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.