Ordinary Obsessions

When I left eating disorder treatment I wanted to love myself and my body. Love, not just like. Not just tolerate, put up with, make-do. I wanted to look in the mirror and smile at the person standing there, feel that that was someone worth being. Turn around, do a twirl, and love the me-ness reflecting out.

I was 18 and I’d been in out-patient treatment for a year. I’d been to countless assessments and therapy sessions, cried in front of various stern professionals, and grudgingly, bite by painful bite, I’d put the weight back on. I was crawling back to wellness. But it had been worth it. When my body had enough energy to power it, the world didn’t feel like quite such a fearful place. I began to venture out, to open my mouth, smile and rekindle the friendships my illness had tossed aside.  Something warm began to grow in me.

When the clasps of this monster started to loosen, I felt like I could finally see the full extent of the horror I’d led myself into. The scars on my limbs, the downy hair that now grows permanently from my cheeks, my back and chest.  The dull ache in my fragile, calcium-deficient bones. The feeling of grief for the younger-me began to turn into an anger. Why had being thin, being ‘beautiful’ been so important that I had risked my life and hurt so many others for it? I felt desperately sad for everyone else still stuck in the pain I had felt. I wanted to lash out at the world that had planted such ideas in my head. I was a born-again body-confidence evangelist. Working Saturdays in a local book-shop I felt a surge of rage at the shelves in the ‘health’ section.  Filled with tones of empty promises for the perfect figure and the perfect life; through a few simple dietary instructions. Why should we sell so many of these ugly things, when we didn’t have a single copy of ‘Lolita’, or ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’? But there was a demand that kept the books in stock.

At the eating disorder clinic, there were no fashion or gossip magazines in the waiting room. Only rather dull publications on gardening, interior design and current affairs. At the time I found this rather patronising, that they feared that a photo of a supermodel would be so wretchedly triggering that I wouldn’t be able to bare it. But looking back on it, I think about how they’d tried to keep the clinic a safe space, away from the blare of the appearance-obsessed media. A rare haven away from the storm. It was a token-effort, but I can appreciate it.

In treatment you learn that ‘normal’ people do not keep their bodies at an unhealthy weight, or go to such extremes to lose and maintain weight. The dietician gave me a plan of ‘normal’ eating, with three balanced meals a day, plus snacks in between. ‘Normal’ people feel hunger, and then they eat. And they’re able to stop eating when they’re full. And then they carry on with their day. ‘Normal’ people do not wake up in the middle of the night sweating because they dreamt they went downstairs and ate everything in the fridge. ‘Normal’ people do not burst into tears when trying on jeans in Topshop.

Off I went back into the world, left home and went away to University. Grown-up life beckoned. Like a debutante, I was being taken into society for the first time. I’d suffered from depression and problems with my eating for so many of my teenage years; it felt as if I’d missed a crucial chunk of my development and I was ready to catch up. I threw myself into things, joining different organisations and societies, out every night, meeting as many new people as I could. I was busy and buzzing, but I couldn’t help notice that the ‘real’ world didn’t quite tally up with the impressions my therapists had given me.

Eating three meals a day seemed to be some kind of myth that almost no one seemed to keep to. Especially breakfast; which I had been told was the most important meal to make sure I had. Skipping meals and ‘absent-mindedly’ forgetting them seemed to be completely acceptable. I wanted to scream ‘Don’t you know you’re letting your body get hungry! You’re just increasing the chance that you’ll over-eat later’. Fellow students often skipped food before a night out drinking so that they’d get drunk faster, turning to a sneaky early-hours take-away later. In the morning we sighed about what we’d eaten the night before. But far worse than the disorganised eating habits, was the way people spoke. Far from having a healthy and natural relationship with food and their bodies, the kind of things I heard coming out of the mouths of the girls in my dorm sounded down-right pathological. I’d sit at dinner and hear different people defend their choice of desert ‘I’ve been good’ ‘I didn’t have lunch today’ ‘It’s my only one of the week’. Later on I saw women subscribing to a diet where sweet and high-fat foods were referred to as ‘sins’, of which only a certain number could be consumed. And they said I had the eating disorder!

Weight-loss schemes gloss the pages of popular magazines and crowd on television schedules. Walking through town I see large adverts selling me adjustment, improvement, absolution. Cosmetic surgery is hawked at teenage girls. Sometimes I dream of running away to some sun-soaked island culture where they’ve never had a television or the internet, and ideas about beautiful and power are not dictated to the masses in this deafening fanfare.

Since when did this self-loathing, this dissatisfaction and punishment become so normal, so common-place? I just can’t accept that I must spend my life disliking my body, like ‘every’ other girl. Satisfaction, contentment in yourself needn’t be so weird, so unheard-of. For every person with a diagnosed eating disorder, there are hundreds of people living in this miserable relationship with food, the mirror and a distorted ideal of how they should be. I’ve put back on the weight and I no longer engage in ‘eating-disordered’ behaviours such as starving myself and throwing up, but I still have days when I struggle to leave the house because I feel so ugly and can’t look in the mirror because my stomach feels like it’s so bloated and distended. I know these feelings are common, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to just accept that I will always feel this way. I’m sticking a finger up to this culture of everyday misery. And that means taking a step back from the mirror, refusing to take part in conversations about calories, diets and self-deprecation and pushing on to eat my three balanced meals a day (plus snacks), drowning out whatever everyone else is saying. When I’m not stuck thinking about food and my body, there’s just so much space to think about other things. I can dream and think of science and art and politics and oh so many things of the world that are more than an inch on a measuring tape and a number on a scale. There are no shortcuts to health, or happiness. But if practiced everyday, I think we just might get there.

8 thoughts on “Ordinary Obsessions

  1. Reblogged this on blackrocket2000 and commented:
    This is a very brave post from someone who has faced her demons and come through. A good read for anyone going through and/or living with someone who has had similar battles with self worth. But this post says much more. It is also about how little we care about the food we eat and how we abuse our bodies. Before you go binge drinking or pig out in front of the TV, think on. We all need to realise we are what we eat, and we must not let ‘convenience’ food ruin our lives.

  2. I think the diet with ‘wind’s is Slimming World. My fiancée is on it. Actually they’re spelled ‘syns’ and it’s not as bad as it sounds. The diet is the most sensible one I’ve heard of, with quite loose rules, balanced nutrition and realistic aims. The unfortunately named sun’s refer to foods that are restricted – each has a certain number of syns attached to it, and you get a certain number to use each day, which you can save up, if you want. Other foods are ‘free’ and you can eat them as much as you like (like fruit, some grains, rice etc). It seems to be quite effective where someone has an addictive relationship to a particular type of food, such as confectionary, as it rewards restraint but doesn’t encourage complete abstinence.

    I liked this post. Very well written and insightful.

    • I see your point, it does sound better to have such foods in smaller amounts rather than cut them out altogether. I am still a bit uncomfortable with the idea of foods as ‘syns’ or saving up points, however they choose to spell it! I guess if you’re really struggling to eat certain foods in moderation it gives you some guidelines for a healthier way of eating. Is it working for her? I hope she doesn’t feel too much pressure to slim down for the wedding! it always makes me quite sad to hear people talking like that, after all your husband to-be likes you just as you are! Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

  3. I see you in so many of my friends. the cleverist people I know (and really, not even lying, some of the cleverist people who are academics at the best universities in the world) who ate so little their hair fell out, or they can no longer have children or they subscribe to ‘i’d rather be thin than healthy’ mantra. sometimes the smartest people are the ones who have the most difficult problem with food and that is why, normal old me who also went to Oxbridge with them, was the normal, sensible one and has probably ended up overeating and being overweight as a result (but I don’t have osteoprosis). I don’t believe in diets; I will not buy diet products. I will try not to put ‘fabricated’ products in my body. And I wish you continued soulfull peace because food is the one thing we need and which evil corporations who peddle diet prodcuts know they can make money from, but which, as sensible people, we already know the rules of: eat natural, eat less, exercise.

  4. Such a brave post. Thank you. “I’m sticking a finger up to this culture of everyday misery. And that means taking a step back from the mirror, refusing to take part in conversations about calories, diets and self-deprecation and pushing on to eat my three balanced meals a day (plus snacks), drowning out whatever everyone else is saying.”

    You’re brave. Amazingly so.

  5. Pingback: Eating Disorder Awareness Week – Can you spot a sufferer? | Dream Electric

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