Tania McAnearney’s late childhood was shaped by anxiety, and with so much out of her control she became fixed on controlling what she could – her weight.
TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses eating disorders. If you, or someone close to you, needs support for an eating disorder, please contact the Butterfly Foundation. Phone and webchat support is available.
Most of us remember reciting the ‘sticks and stones’ phrase as children in an attempt to shrug off bullies. But the truth is words can hurt, and in 10-year-old Tania’s case, the nasty words she heard from peers at her new school set her on a negative course. “I was called ‘piggy’ by boys and ‘vain’ by girls, the latter being as far from the truth as possible,” says Tania.
She got little comfort in a household filled with tension – a situation fuelled by the turmoil of her childhood home of South Africa during Apartheid. Tania’s parents made sure that all her physical needs were always met, without fail, and they always wanted the best for her. However, they didn’t seem to know how to support her emotionally and unknowingly exacerbated the negative messaging she heard from her peers. “My dad also called me ‘piggy’ at home if I asked for seconds at dinner or lunchtime. He meant it in a teasing way, but I always took it to heart,” she says. Tania’s relationship with her mother was no better. “[She] criticised me often and would brush me off when I tried to discuss anything difficult with her,” says Tania. “Mom had her own problems to deal with.”
Tania recalls her mother always being on-the-go and eating frugally to maintain her weight. That and the ideals of beauty portrayed in 90s media were all the role models that Tania had as she struggled with body image. “It was the early 90’s, the age of stick-thin models such as Kate Moss,” explains Tania, “I thought that was ideal – I wanted to look like that. And having no control over anything else in my life at that stage, eating was the one thing I felt I COULD control.” From the ages of 13 to 17, Tania was anorexic, and severely so from 14-16.
Tania’s obsession with weight was compounded by the high standards that she set for herself, something she attributes to the Catholic Church’s ideals of shaming her into ‘being good’. “I was brought up staunchly Roman Catholic and felt I was a ‘sinner’, never meeting the Church’s expectations of what a ‘good girl’ should be,” Tania says. To meet this expectation, she ate as little as she could to survive, went to the gym twice a day and worked hard to maintain an A+ average at school. She hadn’t had a period for three years and felt constant shame, fear and disgust. It was only a matter of time before Tania and her fragile body would reach a breaking point.
“One day when I was 16, I woke up absolutely shattered. I was too exhausted to go to school and couldn’t quite explain why,” says Tania. After years of unhealthy behaviour, her father finally took her to see a GP, which only made things worse.
“My dad booked me in that day to see his GP, which was an awful experience as he simply blamed me for being anorexic and empathised with my parents, increasing my feelings of shame and self-disgust,” says Tania. She was also made to see a psychologist, and despite the sessions being overwhelmingly unhelpful, Tania does credit one session with providing her with the ‘aha’ moment that would correct her course.
During one session with the psychologist, the topic of her non-existent periods came up. “She was a little shocked and asked how I felt…” explains Tania. After Tania shrugged the comment off, the psychologist began to explain that her body wasn’t functioning normally and told her that: ‘You won’t become a woman if you don’t have your period regularly and you won’t be able to have children.’ Despite her harsh words and erroneous summation of ‘womanhood’, it was the thought of being wrong that made Tania reassess her health. “The fact that I wasn’t normal, that my body wasn’t functioning normally and that I’d never have the body of a woman if I didn’t recover…well, that was the crunch for me,” says Tania.
The negative experiences she had with medical professionals fuelled her efforts to recover, simply because she wanted to stay away from hospitals. What finally got her on the road to recovery for the right reasons was feeling loved and accepted. “I met my hubby when I was 17 at a party, and we fell in love almost immediately. And his pure love, without strings attached, was the real beginning of my recovery,” she says. Tania also speaks of her ‘angel’ during her time of Anorexia — her best friend, Gigi. “We are still best friends today – 30 years after we met,” says Tania. “She never treated me any differently, didn’t talk about food and was simply always ‘there’ for me.”
Although her road to recovery led her to healthier food habits, it wasn’t until decades later that her relationship with food moved to a nurturing one. “I monitored my food intake and exercise levels scrupulously for literally decades…. My attitude to food changed when I attended a raw food weekend in my mid-30s,” Tania says.
When she started seeing food as a source of joy she also started to love it. Tania explains, “I now love greens (you name it, I will love it) and eat loads of them, but I also love beef, rose wine and coffee!” Her attitude towards exercise also shifted from obligation to exercising out of love for the ‘strength’ of her body and the ‘endorphin high’.
These changes led to the most important change of all. Her relationship with herself is now rooted in self-love. “The self-love: that only came years later, in fact, only a couple of years ago after more therapy,” says Tania. This has allowed her to accept her experiences as pivotal to shaping her into the vibrant woman that she sees herself as today. “I truly believe that everything in our life happens for a reason. I don’t blame my parents or begrudge having been anorexic and I do not believe that I would be the person I am today without having gone through it,” she says.
What she hopes for young women struggling with anorexia now is that they are supported with better medical treatment than what she had. “When I was young, institutions that treated people for eating disorders had a set eating plan of three meals a day and a snack and dessert. What I find ridiculous is that the ‘snack’ was often cake and most of the meals were heavy carb-based. This in no way helps the patient develop a positive feeling towards food. A drive towards nutritious food that feeds the body and soul is what those centres should be geared towards,” she says.
She also encourages young women (and society in general) to promote body-positivity and diverse representation. Most importantly, her advice for anyone that is struggling is to seek joy, “find three things that bring you joy and try to do them every day. They can be small, nothing onerous…. And hugs – we can’t get enough of them!”
After transforming her life into one that centres around happiness, it’s fitting that Tania’s chosen affirmation, is ‘I am Joy’.
“Find three things that bring you joy and try to do them every day.”
About the Author
Alegria Alano is a roaming writer and a bottomless pit of curiosity. Most of her time is spent exploring new places, interesting ideas and fascinating people. She writes about what she discovers in a diary, on alegria-alano.com, and more regularly on the gram at @alegriaalano