Sorcha Doyle is a 23 year old MA student at Trinity College Dublin. She is studying to become a secondary school English and Religion teacher. In her own time, Sorcha writes poetry, performs stand-up comedy and runs a healthy-living Instagram account: @unislimsorcha. I got to ask Sorcha some questions about her personal journey with mental health, weight-loss and learn about the correlation between both in her life. We also talked about social media and the role it can play in body image and young people’s mental health.
MERIEM: Can you tell me a bit about the correlation between your mental health and your eating habits? When did you start to notice that you were using food as a way of “comfort” when dealing with issues like anxiety?
SORCHA: This question for me, is about my journey with my body and my body image – which is a long one. I suppose, my direct answer is that I really had no idea up until maybe, 2015 or 2016? I’ve been suffering with anxiety and depression for years. I was diagnosed at 16. My mom brought me to the doctor because I couldn’t get out of my bed for 2 weeks after my first heartbreak. My boyfriend and I had broken up, and I obviously took it extremely hard – but even before that, God, I had textbook symptoms. I didn’t know what I know today. I was heavily stigmatizing it and I didn’t understand at the time what I was feeling. The last thing I wanted to do was to go to a doctor, because, in my head, that was losing. When I was in primary school, I was definitely heavier than my peers. People noticed it in primary school. I don’t necessarily feel like I was bullied – I was actually quite popular. It wasn’t until secondary school, that I became hyper-aware of my body. From the summer of first year to second year, I lost a lot of weight, even though I really wasn’t trying to. I got a lot taller, so I stretched out completely. My body completely changed. I was actually quite skinny until TY. Of course, in my head, I was still “heavier” than everybody else, though the reality might have been that I wasn’t really. Like many kids my age at that time – I was also spending all my days, nights and weekends on Tumblr. I became, or at least I wanted to be, this like, “emo, scene” kid. When you’re suffering with anxiety and depression, you can feel like no one in the world could possibly understand you. I now had this community or circle on Tumblr that did understand me, or at least, it felt like they could. I was on Tumblr for a sense of belonging. I thought everybody online was very cool. Of course, with everything that was going around on Tumblr at the time, like Pro-Ana blogs (pro-anorexia), everything you could imagine a horror story of a teenager coming across, I came across there. It kinda fucked me up to be honest. I had a skewed sense of what was “beautiful” and what I looked like in comparison. I was gaining weight at the same time that I was going through the process of being diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and so I suppose there is a correlation there. I gained weight very quickly. I went from a size 14 to 16, at the age of 16. Up until I was about 18, I was between a size 16 and 18. Then, when I started at UCD, just after my CAO, I was a size 20. Looking back on it now, at the time, I was accepted for a performing arts school in New York, and for one reason or another, mostly financial reasons, I couldn’t go. I had to forfeit my place. That really spiraled me. That was my dream, it was all I wanted. I took it extremely hard. Going into UCD, I was a size 20. It’s impossible to express the anxiety and the fear of doing everyday tasks. From the age of like 17, I hadn’t worn a pair of jeans, because I literally couldn’t fit into any. My first few days at UCD, I felt so out of place. Luckily, I had a great group of friends, Andrew and Luke, and that was all I needed. One weekend, we went out for a friend’s 18th birthday. I was wearing a dress and heels. I was dancing and my knees buckled underneath me. What had happened was that my knees had been worn down over time from carrying the weight of my body. That meant that the joints had no more cartilage between them, and it was now only bone to bone. I put it down to being drunk and I went home. I was mortified. The next day my knees had blown up and I went to St. Vincent’s hospital where they told me that I had rheumatoid arthritis. I was put on diafene, which is a really strong anti-inflammatory drug. They told me this was because of my weight. It really solidified my negative feelings about myself. I was angry. I was angry at the world and the hand it had dealt me. I felt like I had nothing, even though in the grand scheme of things, that wasn’t true. The thing about mental health is and I’ve always said this, is that your views and your experience with your mental health is your reality. For one person, spilling food on your trousers, could be just that. For someone who is at the fucking edge, that could be the thing that pushes them over. I mean that so seriously. There was points in my life, and I’m not proud of them, where I felt like there was no reason to be alive. It’s horrible, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody – but it’s how I felt, genuinely. It wasn’t until I got my hands around my treatment, my medication and started therapy, that I became more self-aware of why I was feeling this way (which was all rooted in my self-esteem and eating habits). It was then that I knew that if I didn’t do something about my weight – I might die. I was pre-diabetic. I had rheumatoid arthritis. I was on 9 different medications a day to get through a day, pain-free. If I didn’t change something, I would die from what I was putting my body through. Instead, I decided to live. I decided to join UniSlim. I don’t believe that losing weight cures depression. I just mean that for my personal journey, with my depression being so rooted in being “wanted”, in wanting to be “normal”, to “fit in” – and I know being “skinny” doesn’t make people happy, but for me, it made me healthy. I know that probably sounds problematic. I had people message me to tell me that it’s problematic but at the end of the day, my experience is my journey, and my truth. I don’t care what other people have to say about how I helped myself.
MERIEM: What did it mean to you to become Unislim’s Youth Ambassador in 2016? Was there a certain pressure that came with that title, or was it all just pure joy and a sense of accomplishment?
SORCHA: This is an extremely sensitive topic for me. When I entered for UniSlimmer of the Year, I had accomplished so much. I had lost 5 and a half stone and I was in such a good place. Then, I made a very poor decision – which was to throw myself into the public eye. I had such a positive reception, and I don’t mean to place any blame on UniSlim or the awards. Again, it comes down to my perception, and my perception being my reality. I put such an unfair pressure on myself. When you lose weight, sometimes, and for me this was the case – it took years for me to have a clear understanding of what my body looks like. I had spent years being huge, so when I was tiny, I had no idea. I could see on the scales, my weight going down, my clothes’ sizing getting smaller, but I just didn’t “feel” skinny. When you struggle with mental health issues you can have extremely negative coping mechanisms, and mine, were all rooted in validation. I wanted people to love me, to want me. When it came to the UniSlimmer awards – my brain snapped in half. Even though people were so kind to me, I also saw people commenting that I was “too skinny” and other awful things. The UniSlim plan works. It’s based on healthy eating, but I took it too far. I was cutting meals. I was over-exercising. I hadn’t eaten crisps or chocolate or take-away for a year. I stopped drinking alcohol for a really long time. Which in themselves are positives but when I eventually had a minor slip up, I went off the wagon entirely. With the awards I could see how many people were voting for me, what people were saying, and on the UniSlimmer awards website, for a long time, I was first. Then, I was second, and I would see the numbers changing and I was so concerned with my place. I don’t mean to put blame on UniSlim, but coming up to the awards, head office did ask me to lose more weight to meet the awards’ requirements. I don’t know if it’s because they had my numbers or information wrong, maybe they thought I was a different weight than what I actually was – but it broke me. At this point I was already not eating, and all I could think was “amazing, I’m still not good enough”. I felt like I was dying, my anxiety was horrendous. It was a living nightmare because when I was fat I didn’t feel good enough, and now that I was skinny, I still didn’t feel good enough. Being skinny didn’t fix my problems… when you lose weight, your body changes so drastically. There are things that aren’t necessarily “beautiful” about it. With clothes on, I might have looked perfect to the outside world. Underneath, I had extra skin, stretch marks – my breasts were tiny. I had so much extra skin, I looked like a deflated balloon. I felt so ugly. But when I became UniSlim Ambassador, I did feel fantastic at first. Then, and I was warned about this, I felt like no one cared about me anymore because it was an anti-climax. And again, this is just my perception, but it’s how I felt. The individual people at UniSlim are amazing, but at the end of the day, it’s a corporation. When I was not “useable” to the company anymore, I was forgotten about and that’s not personal. For me, suffering with this deep need for belonging and being wanted and “rejection” – it hit me really badly. My UniSlim leader, Jean, knew that and she told me not to go through with the competition. A week before the awards, I wasn’t getting up out of bed again. I lost 2 pounds the week before the awards. Then, another 5 pounds the week of the awards. 7 pounds in a single week, just from stress. I felt at that time I was not someone to be looked up to or admired – but I think what was appealing about my story is that I am honest. I care enough about my Instagram following to tell them the truth. I made my UniSlim account to do just that. When it comes to eating habits, you have to be honest. It’s people’s lives that you’re messing with. Also, with being a teacher, I learned the importance of being a role model. To help the little Sorcha’s of the world. Like any human being, I make so many mistakes, but that’s so okay. It’s so okay.
MERIEM: Social media is one of the biggest enemies to those struggling with their body image. How has social media affected the way in which you view your own body? Do you think that boys struggle with this to the same extent as girls? Or is it a female targeted epidemic to feel and share a certain body image as “ideal”?
SORCHA: I think it’s clear the negative impact social media can have. I try to be as honest with my accounts as possible, to be a positive force online since young people are so vulnerable. Power like that can have a detrimental impact when it’s abused. Although, I do also believe that social media is important and can give a sense of belonging to young people – especially when you feel different and misunderstood. It can be used for good and I do think that social media is changing for the better. We just need to be more mindful, and more mature with what we post – especially celebrities, because they can influence young people so much. I am definitely on board for banning weight loss advertisements and endorsements on Instagram, such as Flat Tummy Tea, the skinny lollipops, it’s all fucking deplorable – especially when they don’t work. I say this as someone who has tried all of them and let me tell you – it doesn’t work! People who have created these products should go to prison, because it’s preying on the most innocent and vulnerable of our society. Influencers, like the Kardashians, whose bodies are perfect – it’s awful, because as a young person you don’t know that their bodies aren’t like that because of a lollipop. You believe what they say! As for the male experience, I can’t speak for a man and his experience, but I do think it affects them fairly equally. From my experience at UniSlim and even from my dad, I can tell you that the isolation of being overweight is not an exclusive feeling to women. It’s no easier for a man to be the butt of a joke than it is for a woman.
MERIEM: Can I ask you about your post on your Unislim account on November 1, 2018? What did it personally mean to you to address putting weight back on and how did you feel sharing that post? How were you able to push your mental health and attitude in a positive direction to become excited and motivated to start a-new and to lose the weight again?
SORCHA: I refer to it as my “comeback” post. I was away from UniSlim for so long. I also went to New York. Coming back to my UniSlim account in November was a turning point for me. I was in a completely different headspace. The anger I felt about things that had happened with UniSlim and the disappointments – it was all old news. I had gained about 2 and a half stone from the 5 I had lost, which is a lot to gain in a little over a year. However, the things I had achieved in that year, such as graduating UCD, having a year of my masters under my belt, travelling and doing so many things for me, doing things that didn’t involve how I looked – it made me want to hold myself accountable and the post was a good way of doing that. I’ve always been the type of person that, if I don’t set a goal or challenge for myself, I won’t do it. So, posting that post, was a way of doing just that. It felt good for people to support me, to be honest. I felt ashamed to have gained weight, but I didn’t need to. I know a lot of people won’t understand why posting my weight loss and experience online means so much to me, but it truly does. It makes me feel like I have structure, which is definitely something I lack. That post in particular, being responsible for my actions was also so different to my constant habit of repressing things. Even in New York, I was getting noticeably bigger, my clothes weren’t fitting me anymore, but I was just in denial. I think by standing on a scale, going back to UniSlim, I was starting a new leaf. Like I said in the post, I am so much older and somewhat wiser now since I first joined at 19. I decided there’s no point saying “I gained this much back”, but to start saying “okay, this is what I weigh now, today and that is what I want to weigh or the goal I want to reach.” I try to motivate myself everyday by motivating others. Self-care is paramount now. I express love and gratitude to my body as much as I can. I do small, seemingly insignificant things everyday to show myself love, like going to my UniSlim classes, taking my medication, skin care, making sure I set aside time to pamper myself, getting my love of cooking back and being mindful – these small things help me so much, especially when I tend to fall back into my bad habit of stretching myself thin.
MERIEM: You once said that you are your “biggest critic.” Where do you draw the line between constructively criticizing yourself and beating yourself down?
SORCHA: I am and will always be my biggest critic. You asked me where I draw the line, and I think, a lot of the time, I don’t. I push myself way too far and if I have one slip up, I completely berate myself. I can’t even begin to tell you why I am like this, because I honestly don’t know. Especially because I’m not at all critical of other people. I practice love everyday. I’m a compassionate person, but for such a long time I couldn’t extend myself that basic courtesy of respect. I ignore and ignore and ignore my issues and problems until I can’t anymore – until I’m hysterically crying in a shop and everyone’s looking at me. I won’t ask for help, because that would be failing, or so I thought. The only time I get a slap to the face about it, is when I dare air my critic to someone close to me, like a friend or a sister, and they are genuinely offended that I would ever speak about myself that way. Also, my leader Jean, who is perfect for shaking me and telling me to literally look at what I’m saying about myself, and how angry I would be if someone said that about someone I loved. It’s really hard to keep yourself in-check, and to keep your internal voice in-check, but I’ve gotten better at it. I don’t hate myself. Becoming more in-tune with my own spirituality and being mindful and reading and connecting myself with something bigger has been really helpful. Recognizing that I am one blade of grass in this big field and surrendering myself to the universe has eased me. Abolishing negative vocabulary in my life, in every form, and teaching my niece and my friends to do the same too. To know that I am learning and taking something away from what I am teaching my niece for example – it helps me to be more mindful and to understand how my words and actions affect others. It helps me to better manage my inner critic.
MERIEM: Without taking away from those who, like Miss Jamil, suffer from body dysmorphia – I have to ask about if it concerns you that someone like Jameela Jamil (who is considered of the “ideal” body type) is becoming one of the biggest advocates on positive body image, including issues regarding fat-shaming and weight loss and “plus size”?
SORCHA: I don’t claim to be an expert in mental health or eating disorders. The only thing I’m an expert in is my own experience. I personally think, that Jameela Jamil, is a phenomenal person. I think anybody who uses their platform to send out a message that’s bigger than themselves is so amazing. I think everything she has had to say, for the most part, has been extremely valuable. One thing she posted recently, is that she’s a “feminist in progress” and I thought that was fantastic. With internet culture, if someone does something wrong, they’re “cancelled” – I think it’s important for statements like that to be made, especially by people like Jameela, who are so well intentioned. At least, as far as I can see, she is. That her voice and what she has to say is more important than her accidentally posting something from a company who has, at one point, said something negative – it’s almost like a witch hunt at this point. I think she’s a fantastic role model and yes, she might be of the “ideal” body type, but that doesn’t take away from her experience as someone with body dysmorphia or eating disorders and more important her opinion as a woman of colour – she is as valid to represent a community as any. There are so many women who stand for plus size bodies, even in the Irish sphere. We have so many models and influencers advocating for plus size and there really is a change being made. It’s easy for anyone to open up Instagram or social media and see the amazing work and progress being made, not just by Jameela, but also, in online retailers like Boohoo or Pretty Little Thing, who seem to be trying to push out a plus size and curve line which can just change lives. Seeing thick girls rocking clothes online like that would have saved me a hell of a trip as a young teen. Obviously, there is still a lot to be done, but I think we are moving forward. I like to think we are all trying our best.
MERIEM: What advice can you give to someone who is struggling with their body image? What can you say to someone who might be suffering from poor mental health?
SORCHA: Again, I don’t claim to be an expert, but the one thing I would say is – if you feel like you’re suffering with anything, do not suffer in silence. Reach out to somebody. It doesn’t have to be a doctor, but even a friend or a family member, anyone you trust. To make sure that someone knows whats going on within you, and if it is available to you, to seek professional help. It’s really valuable and it can’t really be substituted. One thing you said yourself Meriem, is unfollowing people who make you feel negatively. I couldn’t agree more. One of the best things I ever did for myself was unfollowing people who I harbour negative feelings towards for whatever reason, or who make me feel negative about myself, or to be frank, I don’t like. I unfollowed celebrities who constantly post things about weight loss – I actually don’t follow any of the Kardashians anymore, or any celebrities really. Only ones who post funny things, really. Creating a safe place for yourself online is important. Not to sound overly-sensitive but blocking certain words on my Twitter feed has been super helpful. Honestly, just not over-saturating myself with the internet in general. I think that the internet is a fantastic tool but one of the best things for my mental health, is knowing when to take a step back from it. Knowing when things aren’t worth my energy. My advice to anybody suffering, is to not do it alone. We weren’t meant to walk this world alone. There is someone out there for everyone. There is no way it can’t get better. I’ve seen myself at rock bottom, I’ve seen other people at rock bottom – the only way is up. There is help out there for everybody. The day you stop trying, is the day you fail. So, if you don’t stop trying, then you’re still coming out on top.