Hannah, 24, moved to London from Manchester in 2016 to study for a Masters in Cultural and Global Mental Health. Body image and mental health are close to her heart as she has struggled with low body image for as long as she can remember. Starting puberty early and being bullied about her appearance from a young age, she developed Body Dysmorphic Disorder that manifested itself in an eating disorder for the best part of her teenage life. Hannah is now using her “awkward, distressing, and wholly negative experiences” to raise awareness about body image anxiety and mental health, serving as a Be Real Ambassador in her spare time and working full time at a mental health charity.
“I can pinpoint the exact moment when I started to feel bad about my body. I was in Year 6. It was September and our teacher was taking photographs to put on an ‘Achievement Wall’. I remember so clearly the moment that I was confronted with, what I thought, was the reality of my appearance. This was the first time I saw myself no longer as the smooth-skinned, baby faced and blonde-haired child I thought I was. I saw an overweight, greasy haired brunette, with a wide face that was completely oily and covered in teenage spots with disproportionate features.
“Being the tallest in my class and developing early meant that I was always ‘different’ from the other children. From the age of nine, I encountered remarks from the other children about how I already had teenage spots, how I was a ‘freak’ for being so tall and how old I looked for my age. A couple of individuals were relentless in their bullying and name calling. I can recall my peers shouting inventive nicknames such as ‘Lurch’ from the Addams family. One girl even wrote in the geography textbook “Hannah Lewis is a big, fat, lanky slag with greasy hair, a spotty face and a big nose”. Those words haunted me throughout my adolescence, and later manifested to be a contributing factor to my Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
“Whenever I tell people that I was at such a young age when I started to struggle with my body image, they are shocked. It bothers me that body image was not a concept that I was aware of at that age. I hope that the confusion and emotional pain that started for me when I was so young could be prevented for others in the future by starting conversations about how we think about ourselves at an earlier age.
“With my appearance -anxiety focussing mainly on my face, it was hard to identify how I could control this aspect of myself without just using make-up and paying hundreds of pounds for procedures that probably made no difference . So the next thing I focused on was my weight. I was convinced that if I could lose weight, maybe the features of my face would change and I wouldn’t look too terrifying.
“When I would be obsessive about trying to change my appearance, I would spend hours in the gym, only to replenish my body with a liquid diet that was nowhere near sufficient. Then, when I would conclude that it was all useless and I was going to scare the public with my appearance forevermore I would binge on all the foods that I had once prohibited myself from eating.
“I also used to be unable to leave the house without at least three layers of make-up, as this really was a mask that I wore in order to face the world. I remember even applying make-up before I went to bed, and again before I saw anyone in the morning.
“If I could speak to my 10 year old self, I’d probably start with a “Buckle up hun, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride!”
“I would definitely try to instil the message that “difference and diversity should be celebrated”, and then I would encourage her to pursue the things that she stopped due to her body image and mental health issues, such as ballet and taking academic opportunities. I’d remind her that in the future, colleges and universities were going to look at grades, efforts and personal achievements, rather than popularity and appearance.”
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