From 16 to 21, I was obsessed with the fashion industry and working as a fashion model. When my peers were growing into independent women from the pubescent teenagers they once were, I was developing body dysmorphia. I believed that the only way to compete with others in my industry was to continue to shrink and enhance my body. I developed many unhealthy habits from excessive exercise to restricting my body’s access to food. This drive was heightened by the praise and admiration I gained from the people around me, resulting in an all-consuming eating disorder. At its height, I was visiting the gym twice a day and struggling with bulimia to keep my weight as low as possible.
I believed that the only way to compete with others in my industry was to continue to shrink and enhance my body.
Exhausted and under-fed, I secured more jobs and even more praise. It gave me comfort knowing I had made my middle-eastern mum (with incredibly high expectations) proud. I had felt unable to do so to such an extent via any other avenue. I had a turbulent relationship with her growing up, so the joy that I would see in her eyes when she saw my photo in a magazine, poster or website was more valuable to me than my own safety and well-being. As if that wasn’t enough, I had a difficult time making and maintaining friendships throughout high school and college. I didn’t quite relate to others my age and found myself either making friends with older students or migrating between friend groups. I felt so starved for validation, approval and friendship that, when I found them as a model, I wasn’t going to let go. The militant routines to keep up the image of a well-put-together, skinny, popular woman began and this cycle of self-harm is where I found my identity.
I felt so starved for validation, approval and friendship that, when I found them as a model, I wasn’t going to let go.
What nobody tells you as a young non-white British girl growing up in England with a middle-eastern mother is that, while you may identify with the English way of life, the expectations of your middle-eastern roots will never fully dissipate. As a child, I was always expected to be a grade-A student, one who would never entertain the idea of boys, the girl who was sociable but didn’t have too many friends as to become distracted, and the girl who was exotically beautiful so that she could represent her people’s best attributes. Since many of these qualities didn’t come naturally to me, my image and identity slowly became distorted as I wasn’t quite sure how to fulfill the expectations of my ‘friends’ as well as the expectations of my mum.
What nobody tells you as a young non-white British girl growing up in England with a middle-eastern mother is that, while you may identify with the English way of life, the expectations of your middle-eastern roots will never fully dissipate.
What once started as a fun hobby and a great side hustle turned into my glamorised image then my entire identity. Where do the links between image and identity lie? We can say that image is a construct that relates to how you experience your own body, whereas identity is how you understand yourself as a person, such as your values. To understand when image impacts identity, we should ask ourselves, when does an attribute go from a surface trait to a part of your fabric? For me, it was when the praise of others based on my appearance and achievements as a model became essential to my self-esteem. Without the praise, I was merely a failed model, a failed daughter and a failed woman.
It took many years and hurdles to get off the hamster wheel of self-destruction. One does not simply decide to recover from a distorted identity. I started my trauma recovery by quitting my job and focusing on getting back to myself. I returned to counselling and eventually started dressing how I wanted to dress, eating what I wanted to eat and doing what I wanted to do. Was it easy? Hell no. It’s taken six long years of rebuilding myself. This high has come with many lows. It’s incredibly easy to fall into new unhealthy habits, especially when trying to recover from old ones. For example, I see many #EDRecovery posters disguising orthorexia as “living a clean life-style”, or “just taking care of myself”. Did I fall into that same trap? Absolutely. However, I believe women need to give themselves more credit for the bombardment of toxic messaging we are subjected to every single day. No wonder it’s so difficult to live a truly healthy and authentic lifestyle! Everywhere we turn, there is some kind of advertisement (often subliminal) about being the best version of ourselves by losing weight, making our faces look more socially appealing and wearing more stylish clothes. Why does the best version of ourselves need to be based on what we can provide to others? After many years of repairing this fractured identity, I can now see how the pressures of image on women impact their self-worth and self-esteem.
I believe women need to give themselves more credit for the bombardment of toxic messaging we are subjected to every single day
What many people fail to understand, is the long-term impacts of self-critical behaviours. It changes how you understand yourself and the world around you. It has the power to remove the freedoms you once had as a care-free and happy person and replace those with the first signs of anxiety.
People are not born with identities- they develop over time. It’s vital for us, as a whole society, to shift our perception of what a worthy woman looks like, because there is no image that can define a worthy woman. It’s vital that we teach this to our daughters, friends and families so that we can encourage kindness, individuality and acceptance of others regardless of appearance, sexuality, class, size, weight etc. It’s vital that those from other ethnic backgrounds have the freedom to safely express themselves however they feel appropriate in whatever community they live in. We need to transition from a society that values image into a society that perpetuates good values.
It’s vital for us, as a whole society, to shift our perception of what a worthy woman looks like, because there is no image that can define a worthy woman
About the Author
Naz is a 27 year old woman from Cheshire who’s own experiences growing up shape the ambitions she has in becoming a successful campaigner for women’s rights. She believes that all women should have the right to represent themselves however suits them, without the prejudices that face so many in our current day and age. She is currently working on forming a group of women with similar goals to take her campaigning to the next level. You can check her feminist art out on Instagram (@femmesdelib).
Follow on IG: @femmesdelib |