Whenever I looked in the mirror growing up, I didn’t like my reflection. Even with no mirrors in sight, the social situations we all experience as children reinforced the feeling. From a very young age I began to believe that if I was skinny, by default I would also be pretty and happy and popular and all those things you crave at that age (and older, I now realise).
I have distinct memories of dieting throughout my school life, although never seriously enough to lose any weight. One of the standouts is when we were about 13 years old; a few girls stopped eating and decided only to drink water when they were hungry. We lasted about half a day on that until lunchtime rolled around. Another time we all downloaded myfitnesspal and tracked everything we ate, but be damned if you go over 900 calories! And then as we got older it was the belief that cigarettes suppress hunger. So instead of having food at lunchtime, girls would go out for a smoke. Unbelievably sad and disgracefully normal.
The point being, from a very young age I was defining my self-worth by how I and those around me looked, and what other people said about it. Going through life not feeling good enough and directly linking that to your body is a slippery slope into a state of desperation and seeking validation that I struggle with to this day.
After 23 years of believing that if I weighed less all my problems would be solved, it was being screwed over by a guy that motivated me to test the theory: what an embarrassing cliché. I would get fit and skinny, I declared to myself, and as a result I would find a good man. Of course, at the time I didn’t spot the flaw in my logic of a good man being one who would be with me because I was skinny... but anyway. Enter the world of the gym, counting calories, protein shakes and fear of carbs, when I began my fitness journey in January 2020.
Then, Covid-19. Lockdown and all the anxiety that came with it meant that obsessing over my body became my escape. I had time to consistently workout every single day and prep all my meals – and the results showed it ‘worked’. By September 2020 I had dropped three dress sizes. I was strong and lean, but was I actually happy? No.
Side note, I will concede that it was hard to be happy in that hellish year that was 2020 and I don’t want to trivialise the pandemic and the suffering felt by everyone by making it about my appearance. But I suppose that’s partly why the word ‘unprecedented’ became so relevant – a global pandemic and being locked inside created the perfect environment for toxicity that was unexpected but also completely understandable. Mental wellbeing universally suffered, and for me that manifested in an eating disorder and severe body dysmorphia.
And in the middle of all that, I still managed to get screwed over by another guy during lockdown. Wait… I was now skinny but I still wasn’t desirable!? Everything diet culture, Instagram and societal norms had taught me was a lie! Because despite working hard on looking good, I still had no comprehension of what my value was beyond what other people – men – told me. That is genuinely how my mind validated all my effort. Toxic but engrained.
Fast forward and in January 2021 I moved to London to start a new chapter in my life. For the first eight months it was great. I made new friends through work, explored the city on the weekends and settled into my home. I also slowly started to mend my relationship with food and whilst I can’t say I’m fully recovered – I still count calories – I’m better than I was.
I began dating, which was fun but uneventful bar a few terrible first dates that will need their own debrief. Although nothing serious developed right away, I received regular attention and my confidence began to grow as a result of the compliments and matches on Hinge. And although I’m self-aware enough to know that is textbook letting a man define your worth, I was also trying to do things on my terms, too; setting my own standards and not going through the motions if it didn’t feel right. It wasn’t perfect but it was the closest to some form of ‘balance’ I had.
And then the dating became serious. I met someone, the first in a long time I could see something developing with. Alas, it turned out he had a membership to the Men Are Trash Club – I think he might now be Chairman – and my confidence, along with any self-worth I’d gained, took a big hit.
I spent two months questioning what I had done wrong and hating myself for not being good enough for a man who, in hindsight, was never good enough for me. Maybe recognising that is progress in itself. But at the time, I was in a dark place. I felt all the effort I had put into my appearance simply wasn’t worth it because he didn’t want me. And how did I deal with it? With the obvious: seeking validation from another source, another man, another date.
I threw myself into dating again, desperate to forget about that one and back to craving the approval other people gave me. I had a few dates and then at the end of October I met someone new. The best first date I’ve ever had very quickly developed into spending most of our time together, and if not together then talking to each other, and if not talking then for me thinking about him. During two and a half months I got to know this interesting, insightful, intelligent, ambitious man who liked me for exactly the same reasons and reciprocated my feelings. It was exciting and I was happy.
But what’s adulthood without complication? A week ago he told me he can’t continue seeing me romantically right now as he needs to work on himself. Without getting into the details, I support his decision completely. He needs to look after himself and it tells me just how hard I was (past tense tbc) falling for him that I’m proud he’s doing it, even if it’s at the expense of something really special between us. We’re staying in touch right now and having him in my life is a massive comfort.
But he made it clear that this isn’t on me, and I believe him. He told me his fear was that I would take the ‘breakup’ as my fault and it would knock me back again. And it’s his awareness of the fragility of my perception of self-worth that has prompted me to seriously think about it again. But for the first time, I have no accompanying feeling of resentment, either projected at myself or someone else. Alien.
Because I have nowhere to throw my feelings, I can only look inwards and I’ve realised that I don’t really recognise myself. I feel anxious and lost. And whilst I know that this recent event is part of that, I’m also acutely aware that it’s so much bigger, without being able to quantify just how big or what else it’s made up of.
The thing I’m struggling the most with, which I never would’ve expected, is the impatience I have. I’m putting pressure on myself to try and figure everything out so I can be fixed. I know I can’t keep relying on the validation of others but I don’t know how to stop. I don’t know how to substitute their validation for my own. All I know is that it feels urgent. I’m almost 26 and I can’t shake the feeling that I should know this stuff by now. It’s dizzying.
There isn’t a tidy, organic conclusion to be drawn here. This confusion is overwhelming and lonely. And whilst it’s important to be vulnerable, it’s also scary not knowing when or how I’ll start to feel strong again.
For now, one thing at a time. I’m starting with believing I can and will find the answers I need, and I’m beginning to seek help to explore how to get closer to them. Because I think I deserve to feel worthy on my own terms. And writing that down is my first step on the road to actually believing it.