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Hating your body is NOT normal

You do not have to hate yourself. It is not normal, even if it is common. Often, our negative thoughts about ourselves become habits and we don’t even notice how much they have taken over our lives. It is perfectly OK to love your body as it is, or even just to come to terms with it.  Disordered eating is pervasive, and bodily self-hate is everywhere, but it doesn’t have to be. The mantra of “every body is beautiful, including my own” is one that I repeat to myself constantly, and that I also tell those I love when they are struggling. Find your own mantra and use it wisely. You and your body are on the same team; cultivate a good relationship and you will be astonished what you can accomplish together.

Food is everywhere

And I don’t just mean physically, I mean socially. You don’t realize just how many events — religious, family, or friendly — revolve around food until you try to give it up. Swearing off food is nothing short of social death. In hindsight, the saddest moments in my life were those when I sat and ate my pitiful meals alone, picking at celery sticks and egg whites alone in the quiet confines of my room. Food was never meant to be a solitary activity, yet we spend too much time eating independently or in the company of Netflix. Treasure your communal meals, because the nourishment of company is just as important as what you are eating together.

Everyone is beautiful

A funny thing happened when I started being open about my body dysmorphia. The people I thought would be the happiest with their bodies — the slim and conventionally appealing — were no more satisfied with their appearance than the ordinary looking. What I discovered is that how you feel about your body has very little to do with your body itself. When I was a full 70 pounds heavier than my sickest weight, I was also happier with my body than I’d ever been (and the healthiest I’d ever been too). The best way I’ve found to begin healing your relationship with your body is to stop judging other people for their appearance. If you can learn to accept other people, it becomes a hell of a lot easier to coexist with your own “faults.”

Life is too short for diets

Remember what I said about food and social death? I was not kidding. A diet takes away your focus on the important things in life and replaces it with a cycle of guilt, self-hatred, and smug superiority. While not all diets are eating disorders, they have one important thing in common; they narrow your focus down to one thing and one thing only — the food you cannot eat. They also don’t work. Five years after a diet your chances of keeping the weight off is only five percent likely, and many people actually gain back more weight than they’ve lost. My — admittedly extreme — diet has even had permanent or semi-permanent negative effects on my body and mind. You are torturing yourself for nothing. Seriously, life is too short.

Relearn everything about your health

Thinness is not health. We all have that one skinny friend that eats terribly and does not exercise — and as an autonomous human being, that is their right — but why on earth would we assume that they are healthier than the fat person who exercises daily and enjoys wholesome food? More and more studies are showing that lifestyle has a much larger impact on health than size, and the two are not necessarily correlated. We accept the fact that some people can be naturally skinny, but we can’t accept that some people may be naturally larger, and that there is nothing wrong with that. Some people are naturally fat and they are not any less healthy, beautiful, or worthy of respect.

Photo Credit: Cicanevelde.hu

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You’re having one of those days where it seems as if the whole world has teamed up to make your life miserable and revel in the aftermath. One of those Murphy’s Law days when everything and anything that could go wrong is going wrong.

On those days, it doesn’t take much to push you off the edge – a jerk’s offhand comment in the elevator, a long line for food, or loud people in lecture. For the approximately eight percent of adults that the Canadian Mental Health Association cites as suffering from depression, this is a daily reality – a lethargy that bleeds into weeks, months, even years. Depression is not one-size-fits-all. It is different for every person. Yet it is as if there is some indescribable shift – a gear changing cogs – that causes your brain and body to run on ten percent of what it used to.

Like depression, anxiety disorders don’t discriminate based on age, gender, race or religion. Both are very real problems, and ones that need to be talked about openly. Too many times people hide their disease. When a friend asks why your eyes are bloodshot or if the bruises under your eyes are an indication of how much sleep you have been getting, the answer is “I think I’m coming down with something.”

The reality is that you have been sick for a while, just in a way that somehow seems less acceptable to voice. This has to stop. When people have pneumonia, they get antibiotics that clear up their lungs and help them breathe again. While people are not generally shy to say they have pneumonia, they are much more reluctant to claim that they have depression or anxiety. Which means that pneumonia gets treated, and depression and anxiety do not.

The Canadian Mental Health Association cites that once recognized, treatment can make a difference for 80 percent of people suffering from depression, allowing them to resume their daily lives. Yet five bullet points down is another staggering statistic. Only one in five children who need mental health services get the appropriate care. This discrepancy is a huge warning alarm demanding to be addressed.

To tackle this issue, we must attack at the root, the perception of mental illnesses. The circulation of phrases like “yesterday was such a rough day, I was super depressed” and “your text gave me a panic attack” does two things. It diminishes the gravity of depression and anxiety disorders as mental illnesses. Reducing a serious illness to the same lines as a bad day discounts the daily struggle to do something as simple as getting out of bed. Secondly, by misusing the terminology of these disorder in colloquial speech, it makes people retreat further into their shells. It makes sense that nobody wants to come out and admit that they need help when the people they are confessing to are the same ones throwing around jokes.

We need a society where someone is comfortable responding to “what did you do last night?” with “I was at the therapist’s office.” It is hard not to go through something like that and not feel alienated from the world. There are surprising amounts of people that go to see therapists but mask it with trips to the mall or the library. The problem is not the visits to the therapist. Those visits are intrinsic to the healing process in the same way that Tylenol relieves a chronic headache. To the people who are seeing or have seen therapists, you are infinitely brave for taking that step. The road to recovery is long and arduous, but what matters is that you are on this road. The problem comes in this desire to mask these visits, and what it is that leads people to feel like they have to.

The signs for a forward movement are there. We are coming fresh off of a week where Bell Let’s Talk promoted a culture of open discussion about mental health. The important thing is to keep the momentum going past those 24 hours. Depression and anxiety last much longer than that.

We need a paradigm shift in the way that mental disorders are viewed. It starts with every person accepting personal responsibility for those around us. We are not islands cut off from others. Our actions affect those around us, even when we are not aware of it.

It starts with open and honest conversations, with acceptance and with the idea that we need to be mindful of others. Think twice before you mock someone for what they are wearing or for riding the elevator from the third floor, because to them it could be a big deal that they got dressed and onto that elevator at all.

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Chris Alaimo / Silhouette Staff

This past Friday I went to dinner with a few friends and a bunch of strangers after a social activist event hosted by United in Colour, McMaster’s Black Feminist Club. At the bus stop, I waited patiently a few metres from two attendees of the event. I tried to remain inconspicuous and I pretended not to have seen them, but I had. I knew they were there, somewhere beyond my field of vision - I could feel what felt like a menacing presence.

On the overcrowded bus, we stood but a few feet from one another. I could not bear to make eye contact or strike up a conversation. What would they say? Oh god, what would they think? I yearned to talk to them but I couldn’t manage it – I felt like everyone was looking at me. “They’re going to call me ‘fat’ and ‘stupid’,” I thought. “They’re all going to laugh at me and hate me.”

I got off the bus when they did. I could not entertain the thought of walking more than a few steps with these surely judgmental, hateful, rude strangers, so I lumbered around before deciding to go to the restaurant. As I arrived at the restaurant, I felt the sudden onset of nausea, light-headedness, and the uncontrollable desire to escape.

Resigned to my inability to enter the restaurant, I sat across the street, adjacent the parking lot, feeling dejected, alone and frustrated.

After minutes of sitting alone in the cold, I approached the restaurant entrance again. As I curled my fingers around the door handle, my muscles tensed up and I froze momentarily. Propelled by the anxiety that standing at the door too long provoked, I rushed inside. But there were my two travel companions, seated with the friends I was meeting. “Oh, god, no” I thought.

And yet it turned out that my travel companions are actually very considerate people.

The experience I described above is typical for me and is a form of social anxiety disorder. Let me say a little bit about social anxiety. According to psychologist Thomas Richards, Director of the Social Anxiety Institute, social anxiety is “the fear of social situations and the interaction with other people that can automatically bring on feelings of self-consciousness, judgment, evaluation and inferiority.”

The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders IV describes social anxiety as a “marked and persistent fear of one or more social and performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.” The individual with social anxiety disorder “fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.” Adults with social anxiety disorder recognize that their “fear is excessive or unreasonable.”

The socially anxious person avoids the “feared social or performance situations are avoided or else are endured with intense anxiety or distress.” Finally, the distress or avoidance “in the feared social or performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational (academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.”

There is one myth about social anxiety and social anxiety disorder that I would like to dispel. The myth says that social anxiety is just exaggerated shyness. This myth encourages the idea that anxious people are merely weak-willed pushovers. It is partially because of this myth, I think, that well-intentioned people offer the relevant but insensitive and patronizing advice like, “Don’t worry about it!”, “Just do it” and “Face your fears.”

Social anxiety (disorder) and shyness are not the same things. The relationship between the two is more complex. The American Psychological Association defines shyness as “the tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people.” They note that in cases of severe shyness, “people may have physical symptoms…; negative feelings about themselves; worries about how others view them; and a tendency to withdraw from social interactions.”

The feeling of awkwardness, for me, as a socially anxious person, is a consequence of my situational fears that sometimes interrupt the natural flow of conversation and my fear that their anxiety will manifest itself.

Shyness can progress and become social anxiety, with the newly developed social anxiety exacerbating the initial shyness, forming a vicious feedback loop. Thus shyness, for the socially anxious person, can be a cause and an effect of social anxiety. It depends on the individual. You’ll find that some socially anxious people are not, in fact, shy in social or performance situations that do not induce fear.

So stop telling me that I’m just shy.

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