In secondary school, my mind became governed by strict dualities. Anything pertaining to my life was very simply defined: good or bad, success or failure. I felt this mentality was necessary in order to advance, to surmount the numerous societal pressures weighing on me. I knew I wanted to get into Trinity, afterall, it was supposedly the best. I could already sense the social capital adhered to it when it was discussed in the corridors of school.
Social media also presented a new societal pressure. In this fictional world, which it seemed almost everyone subscribed to, the fantasies of your life could be captured and published, viewed and longed for. Of course, achievements in academia did not matter here, only how one presented themself. The quantitative approval, measured through “likes”, only heightened this; if people enjoyed what they saw, they would congratulate you with an instantaneous double-click. It was as simple as that. I became increasingly more enthralled with this make-believe world. I would scan for images of successful influencers, what they wore, and how they looked. They seemed to all follow a similar rulebook: universally thin, with long legs and taut stomachs, gleaming teeth, upcurved smiles, and shining eyes directly focused on the camera.
“Trying to achieve perfection in school and perfection online.”
As I progressed through the leaving certificate cycle, the stress of these colliding worlds, trying to achieve perfection in school and perfection online, became quickly too much to handle. Meticulously controlling my diet and becoming obsessed with (now debunked) rules of “wellness” I was sourcing online was, in my mind, going to solve all my problems. Firstly, cutting out “bad foods” would allow me to work better and “feel better”, I told myself. Secondly, becoming thinner would naturally enable me to become more universally liked from an outside perspective. With such ferocity, I regimented my day, and most notably, my meals. Dwindling and dwindling, I could see the initial changes manifesting, fat melting from my body, my bones more protruding. Comments of approval began to flood in. “You look so tiny,” I remember once being told. As aforementioned, YouTube became a primary source of dietary advice. I think now, horrified, at how such misinformation could circulate online and the impact it has had on so many young, impressionable individuals, just like me. Now, however, I’ve noticed that many of the influencers I had once religiously latched onto have now been condemned for the damaging advice they championed online. Weighing myself several times a day, spending hours examining every curve of my body each week and avoiding situations in which “bad foods” had to be consumed, namely restaurants. The reception to my changing body had switched from once positive, to now alarmed. But I did not care.
Slowly, and mostly through forced intervention, painful conversations with loved ones, and a realisation of the love I had denied my body, I began to gain weight again. Eating more, even though I saw it as emblematic of failure, characterised weeks in which I battled with essays and tests and preparing for imminent exams. By the time I entered college, I had physically “improved”. My weight had stabilized, my face became more rounded and my body less physically weak. I had been healed, I thought. My value systems were still largely based on the same as before, but I could now discern between “thin” and “too thin”, I thought.
Passing through the Arts Block, the numerous clubs, the endless interests of my peers, both enchanted and disheartened me. While I had spent all that time focusing only on aesthetics, while I had concentrated only on rote-learning endless essays for achieving perfect As, while I had spent hours gleaning various tips and tricks of productivity online, I came to the quick realisation that others had not fallen down the same trap as I had. Others had cultivated interests and hobbies over those years, had clearly thought out and articulated opinions and definite senses of self. They had not allowed their formative teenage years to be governed by delusionary thinking. I began to chastise my past self, how frivolous, how stupid I had been. How could I have allowed myself to become entirely dictated through outward approval, based on arbitrary academic achievements and adhering to an appearance of thin conventionality?
Now, I can see that this guilt, this perpetual guilt I was fuelled off, had stemmed from my earlier conditioning. I hadn’t realised that the harshness of my thoughts was the same as before, except manifested in a different way. While I had gained weight, and was deemed “healthy”, I had never addressed the mental toll my eating disorder had ravaged. I had never allowed myself time to recover from the chaos I had experienced, instead, I thrust myself into a new institution, a new life, and what I saw as a new hierarchical world of achievement and failure.
“Knowing that you are more than a number on a scale, a marked grade or a collection of Instagram likes, can take a lot of time, as was the case for me.”
Years have passed, I am now in my final year and the past few months of isolation have allowed me to reflect on my first-year self. Extracting understandings of social validity from academic pursuits and from online social media accounts had informed my teenage and early college years. As time has passed, I have allowed myself time and space to look back at those difficult years of mine, years a far cry from the “best years of your life” mantra that had rattled around me. As cliché as it sounds, it gets better. Knowing that you are more than a number on a scale, a marked grade or a collection of Instagram likes, can take a lot of time, as was the case for me. The unhealthy habits, the overwhelming and persistent feelings of guilt and the body dysmorphic thoughts accumulated during those tumultuous years do not simply dissipate when the weight is put back on. However, I now consciously try to view myself through a more compassionate prism and to afford myself the same kindness as I would to my friends. I try to talk to myself as if I were a friend, a coping mechanism I learned after reaching out to the Trinity Counselling service. For anyone who has faced similar difficulties, who feels like they aren’t enough, I urge you to remember. You always are enough.