Body Image and the Pitfalls of Perfectionism

WRITTEN BY: Emma McGrath

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains sensitive content regarding Eating Disorders.

My diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes in the second month of my freshman year of college turned my world upside down.  I had moved into my university dorm a month and a half before and my new college life had become a blur of tears and vision, exhaustion, excessive thirst and urination. Soon I was making multiple trips to the bathroom during the night and began sleeping on the floor because it was easier than climbing in and out of my lofted dorm-room bed. I had attributed most of my symptoms to the stress of acclimating to college life, but I finally realized that the constant thirst and trips to the bathroom were abnormal.

I was seen by a doctor at the university health services and was hospitalized immediately with the diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. During my first visit with a dietician after diagnosis, I was told about how I could accumulate fat under my skin from the injections (lipohypertrophy) and how insulin can cause gain weight. I left the appointment in tears. All I heard was insulin = fat.

Let me back up: on and off for the previous five years, I had silently struggled with body image and an eating disorder. No matter what the scale said, it was always too much, and I had never felt comfortable in my own skin. I obsessed over my food, and would eat very little, becoming extremely hungry and then overeating to compensate. I felt guilty, ashamed and worthless when I overate, and I reacted by trying to purge the food. The vicious binge-and-purge cycle gripped me off-and-on for five years.Although I was athletic and played multiple sports throughout middle and high school and was always fit, I never felt like I was good enough. While I was doing relatively well when I started college, I had refused to complete outpatient therapy in high school and had not fully dealt with my disorder.

Emma_McGrath_1The diagnosis of Type 1 brought me back to square one. Suddenly I felt as though I was damaged and merely a walking pin cushion. The delusion I carried around in my head, the idea of being perfect and having the perfect body, was shattered. How could I be perfect when I needed insulin everyday just to stay alive and I had bruises and marks from the injections covering my stomach? It wasn’t only the physical markers, but the constant counting of everything I ate, and the need to calculate and dose insulin. Suddenly I had to focus on my food again and analyze everything I ate. In my head, I associated insulin with weight gain.

It did not take long for me to begin skipping injections, and giving only enough insulin to keep me out of the hospital. Although it was difficult to function with high blood sugars, I was too scared of gaining weight from the insulin to stop. I couldn’t function very well in college, and I was constantly grumpy, thirsty and tired.  I knew I was hurting myself, and that I needed stop, but I couldn’t do it alone.

I had spent years hating myself and trying to change, but now I had a dangerous “tool” to lose weight, one that would have devastating effects on my body in the long run. After my A1C increased dramatically and my mother expressed her concerns during an appointment, my endocrinologist sent me to see a mental health professional. That was the tipping point that led me to getting a great diabetes care team that included care for my mental health.

Over the last four years I have worked towards becoming healthy, both physically and mentally. I have been able to address my own body image issues, and by slowly shedding my rigid perfectionism, I have been able to embrace my body and also my diabetes.

By working with several dietitians I have learned how to nourish my body through nutrition and enjoy preparing and cooking healthy foods. I enjoy running for exercise and stress relief and have run many races including 5ks and a half marathon.

I eat healthy, exercise and manage my diabetes not because I hate my body, but because I love my body. I am not at a perfect weight, but I am at a healthy weight.

With an incredible support system of family and friends, a diabetes care team that included mental health, and acceptance of my diagnosis and myself, I feel stronger than I ever have.

Read The Truth About Diabulimia.

Emma McGrath

Emma lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She was diagnosed with T1D when she was eighteen years old. She's currently 22 years old and will be graduating from the University of Wisconsin - Madison with her Bachelor's degree in May! She's applying to graduate school for Occupational Therapy in the fall. Shortly after diagnosis, she was offered the opportunity to nanny for a family with a 9-year-old with T1D. She had an amazing time and realized that she loves working with kiddos! She hopes to work in pediatrics, and is very passionate about working with children of all abilities, but especially children with autism, developmental disabilities and Type 1 diabetes.