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“It’s so important to remember that you are so capable of achieving whatever you set your mind to. You are worthy, and you are enough,” says Fernwood member and ambassador Alessandra.

Alessandra has learned to accept who she is, love herself and be grateful for the opportunities she has. But it’s been a long journey to reach this point. For years, Alessandra struggled with distorted eating and exercise habits, and battled low self-esteem and self-criticism. She always compared herself to others and never felt confident in her own skin.

“I placed so much of my self-worth on my appearance and was always so caught up in worrying about what everyone thought of me. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my changing body and was so dissatisfied with how I looked.”

“I thought if I could manipulate my body to look the way I wanted – if I was thinner – then I’d be happier and feel better about myself.”

Over time, her low self-esteem started to impact almost every aspect of her life – from relationships and social interests, to work and her university degree. In her second year of university while studying nutrition, the negative thoughts slowly crept in. Alessandra started to question her academic ability and whether she was capable of succeeding.

“I felt like I didn’t belong. Everyone was so much smarter than me and I [felt like I] didn’t even deserve to be accepted into university. During that time was also when I was caught up in the toxic binge/restricted [eating] cycle, so I was extremely demotivated and had practically zero self-confidence; and so, my grades suffered pretty badly.”

She put on a brave face and persevered with university, but on the inside, Alessandra was fighting a losing battle with her own mind. Every day was a struggle, but she clung to hope that one day it would get a bit easier – she wasn’t ready to give up.

Being diagnosed with food allergies from a young age, Alessandra had always been interested in nutrition and wanted to learn more. She was fascinated about the science of food; how it reacts in the body and works to provide energy. She understood the importance of nutrition, but never realised the impact it was going to have on her life.

It was during a lecture at university one day that Alessandra had a revelation. They were learning about starvation mechanisms of metabolism, and all of sudden, a switch flicked in her brain.

“My body was working so hard every day just to keep me alive and functioning. I was so fascinated by all of the processes happening automatically – how hard the body works without our knowledge – that I realised I shouldn’t be mistreating mine. I was fighting a losing battle.

“In learning more about how the body works, I was able to appreciate it for all that it does and I was inspired to nurture it in the best way I could.

“And this applied with exercise too! I started to focus on movements I enjoyed and experimenting with different exercises; I found lifting weights and improving strength to be so empowering, and that really boosted my confidence!”

Admittedly, Alessandra still has her bad days, but on those days, she turns to her family and friends for support, and reminds herself of how far she has come. And as a result, Alessandra has opened up her life to so much more happiness and openness than she ever thought possible.

“I noticed huge changes in my life once I shifted into a more positive mindset and built confidence in myself. My grades improved greatly at uni, so much so that I was accepted into the Master’s course,” she says.

“I started to believe in myself and my abilities. I have had the courage to do so much more than I’d ever imagined. I’ve become more social, reconnected with friends and been able to make new ones, because I wasn’t isolating myself anymore and wouldn’t worry about what they were thinking of me!

“And I’m just happier in general; I’m not weighed down as much mentally and can focus on doing what I enjoy instead of being preoccupied with energy consuming behaviors.

“In saying that, I have come so far, and I am really proud of myself, but I’m also human. I have bad days too! I still get stressed and angry and sad, things go wrong, I make mistakes, but we’re allowed to feel emotions. Your journey will never be linear, there will be set backs, but the main thing is never to give up!”

Alessandra now realises ‘perfection’ doesn’t exist, and that treating herself with love and respect will always be far more important than how she looks.

“I honestly feel like a different person. I don’t recognize the girl that I’ve been talking about anymore, which I think is a pretty amazing thing. I didn’t realise how far I’ve actually come until I’ve looked back,” she says.

To anyone who needs to hear it today, Alessandra says: “It’s so important to remember that you are so capable of achieving whatever you set your mind to. Don’t underestimate the importance of support systems, so confide in your friends and family when you need help or are feeling down. We are women; powerful, strong and beautiful. Keep fighting, and never give up.”

The Butterfly Foundation offers free support for anyone in Australia concerned by an eating disorder or body image issue.