real life

Hayley was on maternity leave when she developed an eating disorder that ended her period.

Warning: this post discusses eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers.

It’s impossible to put a number on just how many women are on social media at any given time feeling envious of the body they don’t feel they have. We scroll, we like, we follow and we aspire. But for many people, with that comes feelings of inadequacy, desperation and a thirst to reach a similar state no matter the cost.

A thirst that can have horrendous long-term health implications if left unchecked and unchallenged.

According to 38-year-old mum of two Hayley, she’d always had a fairly active life before becoming a mum, playing netball and taking walks several times a week. Similarly, her relationship with her body was also – as it is for most women – middle of the road. “It was as good as most women’s,” she says. “I didn’t spend too much time thinking about how I could improve it, but I definitely thought about things I’d like to change.”

But after giving birth to her second son five years ago, she found herself turning to social media to bridge the separation gap that maternity leave can leave some mothers with.

hypothalamic amenorrhea
The lines between healthy and obsessive are easily blurred. Source: Getty.

"I started running a couple of times a week and then boosted it up to every day. It was when the 'fitspo' and 'thinspo' trends were coming about and I was at home, isolated, and had social media on hand. So I was looking at all of these pictures and hearing all of these stories, and thought that I needed to do that as well," she says.

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"Before I had my babies I was at work and so busy, but suddenly I had time to look at all of this stuff and I became consumed by it. The more I got into it the more I was consumed."

Pretty quickly, Hayley says, things changed. Within months, she was competing in events, monitoring her food intake to within a milligram and frequently checking in on her favourite accounts to see how other women were exercising and what they were looking like.

Then, after losing several kilos within a short period of time, Hayley stopped getting her period each month and was diagnosed with hypothalamic amenorrhea - a condition that delays or stops menstruation due to the body being under immense stress. Severe weight loss and excessive exercise are just two of the symptoms of the condition.

"All in an attempt to look and feel fit and skinny, my periods suddenly stopped and as a result, I also developed osteopenia - the early stage of osteoporosis. In my 30s, I have the bone health of a post-menopausal woman."

Even then, with all of these clear signs that something was not right, Hayley says was heralded by those around her who couldn't really see what was going on.

"I was restricting my food and putting exercise above day to day things, and I knew it wasn't balanced but I thought it was what I needed to do and I was constantly celebrated and congratulated for losing weight."

According to the Butterfly Foundation's Sarah Spence, Hayley's story is a fairly common one and represents recent statistics that show eating disorders among pregnant women and new mums are dramatically on the rise. But according to Spence, targeting social media alone to treat this growing problem isn't actually going to help anybody.

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"The platform isn't the problem, the problem is people comparing themselves to others or the ideal body type that they feel they need to be, and when you look back, those issues have always been around," Spence says.

"If people are vulnerable to low-self esteem, those issues could develop in any number of ways. So, while yes, regular use of social media and comparing themselves to what they can see will have a negative effect, it's only in that it enhancing feelings that are already there. But really, [social media] is just a different medium. They could do that if they were walking down the street and looking at people, or seeing models on a billboard or by buying a magazine."

Now well into her recovery, Hayley says that change only came about when she took things into her own hands and began doing research and removing herself from social media.

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"I had to shut up shop and get away from it all," she says. "Even now, it's a challenge for me every day; it's just in your face everywhere you look."

hypothalamic amenorrhea
The lines between healthy and obsessive are easily blurred. Source: Getty.

Having heard countless similar stories to that of Hayley's before, Spence says that once someone is feeling as though they're on the road to recovery, returning to social media is possible.

"They can be really positive platforms," she says, explaining, "It's not about removing yourself from social media; it's about unfollowing those groups or individuals that are triggering."

Several years on, despite eating a balanced diet and exercising at a more regular rate, Hayley's period has still not returned.

"I suppose it's okay for me because I'd already had my two children, but even that option to have a third has really been taken away and it would have been nice to have that."

She adds, "There doesn't seem to be that much knowledge out there about it [hypothalamic amenorrhea], and I worry about what it might do to younger women who haven't yet had children and might want to one day."

If you or someone you know is struggling with their body, information and help is available via the Butterfly Foundation.

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