This is a piece of art I did in my final year of school for my A-level. It is a piece of art which has huge significance to me, and I’m no longer too self-conscious to say I’m proud of. Bear with me whilst I put it into some context…
Age 12 I developed severe depression and anxiety, problems which continued throughout almost all of my school career. In addition to this, from age 14 to 17 I suffered from anorexia. My struggle with and recovery from anorexia is predominately what this art is based off. My mental health problems led to a steep decline in my physical health too, and vice versa. As a result of my health, or significant lack thereof, I barely attended school through years 10 to 13, having to repeat my lower sixth year. Undeniably a perfectionist, who believed life would fall apart if I didn’t get an A in everything, my inability to function or manage school was a slow form of torture, not the dream every other teenager thought I was living! Don’t worry though, it’s a happy ending, I did get better, and I did make it to the end of school eventually – a prospect which had looked more than a little bit shaky at times.
The irony of being a perfectionist means neither me, or my work was ever good enough…in my opinion. I loved art, but I couldn’t stand it when it didn’t look absolutely 110% just the way I wanted it to, my art teachers on the other hand probably couldn’t stand the amount of paper I got through (oops.) Regardless of this problem, which according to a number of debatably helpful therapists could be beaten by ‘just letting go,’ I did need to produce a final piece. At this point I was doing well – which is very modest way of saying I’d defeated a lot of odds, and was in fact doing exceptionally. I wanted to create a poignant and meaningful piece of art for myself, before the needs of any exam board…just (recovery is a work in progress), and I finally had the confidence to do so. Helped by my art teachers, who had always provided a quiet stability and safe environment for me to come to throughout everything.
The process of creating the piece was, in my opinion, far more remarkable than the end result! Yes, the images are of me, and did involve me standing barely clothed in front of the camera (any fantasy ideas I had of being a model were at this point hastily discarded!) Only 2 years prior to that moment I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror without wanting to cry or scream, let alone accept any photo being taken of me. It wasn’t an easy task, first of all, it’s pretty damn difficult to point the camera at the exact angle you want and then get in front of the lens and in position before the timer goes off… Secondly, when I’d later accepted help to take the photos and therefore actually had some with me in, the desire to reject every photo taken was huge. Self-deprecating thoughts and body dysmorphia were still issues I struggled with, but I was better at ignoring them than I once was. I found strength in realising that had I deleted the photos to take ones of me where I looked ‘thinner’ or ‘less curvy’ the entire message I wanted to convey would be negated.
It’s a double sided piece of art which hung from the ceiling. On one side it shows me when I was still acutely unwell and disordered, whilst overleaf shows me recovered from my eating disorder. I use the term recovered with caution, by no means am I denying the existence of bad days, but the bad days are so much less (and can now normally be solved by a good hit of chocolate) and the good days are 1000X better (and also involve chocolate.) A difference can be seen between the bodies on each side, indicative of the time. However, I didn’t want this to be the only difference present between the sides.
At every opportunity I get to write, talk…or produce art about eating disorders I’ll re-iterate that they aren’t a disorder of weight. They’re mental health problem which anyone can suffer from, regardless of their size. Being thinner in the images on one side wasn’t necessarily an indication of the worst I’ve ever felt. Hence I chose to use different coloured threads on each side. Darker colours on the unhealthy side and brighter, more saturated colours for the opposite. I also modified the poses I held for the photos I drew from, depending on the feelings I wanted them to portray. (That part was copied from the notes I wrote about the art to impress the A-level examiner really.) The main text/titles on each side are taken from a quote by Simon Schama I heard on TV which resonated with me. He explained that, essentially, all self-portraits are a tension of ‘Check me out! Aren’t I something?’ and ‘Look at me, what a mess…’. To me, this quote perfectly reflected the massive highs and lows recovering from an eating disorder brings. It’s also something I think most people can probably relate to, not every day will be a ‘check me out’ day but hopefully they’re in the majority. If they’re not? Fear not, you too can recover and go on to produce some slightly pretentious art work if you want!
Creating the piece was a challenging but ultimately cathartic experience that gave me a sense of closure I needed to move on. Drawing my own body, as a piece of art, created a perspective which took me one step further in my recovery.
Bethan is studying Mental Health Nursing at King’s College London.
Hey, my name is Bethan and I’m a first year Mental Health Nursing student. Unsurprisingly I’ve suffered from mental health problems too! From age 12 I’ve suffered recurrent bouts of depression and anxiety and struggled with anorexia and physical health problems for most of my mid-teens. I’d be foolish to say these problems are all in the past, but for now – they most certainly are.
The journey wasn’t an all enlightening path which led to me finding myself and skipping off happily into the distance never looking back. It was really (insert expletive of choice) difficult, for my family as well as me. Nevertheless, I’d do it all over again, and again, if it meant being where I am today…shovelling a packet of biscuits into my face at 10am waiting for my work to write itself.