mental health at work

Eating disorder: “how affirmations helped me deal with negative body image”

Posted by for Wellbeing

Fitness trainer Nazia Khatun struggled with an eating disorder – until affirmations helped her overcome negative body image. 

Growing up, I was made to feel that being overweight in my Asian community was like a death sentence. I would constantly hear my relatives throwing back-handed compliments such as, “Well Nazia, you’re looking…healthy…” or saying sarcastically, “Are your parents not feeding you enough?” while looking me up and down, and shaking their heads in what seemed like disgust for being ‘too big’. The word ‘health’ is defined in the dictionary as someone who is in a ‘good’ mental and physical condition. But in my Asian community, it was used as a judgement.

From an early age, my Asian community made me feel that I had to look and be perfect. My first experience with developing an eating disorder started at home when my mother tried to make sure that I didn’t look curvy or ‘over-developed’ in certain areas – often tying a scarf to cover my chest or ensuring that I was hidden under a baggy cardigan so that no one noticed my developing body. Going through puberty almost felt like a crime. When my period arrived, my aunties made sure to tell my mum how to control my food portions – down to how many grains of rice I should be given. They assured my mum that this had worked for their own daughters.

The first time I realised that I wasn’t like the images of women I saw in magazines, I had just entered college. I tried to learn how to be girly from certain publications – trying to envision myself with six-pack abs and toned arms. I thought that if I practised what these publications preached, I would be accepted into society for fitting a certain body ideal. So much so, that maybe it wouldn’t matter that I was a shade of brown that I didn’t see reflected in these same magazines, or that my body type was different compared to what I constantly worshipped on the covers.

Little did I know, this would shape my mental and emotional wellbeing throughout life – especially as I grew into adulthood. As soon as I was exposed to this kind of imagery, I joined the gym, began to actually starve myself, my self-confidence decreased and my physical health was at its lowest.

For quicker results, I started doing things that are not worth writing down – leading myself to the brink of becoming anorexic. When I wasn’t happy with the thinner version of myself, I started binge eating.

Yet, once I started losing weight, I began to receive comments from relatives saying that I had become ‘too thin’. I just couldn’t win, no matter how hard I tried – it was mentally exhausting. 

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Eating disorder: "Affirmations led me to realise that I had spent almost my entire life worrying about what other people thought about me."

Eventually, I discovered my love of boxing and began to develop a new form of body dysmorphia. I spent the next phase of my life training as an amateur boxer, training almost every day to ensure that I looked the part – again trying to fit in to a new world that I was trying to become a part of.

Soon after, I changed my career to become a fitness coach and slipped into a depression. It wasn’t the norm for a young Bangladeshi woman to get into fitness – as the community and my family expected us to become something more ‘respectable’ such as a doctor or lawyer. But I knew deep down that my expertise in fitness was just as important, because the industry lacked other women like myself. I knew that working to help other people’s fitness and health was just as important as other professions. 

Learning affirmations for the first time

One day, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided that I would start living a life where the only person who I needed to please was myself. I knew I had gotten to a place where I needed help, only I didn’t know how to ask for it. In fact, I didn’t even realise the extent of how serious and harmful my thinking and actions had become.

I went to a seminar where a leading hypnotherapist was speaking. They spoke of affirmations – the act of speaking positive self-talk – and I was so engaged by this practice that I had never heard of before.

The affirmation that I began to practice saying to myself daily, and the one that rescued me from my misery and depression was three simple words: “I am enough.” This simple sentence that I repeated to myself every morning actually helped me to eventually end my eating disorder. 

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It led me to realise that I had spent almost my entire life worrying about what other people thought of me. I was so concerned with everyone liking me, but I discovered that I didn’t even like myself.

Never feeling as though I was enough had encouraged my negative relationship with food and my body.

So, I wrote “I AM ENOUGH” in big letters on my mirror, so it was the first thing that I saw when I opened my eyes in the morning and the last thing I read before I went to sleep. Gradually, I moved away from the negative thoughts I had about myself. Eventually, it led to me to getting rid of what was once my most prized possession: my weighing scales.

After time, I began to eat whatever I wanted, I stopped exercising excessively, and eventually felt that I was able to laugh again – my feelings of depression slowly evaporated with each day and the self-doubt and fear began to disappear from my thoughts. 

I continued using affirmations as I began to see the positive impact it was having on my mental health. I expanded my affirmations to verbally repeating, reading or writing the below: 

I AM ENOUGH.

I AM STRONG.

I AM AMAZING. 

The power of self-acceptance

I’m finally in a place where I accept myself – nearly a decade from when I first started my journey as a fitness coach. Along the way, I have found other women in the same boat as me and wanted to help them by sharing the same affirmations that helped me recover from my eating disorder.

At first, these women struggled to look at themselves in front of the mirror and confront what they saw – just as I had once felt. Some even cried when faced with looking at their own image. Encouraging these women to look at themselves in the mirror and love what they saw was such an abnormal concept for many of them, especially for my Asian clients as the idea of self-love isn’t spoken of or taught in our community.

It has been difficult to navigate an industry that I love and want to be a part of, yet has not catered to South Asian women. Women like myself have not been represented in fitness nor in magazines. So, I’ve tried to do whatever I can to support women, especially South Asian women like myself, and help them to redefine this idea of fitness for them – moving away from the mainstream media’s ideology of what women like us should look like.

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Eating disorder: "I write down ten things that I’m grateful for – and the first one is always for being in this body of mine."

Most mornings, I write down ten things that I’m grateful for – and the first one is always for being in this body of mine. We take our bodies for granted and I have learnt how to forgive myself. I have learnt how to let go of my past and the trauma that came with having an eating disorder.

I understand that affirmations are not a cure-all for everyone suffering from an eating disorder. The cause of negative body image is complex and runs deep. I realise that in addition to positive self-talk, learning to forgive my family for their hurtful comments has played an important role in my recovery. I also had to accept that the women being presented to me in magazines and the media were not realistic portrayals of what all women look like, nor should we try to conform to changing ourselves to look a certain way. But affirmations did help me deal with these emotions and have played a key part in how I learned to feel self-love and happiness. 

I have not picked up a magazine in years and I feel great now, just for being me. Positive self-talk has set me free from all the negativity in my life and I love that I can use affirmations to help other women who are going through similar experiences.

For information and help on eating disorders, visit eating disorder charity Beat website.

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IMAGE: Getty 

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