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To the Young Perfectionist Striving for the Perfect Body

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Dear 15-year-old me,

I know it’s hard waking up every day and despising what you see in the mirror. Feeling as though you will never be good enough. That somehow, if you can magically shrink your body into what society deems as the “ideal,” you will suddenly feel happy, confident and worthy.

I am here to tell you it will never be enough.

No matter how much you starve, manipulate or despise your body; there will never be a moment when you wake up and feel like you’ve finally achieved your goal. I’ve been where you are. I have spent six years of my life engulfed with my eating disorder, and I am just now doing the real work required to get out. I don’t want you to spend your teenage years hating yourself, striving for perfection and engulfed by the false sense of control an eating disorder provides. You are so much more than your body, and I am hoping that this letter begins to shift your thinking about society’s appearance ideal.

In my experience, perfectionism is one of the most debilitating traits you can have. I am a perfectionist. I have lived with the belief that I am only worthy if I have the perfect diet, the ideal body, flawless relationships, the perfect sports performance and the top marks for far too long. I am slowly shifting this belief. We are surrounded by a society that tells us we need to achieve, we need to be productive and we need to have purpose in order to be worthy as a person. I am here to tell you that you are worthy just because you are you. I don’t want to be known for my body, for my eating disorder, for my marks or even for my work ethic. I want to be known for my compassion, authenticity, positivity, determination, youthfulness, spirit and happiness — real and authentic happiness — not the fake smile I put on at times to please others.

Perfectionism and anxiety don’t like this. They like the certainty of a number on the scale, the control of calories and the relief and legitimacy of a mark in school. But these things don’t actually make up a person. I am choosing to live in line with my values, and these character traits cannot be measured. I am still worthy, and so are you.

Giving up control is hard. In a world that feels unfamiliar, with a future that feels scary and unknown, anxiety and sadness threaten to take over. It’s easier to control your body and food. The eating disorder becomes the one piece of your life you can cling to and feel safe within. However, this is limiting you in so many ways. When was the last time you looked forward to going away for a weekend with friends or family? When I was pursing thinness through my eating disorder, going away caused me so much anxiety and sadness. I was out of my routine, I couldn’t eat the same few foods that allowed me to feel safe and in control. I dreaded the time away, because it meant eating meals out, having to do activities I didn’t have the energy for and having to engage socially, which also brought anxiety and tension.

By choosing recovery, the pursuit of health and your set point, you are choosing life. Which I know can be scary in itself. Deciding that you are worth recovery, worth fighting for and have the potential for a positive future. Think about a vacation that brings you excitement and happiness. Having the energy to explore, engage with family and friends, laugh and build memories. The ability to have dessert without worrying about the impact it will have on your body. This is possible, but it takes standing up the the ideal messages of perfection and choosing to be real and authentic to ourselves instead.

We are surrounded by images in society telling us what we should look like. That healthy eating and exercising somehow have moral value that make us more worthy. For a long time, I believed that if I ate something bad, I was bad, which I can now acknowledge is extremely distorted. One quote that has really resonated with me is:

What would your 7 year old self say if
she saw you politely refusing your
favorite flavor of ice-cream
( Mint-chocolate chip goes best with
warm summer nights)
What would she think if she knew you drank
coffee black?
(You used to tell your mother that
it tasted like gasoline)
You skipped breakfast
(Your dad made pancakes every
Sunday morning)
Ran until your lungs couldn’t
take oxygen fast enough
(No one is chasing you anymore)
Counting ever calorie
(You never liked math)
What would she say if she saw you hating yourself?

This demonstrates that despite society telling us that weight loss, perfection and extremely healthy diets will bring us happiness, ultimately having the freedom and energy to enjoy our lives is what matters.

Think about your younger self; she would never want you restricting, isolating and hating yourself. She wants you to engage with friends, go on adventures, smile, have birthday cake, travel the world, give back to others and feel real and authentic happiness. Your value as a person is not related to the size of your body. I know this is hard to believe. I still struggle to accept this every day. However, I have been through weight restoration — and I actually hated myself the most, and struggled with my body image the most, when I was at my lowest weight.

Perfectionism leads to suffering. Your marks, your relationships, your body and your diet do not make you who you are. Controlling food, the amount you study and the way your body looks brings temporary relief. Long-term, choosing recovery and challenging the need to be perfect is what leads to living a fulfilling life. When you can acknowledge that perfectionism is causing sadness, anxiety and hopelessness, you can move forward in the pursuit of authenticity. The pursuit of the real you.

In 10 years, do you want to remember the mark you got on the exam, the number on the scale or the number of calories you consumed? Or do you want to remember the beach days with friends, the s’mores by the campfire, the hot chocolate after tobogganing, the laughs shared during movie nights with friends and the steps you take towards bettering yourself and this world. I have chosen to create a life worth living, and that means fighting the pressure to be perfect. I have never felt this much happiness before, and I know that challenging perfection was the first step.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Originally published: October 7, 2018
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