In this part of the world, women and men of all ages seem at odds with their looks. Whether it’s peer pressure, social media, or the constant barrage of images of celebrities “showing off their perfect body,” most of us never stop criticizing ourselves.
Elen McGonagle can relate to this as it took her 55 years to finally appreciate the body she was born with and thank it for everything it put her through. That gratitude, she says, is long overdue because after surviving a decade of anorexia, then having four children and suffering breast cancer, her body truly deserves recognition.
“I went through a tough time growing up because I was really unhappy with myself,” she says. “I had very little confidence and after doing poorly on my secondary school entrance exams – which was a boarding school that streamed all classes – I found myself in the lowest stream and totally bored. Then, after the first year, I climbed the highest creek and of course I was way behind everyone else.
“Also I found living in the community very difficult and really hated the aspect of boarding school as we didn’t have freedom, it was like being in prison.” During this time at boarding school, the Cork woman developed problems with her body and says, that it got worse over the years.
“I loved to cook and bake and one day a friend told me I should eat less cake – and from that moment on I made a commitment to lose weight and spent every free time running and jumping to try lose some weight.” she says. “I was always cold and scared before meals and it just went from there. I never felt good enough or had never lost enough weight and always thought that if I could lose just a little bit more weight everything would be fine.
“The funny thing is that I wanted to fit into skinny jeans, which were the fashion at the time, but when I did they looked awful on me because I was too skinny. When I look at the photos my parents had of me from that time, I looked awful, my hair fell out on one side and I started growing fluff on my face — I’m still pretty traumatized by the memories. I remember one day I surprised a relative and they cried – when I asked what was wrong they said they were so worried about me and didn’t want me to die.
“I had no treatment and in hindsight I think it would have helped, but moving to day school, being back home and having the fantastic support of my parents have helped me on the road to recovery.”
But developing a healthy relationship with food and her body has taken a long time, and Helen, who is married to Joe, says she was almost out of college when she began to feel more confident in her own skin.
“For years I had no confidence in my ability to make decisions and was ashamed of the fact that I was overwhelmed,” she says. “Going to university and having a fresh start where no one knew me was my turning point. I’ve dabbled in varsity clubs — specifically swimming and lifesaving — and swam on the inter-varsity team. I trained to be a lifeguard and worked evenings and weekends in the college pool and also got involved in student union politics — so I effectively re-educated myself.
“It took me about eight years to recover from that, and it wasn’t until my fourth year of college that I could eat a sandwich someone else made because I was always worried it might have butter or mayonnaise or something in it that I didn’t have I didn’t allow myself to eat.
“But even then I wouldn’t say I was ‘cured’ as I don’t think I would ever consider myself fully cured of anorexia as my standard response to difficult times is to restrict my food intake, something I really do.” The mother-of-four says during her pregnancy she slipped back into the habit of watching her weight and trying to shed the extra pregnancy pounds after the birth.
“I was constantly on a diet and wasn’t eating so I could stay in control,” she says. “Then, five years ago, I went for my first routine mammogram and was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was such a shock because I had no idea something was wrong. In fact I almost didn’t go to the check as I was very busy at the time and thought there was no point – I thought it was a waste of time because everything was fine but it wasn’t.
“I was diagnosed with cancer in my left breast and was told I would need a lumpectomy and treatment. I couldn’t believe it as it was totally unexpected. I had surgery in December 2017, then chemotherapy between January and March 2018 and radiotherapy in May and June 2018. After that I started hormone treatment (tamoxifen) in August of the same year and I am still on it until August 2023.
“I was so lucky to be spotted as I was told it could have been at least two years before a lump appeared so I wouldn’t have noticed as it was quite deep – but luckily it was not spread was caught so early.
“All in all it was a tough time but I had a lot of support from my family and friends who could not have been more caring and looked after me very well. I also got great advice from Cork ARC when I was feeling down as it was a really safe place.
“And I’ve listened to hundreds of audio books — I’m a huge reader, but sometimes I didn’t even have the energy to hold a book during chemotherapy, so BorrowBox’s audio versions were lifesavers.” Helen, a music librarian and graduate student, said Having gone through both anorexia and cancer, says she should have been grateful to have survived, but it wasn’t long before she started focusing on what she perceived as negative aspects of her body.
“Along with everything else, the treatment caused me to gain weight and before I knew it I was back in the carousel of constantly worrying about what I’m eating, never enjoying food, always exercising and blaming me for being able to lose the weight,” she says.
“I gained 4kg when I had the treatment and lost most of it so I’m now a size 10-12. I was at a point where I didn’t think I was overweight but before I recently asked for a referral for anti-inflammatory injections to treat joint pain and was shocked to be told that although I am in “normal parameters” I would need to lose weight – to get back to what I was before I did Cancer treatment was – before I could be considered for it.
“I’m 68kg and almost 5ft 5in tall so I really don’t think that was a helpful comment and if I had been told that years ago when I was struggling with anorexia it would have been so damaging can be — As it was, I was still quite affected by it. I was horrified to be honest.”
That moment was quite formative for Helen, who realized she needed to stop giving her body “a hard time.” “I was at a summer solstice event this year and we were asked to write something that we would like to give up,” she says. “When I got the piece of paper, I wrote that I wanted to stop hating my body and instead start thanking it for everything it’s done for me. It’s been through the mill with anorexia and breast cancer and has given me four children – now it’s time to thank it.
“So last weekend I decided to defy everyone and went to the beach in a bikini – it was an amazing feeling. I always see people doing that abroad with no problems, so I decided to do the same and it felt fantastic.
“A lot of advice after any cancer treatment is to lose weight, eat healthily, get plenty of exercise, drink little or no alcohol, and so on. I was aware of the danger of slipping back into obsessive behavior and really didn’t want to. So I started questioning my life, how I’ve lived it so far and how I want to live the “second half”.
“I realized I wanted to be fit and healthy and get away from the constant thought that if I could just lose a few pounds everything would be fine. Through counseling and coaching, I developed a vision for the future I would love, including acknowledging what my body has been through from anorexia to carrying and giving birth to four children to breast cancer. Now it’s time to acknowledge what my body has taken and survived – it’s time to stop punishing it.
“I don’t want to go to my grave on a diet, so I think if I could offer some advice to others, I would say that we need to reflect on how amazing our bodies are and realize that health is about a lot more than about weight and body shape.”
If you are affected by the issues in this article, visit bodywhys.ie
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/i-dont-want-to-go-to-my-grave-on-a-diet-its-time-to-stop-punishing-my-body-and-start-thanking-it-41894166.html “I don’t want to die because of a diet — it’s time to stop punishing and thanking my body.”