With fad diets and weight loss resolutions often on people's minds at this time of year, Britain Uncovered is kicking off 2021 with an exclusive interview with Esme Michaela - an actress and New York Film Academy graduate who is spreading awareness about eating disorders and recovery through her own inspiring story.
Britain Uncovered: Hi Esme! You’ve been so refreshingly honest and open in your Instagram posts, and on a number of occasions you’ve made note of the fact that you struggled with an eating disorder when you were younger. Could we start by asking when this disorder first became apparent, and how difficult this has been for you to overcome?
Esme: Once I came to terms with having my eating disorder I did a lot of work with my therapist on trying to work out when my disordered thoughts and behaviours started, and I couldn’t really pinpoint a time in my life. I think this is because disordered thoughts and behaviours around food are so normalised within our society.
When I first started recovery I was aware that this would be something that I had to work on for my whole life, or at least a very long time, which was a scary thing to face. I mean, any mental health condition is hard to overcome and I still haven’t fully overcome it, so I suppose if I had to put the struggle into words it would be very difficult.
Britain Uncovered: It’s not just a physical disorder, of course, and any eating disorder can also wreak havoc on an emotional level too. What kind of toll did this take on your mental health, and what were some of the main problems this caused in your everyday life?
Esme: I would say that the physical aspect of the disorder is a symptom of the mental health disorder. No one with a healthy mind would put their bodies through the trauma that people with eating disorders do. Many eating disorders are born out of poor body image, meaning that people who are disordered already struggle with their self love and body acceptance.
Once my eating disorder had taken control of my life, my mental health was on the floor and I was constantly obsessing over food and body image. This meant that I often found it hard to focus on anything from conversations with my friends to TV shows and movies.
Britain Uncovered: At what point do you feel that you took control of the disorder, and how did you go about overcoming it in the long-term?
Esme: I think that having control over my disorder is very relative and there are different degrees of how much power it has over me or me over it. I first started getting control back the day I decided to start recovery and I actively went against my disordered habits in the pursuit of full recovery; however, for me, some of my recovery felt like the disorder having more control over me.
For example, as a way to combat my binging, my therapist advised me to ‘lean into the binge’ – meaning just let the binge happen and give into my urges. People struggling with binging are sometimes advised to do this as it is essentially working on taking away the rules and restrictions that people with eating disorders have around food. So, the advice she gave me was exceptionally daunting, and would be to anyone who is suffering, and it felt as if I was getting sicker, but in reality this was a big push in taking control back.
In regards to overcoming it in the long term, each time I have a relapse I have to find something else inside myself that helps me to feel as if I am progressing in recovery again. I say ‘feel’ because a person’s recovery is not defined by their relapses; once they have started on the road of recovery, they have already progressed.
Britain Uncovered: Having conquered this disorder, it’s fantastic to see that you’re now sharing your experiences via your @esmemichaela channel and helping to guide others in the right direction. As well as making an impact on your followers, do you find posting this type of content helpful and therapeutic for yourself too?
Esme: I’m not sure I could say that I’ve conquered my eating disorder; I definitely still struggle with fighting against my disordered thoughts and behaviours. I definitely still find it hard, every day, but I know that a life in recovery is better than a life being sick, so I just keep reminding myself that.
I definitely find it helpful to post on my Instagram about my experiences. It can be very lethargic writing out the captions and sometimes they serve as a reminder to myself about why diet culture is bad, and why making my body smaller won’t make me happy, more successful, etc. Sometimes I find it taxing, normally if I am very low or I have not felt great for a while, but then I just take a week off.
Britain Uncovered: Recurring advice on your channel wisely states that we should all embrace the parts of ourselves we may not be happy with and love ourselves exactly as we are. Has this mindset made a big difference to you personally, and would you now consider yourself to be a ‘body positive’ person?
Esme: Definitely, if we don’t love ourselves for us and we continue to strive to alter parts of ourselves then we will never be done or satisfied, it’s just human nature. Learning to do this has really changed my life. Don’t get me wrong, I still have days when I wish things about the way I look were different, but then I just think to myself, “All I have to do is make it through the day” and then now, more often or not, it will do sooner or later. I think ‘body acceptance’ fits better the message I want to convey. We just need to try to accept our bodies for how they are, to me that’s the minimum.
Britain Uncovered: We noticed that you studied acting at the New York Film Academy, which must have been a fantastic experience! Naturally, being up on stage in front of audiences can potentially be quite daunting, so do you think actors are more self-conscious of their appearance as a result of this? Or are you less self-conscious because you’re stepping into the shoes of someone else?
Esme: For me, my eating disorder was more tied into the element of success. My disorder voice in my head would tell me that I could only be successful in my career in a smaller body; this message was definitely perpetuated by the fact that all of the films and television programmes I watched growing up were filled with tiny actresses. I see this changing more and I hope it continues to do so.
Britain Uncovered: How important is it for your industry (and society in general) to celebrate and promote all body types, rather than just one ideal; and how did the film/media you consume whilst growing up impact you with regards to this?
Esme: I definitely think it’s important for all industries to celebrate body diversity, as representation is so important right? Just at the start of the year, Cosmopolitan released its covers for February of 11 healthy women, all in different bodies. I hope this is a good start to the year for opening conversations around health not pertaining to a certain body type.
The media I consumed definitely impacted me a lot, even the toys I played with – such as Barbies – and I constantly wondered why I didn’t look like them.
Britain Uncovered: We have been an avid supporter of Rosy & Ruby’s Body Love Sketch Club events for well over a year, and their online sessions throughout the lockdowns have made such a positive impact on so many of our followers. What is it you most enjoy about the events, and how did it feel to pose during their latest session earlier this week?
Esme: I just think that they’re great fun! I am very lucky that lots of my friends practice body acceptance and some will often get naked in my front room, but it’s so nice to be with a group of people, many of whom have similar values and beliefs as I do when it comes to body acceptance. It felt exceptionally liberating to pose and I would recommend it to everyone who gets the chance.
Britain Uncovered: Through our website, we’ve hosted several of our own body positivity events and photoshoots during the year, as we truly believe that these types of experiences can help cement people’s self-acceptance and overall body confidence. How valuable do you consider these types of events to be, and in what ways do you think they can be beneficial?
Esme: For me, one of the things that elevated me learning how to love my body was accepting it naked, not hiding under any clothes, and I honestly think this is really important for everyone. There have literally been studies showing that being naked makes you happier, and increases your body acceptance, so I would say definitely very very valuable.
Britain Uncovered: Finally, what words of wisdom would you offer to those who may be struggling with body confidence issues at present?
Esme: A really good starting point to address body image issues is taking a look at the media and social media you consume. What type of accounts do you follow? Are you following people that you compare yourself to or are you following accounts that help you to feel good about yourself? Just last night I deleted all of my social media apps because I realised I was comparing myself to other people too much and I just needed some time off. It’s ok, you just have to be honest with yourself.
A slightly harder one is the people you surround yourself with. Do they uplift you or do they put you down? Do they perpetuate the idea that you need to live in a body different to the one you have now?
For more on Esme's recovery, along with additional insight and guidance relating to eating disorders, be sure to follow her Instagram page.