestly was completely exhausting. It also meant the bullies were still winning.

That’s because the effort it took to stay so in control meant I had little room for empathy or compassion for friends, clients or loved ones. I was too concerned with controlling my own inner diatribe. Which isn’t helpful when you need to be empathetic because you’re dealing with people’s lives, businesses and finances.

Image via Melinda Hird Photography.

That’s because there’s so much shame involved when it comes to money and finances. Yet here I was telling people not to be deterred by shame but profoundly ashamed of so much in my own past. To the point where I was frustrated with them for showing emotion and with myself for not being able or willing to be vulnerable.

So in the words of a modern day philosopher, I’ve decided to ‘let it go’. Which means admitting I am times weak, that I have been at times deeply ashamed and that I’m not perfect. That last one hurts the most. It means embracing everything I feel I’ve failed at or been ashamed of from the banal to the significant. And I have to say it sucks.
It’s also really necessary.

By trying desperately to hold up an image of perfection I’m ultimately only harming myself. Which means it’s time to let go and confess. That I’m a victim, I’m a survivor and I’m successful because of everything that has happened to me and who I am today. Not despite it.

Melissa Browne is an entrepreneur who has been named one of the AFR’s 2016 top 100 women of influence. You can visit her website here.

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