Content Note: Discussion of weight and food anxiety, the experience and effects of restricted and disordered eating
I recall a friend saying about their roommate: “He would put cake in the bin then cover it with washing up liquid to ensure he didn’t eat any more.” We both agreed that this was abnormal behaviour but I know I have done something similar myself on several occasions.
I have never been officially diagnosed as having an eating disorder but for at least seven years food was an overwhelming focus in my life, affecting my relationships, social life and mental health. This has left me both without external recognition of the ‘recovery’ I have made from my disordered thoughts around food and the worry of whether my behaviour is more commonplace than I suspect.
Sharing this story is partly motivated by the catharsis of finally acknowledging my own complicated relationship with food in the most ‘out loud’ and open way I feel I can. However, it’s also in the hope that my own experiences may resonate with others so they can see that eating and living like this is something that needs to be recognised, acknowledged and addressed.
The first diet
From what I can remember, I had a healthy relationship with food as a young child. I was encouraged by my family to enjoy three meals a day with lots of fruit and vegetables. As a result, I pretty much ate whatever I wanted throughout my childhood and don’t remember caring about food or my weight on any consuming level.
I was bullied at school between the ages of 14 and 15, but not about my weight. However, I do wonder if it is relevant to the diet I began at 16. I had attempted diets before but often would be bored by lunchtime and not recall why I had decided to go on the diet in the first place. This one though, I stuck with. At the time I assumed that the bullying had no serious psychological impact on me although it was one of the most stressful periods of my childhood when I felt utterly helpless. Despite believing I was not someone who needed control in my life, this diet was the first sign of the huge amount of self-discipline I could exert over my food intake.
The diet was easy and just involved cutting down on calories, not snacking and watching the weight melt away. It wasn’t as if I woke up one day with a sudden obsession with food. What happened was more like a slow, steady process of change where the seeming simplicity of that first diet was lost and I fell into a worsening relationship with food like Alice falling into Wonderland.
In all other areas of my life, I was a relaxed person who had a reputation for being carefree and so I believed I simply didn’t fit the stereotype of someone who might have developed an eating disorder
I didn’t do anything particularly disordered at first. I didn’t exercise to excess, I didn’t punish myself if I ate anything calorific, I didn’t restrict my intake of food if I thought I’d gone over my calorie limit, I didn’t let my hands search out ribs in the shower. As the summer of my final year in high school came, I even loosened my diet to be less restrictive and enjoyed a relaxed summer with friends and food.
At some point during college, my habits became more intense. Whenever I wanted to lose weight faster I would simply skip meals. I began reading message boards for people with eating disorders, partly so I could gain tips for restricting my own calorie intake and partly for a paradoxical reassurance that I didn’t have an eating disorder myself.
There was lots of discussion on these boards about a phenomenon called ‘fake anorexia’ (there was some catchy name for this idea, but I can’t remember it now) and how these ‘fakers’ did not understand the real struggle of ‘true’ anorexics. I felt perhaps they were right in labelling my disordered eating patterns as something ‘fake’: I could switch very quickly from a few days of skipping meals back to eating regularly, in comparison to the life of permanent starvation I imagined for someone with a ‘real’ eating disorder.
In all other areas of my life, I was a relaxed person who had a reputation for being carefree and so I believed I simply didn’t fit the stereotype of someone who might have developed an eating disorder. It’s only now looking back that I recognise the more my life lost stability (from bullying, exams, university, and so on) the more I relied on the feeling of ‘safety’ that I felt control of my weight gave me.
The buzz of controlling my weight was hugely enthralling and filled me with euphoria like nothing else did. In the TV show Skins, the character Cassie, a recovering anorexic, tells her teacher that not eating was the “happiest time of her life” and this line still lights up my brain with utter recognition.
My academic diet
After two years of rigorously controlling my diet, I did not allow myself the possibility that my time at university would be any different. By this point, I was more self-conscious of what I was doing and other people were too, though not in any overt way that I couldn’t redirect. University was a difficult transition for me. I was fraught with homesickness and bouts of depression, and I developed incredibly strict habits in order to achieve academic success.
Pictures of myself from that year fill me with mixed emotions; I’m jealous of the very thin, blonde 20 year old I was but I’m also sad for her
This is not to say it was a very bad time, as it was not. My life was complicated and I too, was complicated with it. Initially my ‘diet’ was more of the same: skipping meals, controlling my food intake and going to the gym. In my second year, I joined a dance squad and became addicted to the adrenal ecstasy that resulted from exercising on far fewer calories than I needed. I don’t remember ever feeling hungry despite the fact I had, on average, only one meal a day.
When I was at university, I enquired about counselling initially to discuss my feelings of loneliness. I was unhappy when the counsellor redirected the focus of our conversation onto my diet and lack of romantic life. It is only now I can understand her concern. I wasn’t remotely interested in anyone sexually but instead was completely obsessed with the feel of my collarbones, my wrists, my hips and my ribs. I didn’t see her often and so we never properly addressed any issues with food; I continued to evade the subject.
In my final year of university I was the thinnest I’ve ever been. Pictures of myself from that year fill me with mixed emotions; I’m jealous of the very thin, blonde 20 year old I was but I’m also sad for her. I perceived it as completely normal to reduce my food intake to that extent (by this point I wasn’t eating unless it was necessary to do so in front of others) but I knew from living with five other women that not everyone felt the need to control food like this.
I had dropped to a very low weight and my periods remained non-existent, as they had from age 16 onwards. I was also working far too hard and sleeping for around four hours a night before returning to the library to continue the cycle of working, going to the gym and not eating. I would look at myself in the mirror with a mixture of glee and horror. I was mesmerised by how much I had managed to distort and adapt my own body.
I didn’t gain weight after university with acceptance or love of my new body but with a complete loss of identity. Being very thin was so tied up with my idea of who I was as a young adult
By the time I returned home after graduation, I felt constantly high. My parents were impressed by my eagerness to get up early and go job-hunting but I only remember that summer as a blur of buzzing about, feeling physically incapable of sitting down and avoiding eating or drinking at all social events. I’d begun to see alcohol as another enemy and took to pouring my drinks down club sinks to avoid the calories.
The adult years
I never made a conscious decision to recover from my disordered eating habits but I can, with honesty, say they are better.
My first year after graduation was spent teacher training, I was back living with my parents and it was more difficult to maintain my restrictive diet. The stresses of classroom teaching caused me to go through a period of uncontrollable binge-eating and, unsurprisingly, I gained back all the weight I had lost and then some. Looking back at pictures of this time are particularly painful and I feel almost no connection with this person who, in my mind, looks like a blown-up version of myself. I didn’t gain weight after university with acceptance or love of my new body but with a complete loss of identity. Being very thin was so tied up with my idea of who I was as a young adult.
It’s now five years since I’ve left university and I’m heavier than my final year but lighter than I was during my binging period. Lots of people have made comments recently that have made me realise they were all too aware of what was going on: “You seem to enjoy food now” a university friend recently said to me, whilst my mum remarked to my dad that I’m “not so picky” anymore. Translation? I eat.
I somehow seem to have reached a strange middle ground that the counsellor at university probably talked to me about. I am a healthy weight for my height. I can look at photos of myself without grimacing at the roundness of my cheeks or feeling secretly smug at how my collar bones pop out of my shirt. I am now, seemingly, incapable of skipping meals like I did and binging has finally lost any appeal (how? I don’t know).
I am not happy with my body but I am not desperately miserable. Do I long for the days I could get a thrill from realising I’d not eaten for nearly 24 hours? Where I could resist chocolate with ease? Where I could reassure myself with a quick assessment of slightly protruding ribs or hipbones? Yes, to a degree.
I do not know how I have reached this stage. As I entered adulthood, it seemed silly to turn down wine because of the calories and it seemed ludicrous to skip eating meals most of the week because I would be eating out at the weekend. I feel that perhaps my body refuses now to join in the games my mind used to play with it; at last, they are working together and are not enemies.
I know I am lucky to some degree. I am lucky that I managed to ‘recover’ without medical help. But I also feel unlucky that thinking about food and my weight took up such a huge part of my life and I often wonder how many other people have had or are having their own secret battles.
[Readers may be interested in Beat, a UK charity which supports anyone affected by eating disorders.]
[Image is an extract from the paintingGirl before a mirror by Pablo Picasso. The abstract painting depicts parts of a pink-skinned woman with blonde hair who sees a distorted, darker image of herself in a mirror. This extract is a photograph belonging to Nathan Laurell, was found on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons License. The painting can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.]