“I Would Binge On Food Then Starve Myself For Long Periods.” How I Overcame My Obsession With Weight

When I looked in the mirror all I saw were imperfections that didn't exist

For mental health awareness day, New Zealand radio host, blogger and DJ, Aroha Harawira shares her journey with body image, food, exercise and self-love.

Today I think I have a fairly healthy attitude to fitness and nutrition. I try to do some form of exercise 5-6 days a week and most of the time I eat whole, unprocessed food with occasional ice-creams and chocolate.

I don’t weigh myself every day and I eat when I’m hungry. I also go away to festivals and other cities to DJ, get a bit over excited when I’m taken out for nice dinners and sometimes wake up at 3pm the next day with a sorer head than someone people consider to be “fitspo” probably should. I’m not perfect. I also don’t want to be (anymore).

My main motivation behind sharing my fitness journey in the past four years actually began because I wanted to make myself accountable. Initially, I was running a lot to lose weight, but once I reached my then “ideal weight” I realised that I hadn’t immediately become happier.

At the time I was going through heavy heartbreak leading to a deep depression, which I sought help for through a psychotherapist and prescribed anti-depressants. However, it was running, later coupled with other forms of exercise, that helped me to regain some clarity and eventually step away from relying on a therapist and pills on the regular.

Exercise hasn’t always been my friend though. Here’s where the long story begins.

From childhood through until I was about 12 years old, I was bullied constantly because I was physically a bit larger than some of the other girls my age. I had few friends, shied away from sports and physical education classes at school and I was always the last picked when kids were choosing teams.

I won’t repeat some of the names that children called me, but I believed what they said and the comments stuck with me and carried through into adult life. I also remember adults often referring to me as “cute and chubby”, but of course, all I heard was “chubby”.

mental health
(Credit: Supplied)

My paternal grandmother enrolled me in ballet classes when I was seven years old. I was shy and very aware of my size because of the bullying at school. I would see photographs of myself next to the other girls in ballet pantomimes and whisper to myself “you’re the fat one”. I had frequent dreams about one day showing up to gym class at school and being able to do a triple somersault in front of the other kids. In my dream, the P.E teacher would smile at me, the other kids would cheer, and I’d become the most popular kid at school.

As I got older, I started getting better at ballet, tap dancing and jazz ballet. I still wasn’t great, but I did practice and try really hard because I knew how happy it made my Grandma to see me socialising with other children. I didn’t really have friends at school and I withdrew into myself more and more each year. 

I was also going through a constant battle in my head about how I felt about food. On one side, my Grandma (who sent me to dance and drama classes and who was a well rounded pink-cheeked homemaker) would bake delicious cakes and cookies and make dessert every day, which I was encouraged to eat. On the other side, my maternal grandmother (who was a glamorous and statuesque Maori woman, well regarded in Masterton politics and very popular in local social circles) ate like a bird and lectured me about my size. I recall her putting me on “a diet” when I was around 8 years old, which involved me only being allowed to drink the water left over from boiled vegetables.

mental health
(Credit: Supplied)

My mother also struggled, and whilst I thought she was beautiful and elegant like a swan with her long thin legs and arms, I often heard her talking about the things that she didn’t like about her body. I’d stare in the mirror pushing on my little pot belly and mimic the women that I looked up to, trying to figure out ways that I could be “perfect”. I often tried to refuse cake from Grandma, but she’d say to me “you’ll get that terrible disease” so I’d eat the bloody cake because Grandma and cake made me happy.

Once I hit puberty at 13, I’d had enough. I’d watched the cool girls at my school and I decided to fake it. To be someone who I wasn’t just to try and make friends. The sad thing is; it worked. I let my A grades slip on purpose and started starving myself. This was also the time that I declared myself a vegetarian, which made it even easier to deceive people about my eating habits. I hid under large clothes at home, fed my dinners to our pet Doberman while I was too busy “studying” to come out of my room, and I stopped going to Grandma’s place as much.

I went through patches like this for the rest of my high school years. Sometimes bingeing on food, then punishing myself with long periods of starving myself. I joined sports teams and started going to the gym in the mornings before school. The girls at school started inviting me to parties with them and boys started noticing as my curves grew and my “puppy fat” fell away. Maybe my family and friends thought that I was simply blossoming, but the reality is; as more people noticed me, the more motivated I was to exercise like crazy and eat less and less.

When I finished high school just before my 18th birthday I’d been working in a music store part-time for 3 years and had become pretty good at acting, even going on school trips to compete out of town. During this time my musical influences widened. I became more interested in alternative culture and listening to music that reflected the way I had felt for years as a bit of a weirdo and outsider, which made me gain more confidence in my skin.

I had also become more popular at school, initially through my messed up system of starving myself and allowing my grades to slip, and then later, I think, because people thought I was cool because I worked at the music store. I tried really hard not to beat myself up so much for how I looked, and I tried to be healthy and eat more, but often that would just make me sicker as it was such a shock to the system.

Going into drama school in Wellington, I started eating again. My unhealthy diet mostly consisted of toast, baked potatoes and cider – and I put on weight. Once I finished drama school I struggled as an actor for a couple of years, with a few extra roles on TV, but mostly performing on stage. After many unsuccessful auditions, my agent said to me “I think you need to lose weight.” All my insecurities came flooding back and I decided it was the wrong industry for me to be in given my messed up body image. So I quit acting completely.

My weight ballooned and I was a generous size 16 when I turned 21. I was living in Wellington, New Zealand, working at a cafe, eating a lot of cake, working the door at drum & bass gigs and doing a weekly radio show. I was very unhappy despite being the “life of the party” so I moved to Melbourne, leaving my boyfriend behind. As soon as I got to Melbourne I activated my plan to lose weight, which was to eat one sushi roll a day and to run every morning. 

When I visited my boyfriend in NZ three months later, he didn’t recognise me at the airport. I’d lost 18 kilos, got a tan, stopped wearing heavy makeup and had dyed my crazy pink hair back to its natural dark brown. He loved how I looked and I lapped up the attention. None of my friends recognised me either and their reactions were so complimentary that I felt good about myself again. For a minute.

Eventually, a group of my workmates at the restaurant I was working at in Melbourne pulled a bit of an intervention on me. They’d seen how my body shape had changed rapidly over the short months that I’d been working there and were suspicious about why I never ate with them, or would only eat one forkful of the plate of steamed bok choy I’d ordered for “dinner”. They said I was increasingly irritated and snappy, often looked faint at work, my skin had lost its sparkle and I had lost my smile. I cried, promised I would get help, and I did. I started seeing a psychotherapist who also practised hypnotherapy on me and for the next seven months I worked on creating a healthier self-image.

I gained some weight, which at first was terrifying because when I looked in the mirror all I saw were imperfections that didn’t exist, but after weekly therapy sessions and listening to my hypnosis tape each night before bed, I gradually regained my sparkle. I’ve never relapsed since however, there have been times when I’ve become obsessive about food and had to reevaluate what I was doing and remind myself of my history. 

A couple of years ago I was seeing a nutritionist as I was wanting to gain muscle and lose body fat. His plan was really effective and I was eating around 2,200 calories a day so at first, I didn’t think it was a bad thing. I still think it’s a good plan if you’re in the right headspace to implement it. However, I soon realised how obsessive I was about logging all of my food and macros and making sure I ate 5-6 portions of protein a day, that it was harking back to my old disordered eating habits.

Today I’m trying to be kinder to myself, to eat when I’m hungry, and to notice when certain foods aggravate my digestion. I exercise regularly, but not obsessively and I listen to my body. As I’m getting older I noticed I’m more prone to injuries, so I’m also incorporating more mindful and gentle forms of movement such as walking, yoga, and pilates and focussing on how exercise makes me feel and not how it makes me look.

 My personal journey is my own, but I daresay there will be many of you reading this who are reminded of times in your lives when you’ve gone through similar experiences. I think we have a responsibility to not only be kind to ourselves in private but kind in the way we speak to ourselves in front of others, both on social media and in person.

Recently, I unfollowed many of fitness chicks that I used to enjoy observing on Instagram. Not because they were saying anything derogatory about themselves, but because I was constantly comparing myself to them and trying to figure out ways to learn from what they were doing so I could look more like them. I’d encourage you to do the same if watching someone else’s journey is making you feel stink, even if that’s not their intention. I’d like to think that I’ve never made someone feel like they weren’t enough, but inevitably I probably have, despite just trying to be myself.

I’ll still strive to have strong abs, to do a pull-up, and maybe even smash out another half marathon sometime soon if my body feels up for it – but I am done with beating myself for up for not being thin enough, muscly enough, pretty enough. I am enough, and so are you. So is your Mum, your grandmother, your daughter, your granddaughter, your sister, your best mate.

If you are overweight and need to make a change, find healthy ways to do it slowly and congratulate yourself for your successes. If you’re thin and struggle to gain weight and muscle, try not to compare yourself to all the “strong not skinny” advocates and focus on how strong you are now and all of the amazing things that your body and mind allow you to do each day.

We’re all different, we’ve all got long stories, some maybe longer than mine, but I reckon it’s time to be kinder to ourselves. If you speak kindly to yourself then you’ll start to believe it. Your kids and grandkids will believe they are enough, and hopefullythey’ll speak kindly to other kids too, in the playground, on social media and in person when they get older. The change starts with us.

If you or someone you know needs help or advice, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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