Megan Jayne Crabbe, aka BodyPosiPanda, talks overcoming diet culture in this exclusive excerpt from her new book
The woman behind the deeply beloved, profoundly inspiring, and highly influential @bodyposipanda Instagram account—Megan Jayne Crabbe—is releasing her new book, Body Positive Power: Because Life Is Already Happening and You Don’t Need Flat Abs to Live It, on September 11th. Megan, an anorexia survivor, shares uplifting body positive images and healing wisdom for her one million followers on a regular basis, helping so many people make it through their darkest times. You can read an excerpt, “The First,” from her new book below. Content Note: This excerpt describes calorie counting, dieting tactics, obsessive exercising, and other topics that may be triggering to eating disorder survivors.
I remember that first diet well. It was around the time that the girls in class started changing for PE in a separate room (before that, boys and girls all just changed together). A few of us had started wearing bras that held nothing but a swelling sense of pride mixed with fear—womanhood was coming. I’d noticed that my body was different from the others’ a long time ago, but the rest of them didn’t seem to notice that they had bodies at all. They ran and jumped and played and talked to boys at break time as if their bodies were things they didn’t even give a second thought to.
Mine was already the thing I thought about the most.
I spent every cross-legged assembly staring down at my thighs and keeping them hovering in midair so that they wouldn’t splay out and overflow like batter swelling over the sides of the cake tin. I had the posture of a saint in class, making sure that my stomach was properly sucked in and not bulging against my blue-and-white school dress as it did when I let myself relax. I’ve forgotten now how that felt, spending every moment from when you leave the house to when you get home determinedly sucking it in. Tighter if you feel someone’s eyes on you, tighter still if you hear the click of a camera, forcing a hollow-necked smile and waiting until you can breathe again.
If anyone reading that felt the need to tense their body and check that they weren’t all hanging out—please breathe.
Let it go, be comfortable—there is nothing wrong with your un-sucked-in stomach!
Looking back now, I wasn’t fat. No sensible adult would have looked at me and cried out “Childhood obesity!” before calling for a ban on turkey twizzlers at lunchtime. I had a round face and solid limbs and the kind of puppy fat that adults insisted was cute—and that I spent hours pulling and squeezing and wishing away. But in that childhood bubble, I was huge.
It’s disturbing just how distorted a child’s body image can be, even when looking at other people’s bodies.
Recently, Mattel made headlines for rebranding Barbie after decades of accusations that her unrealistic body proportions sent a dangerous message to the young girls who adore her. They proudly presented the new dolls with a range of skin colors, available in tall, petite, and curvy. Even though the idea of Curvy Barbie was seriously exciting to all the women who’d grown up staring at Barbie’s plastic perfection and feeling inferior, Mattel made sure not to push the beauty boundaries too far.
Curvy Barbie has fuller calves, no thigh gap, a very slightly rounded lower belly, wider hips, and arms with a hint more flesh on them. Blown up to life-size proportions, she would still wear only a size 2 or 4 (US), compared to original Barbie’s size 00. But hey, it’s progress.
So what did young girls think of having a more realistic fashion icon to play with? A Time report told us: “Hello, I’m a fat person, fat, fat, fat,” said one six-year-old, playing with the doll. Another spelled out F-A-T so she wouldn’t hurt Barbie’s feelings by saying it out loud. When the adults left the room, the girls undressed Curvy Barbie and laughed at her. Which shows how believable it is that my few extra pounds made me see myself as the class whale—an hourglass size 2 to 4 is big enough to be ridiculed and labeled as an outcast by six-year-old girls. If that’s not fucked up I don’t know what is.
So there I was, ten years old and chubby. I had a crush that year. He wore mismatched green socks and hopped down the school corridors like a frog—the height of charm when you’re ten. I already knew that I would never tell him how I felt because there was no way he would choose me over my long, slender friends with perfect pigtails and bright blue eyes.
I decided that if I was going to become the beautiful, thin version of myself I imagined when I closed my eyes that I had better start doing something about it. I knew all about diets by then. I’d read enough “Lose Ten Pounds a Week!” articles in my mum’s magazines, seen enough TV ads for meal replacements, and overheard enough conversations between the mums at the school gates.
When we got home one day, I announced to my mother that I was “getting healthy.” I knew it was a diet, but I didn’t want her to know. That would have meant having to talk about my body and why I hated it so much.
These were the rules of “getting healthy”:
No biscuits or cakes
Only fruit or low-calorie cereal bars for snacks
More running at school
And when I decided that there would be NONE of the foods I liked the most, I meant it. I wasn’t just cutting them down; I wasn’t rationing myself; I was banishing them from my life for good. If it was “fattening” (i.e., high calorie, high fat, delicious), it had to go. Parents, that is what I would call a serious warning sign. It was the same all-or-nothing attitude that meant within a year I was skipping lunch, within two years I was having a small bowl of cereal for dinner, within three years I was forcing myself to do hundreds of sit-ups every night before I let myself eat anything, and within four years I had anorexia.
My first dieting attempt was successful. I lost some of my puppy fat and my mum managed to convince me that enough was enough—time to go back to normal. I relinquished my fierce control over calories for a while, but I never thought about food the same way again. I knew how it worked now—I knew which foods made you fat and which didn’t, I knew that I could say no to food I really wanted, and I knew what that hunger felt like.
That dieting hunger is intoxicating. The lightness of living on hope more than actual sustenance gets addictive fast. The willpower of denial makes you feel invincible. Refusing to listen to your basic instincts gives you a sense of control unlike any other. For every night I went to bed with a half-empty stomach, I fed myself on dreams of how perfect everything would be once I was thin. I ignored the fact that PE suddenly got harder without those extra calories to turn into energy. I ignored the confused looks from my friends when I turned down a piece of birthday cake. I ignored the sense that everything I did seemed so much more serious now that it was tinged with the beginnings of obsession. Goodbye, childhood. I was doing what I had to do. I was becoming a woman. That’s what women did: deny their hunger, make their appearance their top priority, and do anything they could to shrink smaller every day. I already recognized what a crucial part of growing up it was.
It wouldn’t be long until I was back on the wagon, asking Mum to make my sandwiches without butter and swearing off more and more foods with each diet. By the time I started developing anorexia I was already a U.S. size 4. I remember my Nan sending me clothes two sizes too big and saying she wished that I would get a bit more meat on my bones, but I wasn’t gaining weight for anyone. All I could see when I looked in the mirror was how much I needed to lose. Then everything spiraled. You’d think that brushing so close to death would make me see my body differently. You’d think that nearly starving myself out of this world would put me off ever dieting again. But you’d be wrong. Dieting was my religion. And nothing was going to take it away from me.
In the years after I’d supposedly “recovered,” I tried everything to lose weight again. I tried to starve again and ended up binging, I tried to live on nothing but fruit and ended up binging, and I tried to cut out carbs and ended up binging. I tried fat free. I tried high protein. I tried not eating before 6 p.m. and not eating after 6 p.m. I tried intermittent fasting. I tried eating clean and exercising for three hours a day. I tried weight-loss groups and protein shakes. I tried juice cleanses and laxatives. I tried diet pills and even hypnosis. I always ended up binging, and I always ended up hating myself even more when the weight came back like clockwork.
There are still people who tell me that I just didn’t find the right diet. That even I, a recovered anorexic, should still keep trying, keep dieting, keep chasing that thin dream that kept me up at night when I was ten years old and led me to a hospital bed.
But you know what? I’ll never diet again. Because diets suck.
We all know it, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise. Diets leave us miserable, hungry, and feeling like failures when we can’t keep them up (spoiler alert: it’s not your fault when you can’t keep them up).
Excerpted from Body Positive Power: Because Life Is Already Happening and You Don’t Need Flat Abs to Live It by Megan Jayne Crabbe. Copyright © 2018. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or talk to a trusted health professional.