Miss England reveals sick Instagram images drove her to contemplate suicide

By | February 2, 2019

Miss England Alisha Cowie says sick images on Instagram drove her to self-harming and thoughts of suicide.

The beauty queen backs Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s crackdown on graphic social media content as she pours out the story of her hellish childhood today.

Relentlessly bullied at school, Alisha, now 19, became anorexic and weighed just six stone at 13.

But when she desperately looked for help online she was lured towards internet images “glamorising” self-harming that poisoned her mind.

And it was only the shocking death of her best pal that pulled her back from the brink.

Now Alisha is speaking out for the first time about her ordeal to try to help other youngsters from falling victim to the dark side of the internet.

“For young girls like I was, going on social media looking for help for something like anorexia can be so destructive,” she says. “I believe Instagram now has controls so if there is a graphic image a warning sign will pop up. But you can still click on it.

“These images need to be completely blocked. There’s absolutely no reason for them to be there. They don’t help anyone. They just ruin lives.

“Within a week of coming across self-harming images, I started doing it too. It’s crazy what children are being exposed to on Instagram.”

Alisha’s call comes in a week when Mr Hancock warned social media firms could be banned if they fail to remove harmful content.

The beauty queen has opened up on how she fell victim to the dark side of the internet

 

He spoke as it emerged 14-year-old Molly Russell took her own life in 2017 after viewing content about suicide online. Her dad Ian said Instagram had “helped kill my daughter”.

Alisha knows only too well how easy it would have been for a vulnerable girl like Molly with mental health issues to be influenced by what was on the screen in front of her.

“Back then I didn’t know I was ill,” she says. “So when you see these sorts of things on Instagram you don’t realise they are wrong – and it can start you on this downward spiral.”

Alisha’s own torment began at the tender age of five. “My dad told me I came home from nursery and refused to eat because everyone there had been calling me fat,” she says.

“The first memory I have is of being about nine in Year 6 and being called fat all the time. Because of my last name they used to call me “cow”.

“At first I didn’t let it bother me as I knew I wasn’t fat, but as you get older it gets harder to like yourself.”

She started watching her diet at 11, and it soon became an obsession. “I was constantly counting calories and weighing food. By 13, I was restricting myself to 300 calories a day. All I’d eat was toast and an apple.

She was bullied at school and constantly called fat when she was 10 years old

 

“I tried to hide what I was doing from mum. I’d either put my dinner in the bin or tell her I wasn’t hungry as I’d had lots to eat at school. If I craved food like chocolate I’d chew it then spit it out. I’d do at least 100 squats a night and run up the stairs until I was dizzy.” Alisha’s worried mum Amy May, 38, took her to a doctor. She was referred for counselling – but it didn’t help.

Back at school the bullying only got worse. “I’d been bullied because I was fat, then bullied because I was thin. I was made to feel like a freak of nature,” says Alisha. “I’d walk down the street and other kids would throw things at me, stones, anything they could pick up.”

But the physical damage of being hit by a stone was harmless compared to the mental damage social media would cause her.

“I remember I’d been searching for healthy eating posts – nothing sinister. But then Instagram started suggesting posts about anorexia to me,” says Alisha, of Spennymoor, Co Durham.

“I clicked on a before and after picture of someone who had lost a lot of weight. The person had used the hashtag #Ana so I searched for other posts with the same hashtag.

“That’s when I started seeing all these graphic images. People would post pictures of themselves like skin and bones and say what they’d eaten and what exercise they had done.

“It was like a competition. Everyone was trying to lose more weight than everyone else. Then I started to see self-harming images too. People posted pictures after doing it, showing the cuts and all the blood.

By 13, she weighed just six stone after eating just 300 calories a day

“The posts would use really poetic language and it was all made to seem really beautiful. It was like self-harming and anorexia were being glamorised. I was only 13, I didn’t know anything about self-harm or suicide. But then I was bombarded with all this stuff on Instagram and it made me feel like I had to do it too.

“I’d cut myself on my arms and legs, mainly my legs so no one could see it.” Thoughts of taking her own life also flitted dangerously across her mind.

Then just before Alisha turned 14, new girl Sarah Clerkson started at her school – and the pair quickly became inseparable best friends. But only eight months later Sarah – living with foster parents – was found hanged at a house party. An inquest recorded an open verdict as there was no evidence she intended to take her own life.

Alisha says the death of her best friend was a reality check and led to her recovery

 

Alisha says: “I didn’t cope for quite a while. My mum had to sleep in my room for about three months as I was getting nightmares. I’d see Sarah hanging from my ceiling and would wake up screaming. I had to be put on sleeping tablets.

“But something good did come out of her death. It caused something to snap inside me. I became determined to live life for both of us.

“I haven’t self-harmed since. It was a complete reality check for me. I started eating properly. And I felt so much better in such a short time.”

At 15, a much-changed Alisha plucked up the courage to follow the advice of her grandad to join a modelling agency. She was snapped up – and within two years she was crowned Miss Newcastle, and landed the Miss England title last year.

When Alisha competed in the Miss World finals before Christmas, she paid an emotional tribute to Sarah.

She says: “I was asked, ‘If you could eat dinner with anyone dead or alive who would it be?’ I said I’d like one last meal with Sarah as I never got to say goodbye. I want to tell her how thankful I am for our relationship.

At 15, she joined a modelling agency and was crowned Miss England last year

“I feel like she ­sacrificed her life for mine. If she hadn’t died, I think it could have been me instead. It gave me the shock I needed. I had thought about taking my own life. But Sarah’s death made me realise it wasn’t an option. I’d had so much pain losing her and I couldn’t do that to my family. I’ve learned to love myself unconditionally – I’ve never been happier.

“Now I get Instagram messages from some of the girls who used to bully me. They’d call me a bitch – now they want to be my gym buddy. I’m not nasty to them. I don’t want to stoop to their level. But I won’t be their gym buddy.”

Alisha, now dating fellow model Joe West, 23, is taking a year out from a forensic crime scene investigation course at Teesside University to carry out her Miss England duties. She says: “If telling my story helps even one other teenager who is struggling like I was, then it will have been worth it.”

A spokesman for Instagram said: “We do not allow content that promotes or encourages suicide or self-injury, and we will remove it as soon as we are aware.

“Over the past week we have had a team of engineers working round the clock to make changes to make it harder for people to search for and find self-harm content.”

He added that anybody searching for #Ana will be directed to organisations offering support.

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