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TW: This article contains discussion of disordered eating and internalised fatphobia perpetuated by society.
Type 1 diabetes is a deeply misunderstood disease. It’s discussed purely in medical terms, with perfect formulae given to emulate the results a working pancreas would give, but discussing the impact it has on body image is taboo.
The incorrect stereotypical image of a diabetic is obesity – but when I was diagnosed with type 1, almost six years ago, I was three stone slimmer than my usual weight. I had spent months suffering from extreme thirst, tiredness, and rapid weight loss, and had finally reached a diagnosis after my second trip to the GP.
A few months into my unexplained symptoms, my mum suggested that I could be diabetic. “Don’t be silly, I’m not”, I contested, shrugging off the possibility. I was conditioned by societal interpretations of diabetes as indicative of being overweight: type 2 diabetes can commonly be linked to poor diet and lifestyle choices, but it can also be genetic. Other forms, such as type 1 and gestational diabetes, are not linked to weight or lifestyle choices at all.
I was offended that my mum had even asked the question, wounded that she had suggested I might be suffering from a disease commonly linked to obesity. Now, I recognise that these opinions are starkly fatphobic, but at seventeen, I had no idea of my own intrinsic biases.
All I knew was that I had lost a great deal of weight in the past few months without having to try, and I now associated with being “skinny” for the first time in my life.
After my diagnosis, my relationship with my weight worsened as I accrued the weight that I had lost pre-diabetes. I was met with problematic comments from strangers like “you don’t look diabetic”, and clearly, these seemingly innocent bystanders fell victim to the same misinterpretations.
Often, these people believe that they’re being kind by inferring that you don’t look overweight, as though this is somehow a compliment.
As a result, I quickly internalised perceptions of diabetes and weight gain. To be a “good diabetic” was to appear slim and in control, and to be a “bad diabetic” was the opposite.
I wanted to prove to myself and the outside world that I couldn’t possibly be type one, and the only way I thought I could achieve this was by trying to stay as slim as possible.
I’ve spent a long time battling a complex relationship between my weight and my diabetes. I wanted to live off the high that being slim pre-diagnosis gave me: I knew that a lack of insulin translated into rapid weight loss, and though this is incredibly dangerous, I wanted to be slim, so I would often skip insulin doses.
It’s no surprise: women and girls living with type 1 diabetes suffer disproportionately from poor body image, with a study by Deakin University finding that 88% of Australian girls living with type 1 wished to be slimmer.
I eventually kicked this habit, but first, I had to revolutionise my thought process. I had to undo years of societal stigma that taught me that firstly, being overweight was intrinsically bad and unhealthy, and secondly, that diabetes was always linked to a poor command of diet and lifestyle.
Snacking almost every single night, I started to believe these judgments were true. The reality was that I wasn’t “overweight” (whatever that meant) at this point, but because I had been so slim for so long, I believed that I was heading that way.
I knew that my type 1 was the result of an autoimmune response, but I internalised the belief that it was somehow my fault.
I had to take the time to get to know my body, the way that it stood. For too long, I had compared my curves to my old figure, berating myself for my changing silhouette.
As I reached this point of recovery, I was a few years into my diagnosis. I had settled into my weight, and I was no longer accruing nor losing it.
As body image coach Anupa Roger teaches, all bodies are good bodies, no matter their size. She advises: “Diabetes will often lead to changes, but that’s perfectly normal. Take care of your body by taking part in joyful movement and do things that make you feel good. Accept that sometimes there will be times when your glucose is under control and times when it isn’t. You’re only human.”
In many ways, type 1 has been the best thing that’s ever happened to my confidence. I endured years of diabetes-related suffering as a result, but the journey helped me to learn so much about my body. The ups and downs allowed me to experience the eventual peace that I feel now, and it’s been nothing short of liberating.
Now, I’ve learnt to love my curves. They’ve been with me longer than diabetes has, and it’s only right that I nurture them. If other people believed that my type 1 was caused by me eating too many sweets as a child, then I would let them.
I knew the truth – that it was possible, at once, for my diabetes to be unrelated to my diet and boast a curvy frame. It was okay to be curvy and diabetic.
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