In the spirit of the “fresh start” I am giving this blog, I feel it is the right time to share a different kind of post with you all today.
National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) week is coming to a close in the USA, and Eating Disorders Awareness Week is ongoing in the UK. In honour of NEDA week, Gena shared her personal experience with an eating disorder over on Choosing Raw, and it resonated so deeply with me that I was inspired to do the same.
Even as I type these words I am questioning whether I will actually publish the final post. Am I qualified to write about this? Isn’t it a bit melodramatic and self-important?
Part of my problem with writing about my relationship with food is that I have never been diagnosed with an eating disorder. I have always been healthy and maintained a relatively constant body weight give or take a few kilos and, as far as I know, have never elicited concern from those around me.
But I see the impact that food and eating has on my mental health, and I see the patterns around the extent to which my eating habits preoccupy me. Moreover, I see how misunderstood eating disorders and disordered eating are, at least in the UK, dominated by the images of emaciated young girls with eyes bulging from darkened sockets and women in high heels kneeling at toilet bowls. In our fascination for the extreme, we have somehow managed to glamourise these tangible manifestations, forcing out the more mundane everyday struggles that many people face with their eating.
I see this most clearly in the fitness industry, and that is the main reason I feel in any way qualified to write this post today. Fitness professionals are all – hopefully – aware of the existence of eating disorders. To my knowledge, most certification courses will offer a paragraph or two to anorexia and bulimia, along with a brief enumeration of some of the more common symptoms such as rapid weight loss, poor complexion, and bad breath. And yet every day fitness professionals and magazines publish blog posts, post Instagram pictures, write articles, and give out advice that, if not directly encouraging and applauding restrictive and obsessive behaviour, I certainly find highly triggering.
But I think I have spent enough time speaking in general and abstract terms about these things, and it is time for me to finally explain why they strike such a raw nerve in me.
Unlike many cases of eating disorders (which, from here onwards I will use as a catch-all term for diagnosed eating disorders, non-diagnosed disordered eating, and all other troubled relationships with food), I had a truly smooth and unproblematic relationship with food throughout my entire childhood. I always had breakfast, I always had a hearty packed lunch and some fruit to snack on at school, and we always sat down to home-cooked, whole food-based dinners as a family. I couldn’t be more grateful for this experience.
My first recollection of using food as an emotional crutch was after the break-up of my first serious relationship when I left home for university. Although I don’t think the odd comfort binge on Ben & Jerry’s as a (non-vegan) first-year uni student is to blame for anything that was to follow, I certainly did at the time. I send an accusing glare at those magazines and online articles I would read that offered weight-loss tips such as “don’t eat for emotional reasons”. I now recognise, of course, that eating food is a highly emotional and social habit, and that that is no bad thing, but at the time these suggestions signalled to me that I could not be trusted around food, and therein lay the crux of my disordered habits.
I don’t have many significant recollections of my first year of university. Those that I do have revolve around trying to focus on studying whilst always having a watchful eye on the clock, waiting for the minute I was “allowed” to eat, and late-night uncontrollable binges that ended only when I was in too much discomfort to eat another bite, at which point I would fall asleep. I never saw this as anything out of the ordinary.
Unfortunately, that was far from the worst of it. After a few months of bingeing and restricting, I had put on a bit of weight but, more importantly, I had become totally obsessed with food. This became painfully apparent on holiday with my friends that summer; I was uninterested in anything that occurred between meals. A few throwaway comments were made here and there about how much I ate (the old “Wow, look at you, I couldn’t finish mine!” that seems to benign to anyone who has never struggled with their relationship with food) and though the change in my weight and shape was also noted, it was the judgement of my eating habits that was the most hurtful and enduring.
I was so ashamed at having so little discipline, and at this having been noticed. If my first year of university was characterised by a sort of work hard/play hard ethic, my second year was all about control. I developed a strict shopping routine; I went grocery shopping on the same day every week, bought the same thing each time, ate the same things on set days of the week. On each shopping trip I spent about half my time perusing every other aisle of the supermarket, fantasising about treats I would never allow myself. I marvelled at how my housemates came home with foods that were on offer and new items they hadn’t seen before and were curious to try, how they cooked and ate together, how they ate whenever they felt like it. It all seemed so alien to me! In my spare time I read popular health and fitness magazines in print and online and I reached a point where I had read every single article by certain publications.
In her post, Gena talks about the everyday mundanity of an eating disorder. That second year was a very lonely year. I remember feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, and I don’t remember having any fun beyond my 19th birthday (which falls in the first couple weeks of the start of the university year).
Luckily, this was also the year that I became closer with a colleague at my part-time job who had experienced an eating disorder. I had become so isolated – which, ironically, is easy to happen in a house shared by nine people – that I just didn’t know what people without eating disorders did. I was bemused at how my colleague would pop out for lunch and snacks and bring back cookies, just because she fancied them. I must have made a comment about how much I admired that, because she ended up telling me about her eating disorder and how she had decided that life was just too short to be counting calories. She shrugged, “I don’t even know what a calorie is or where you get them” and I enviously thought that must be such a wonderful way to live.
Maybe that kick-started a thought process, but for some reason I found myself looking up eating disorder advice online, and was shocked at how many testimonials I identified with. As a side note, one resource I found extremely helpful was the Vegan Fitness forum – perhaps I had been looking up fitness diets, as I had become very passionate about kickboxing by this time, and had stumbled upon it – where one member was very open about battling an eating disorder and was militant about dispelling food myths and orthorexic ideas. I became a member and started posting more and more regularly, having found comfort in this anonymous online community of compassionate and articulate individuals. Eventually, I questioned why I wasn’t vegan, when I agreed with everything they said and stood for, and I made the lasting transition (I had been vegan a few years earlier but social pressures wore 16-year-old me down).
Although I had resolved to stop losing weight, I still didn’t trust myself around food. The possibility of eating whatever I wanted was strange and daunting, but going vegan had helped. I had new, fun foods to discover, and a community to represent by being healthy and happy. My memories of that final year now are in colour and boast a soundtrack, when the previous years are grey and muted. I discovered Oh She Glows, Angela’s story and her beautiful recipes free from notions of restriction or guilt.
I had also discovered Thai boxing, which I became more passionate about that I had ever been about anything in my life (apart from controlling my diet). As well as a new, real-life community, I had a reason to be healthy and well-fuelled for training sessions.
I also met a trainee personal trainer who had suffered from an eating disorder herself; as she asked me to keep a food diary for her to evaluate, she suggested I avoid weighing or measuring my portions. It was another important reminder to me that my obsession with the minutiae of my diet was not a natural part of a healthy, athletic lifestyle.
Although at times working in the fitness industry has been triggering for me, to the point that a couple of times recently I questioned whether I wanted any involvement in it, I am determined to use my experience as motivation to keep trying to change current thinking. Meanwhile, my nutrition studies are proving highly soothing, as I learn more about the intricacies of food and its effect on biochemical processes, and realise that trying to control absolutely everything that goes in is, at best, futile and, at worst, harmful.
Of course, my disordered eating was inextricably linked to a desire for more control in my life. As a perfectionist with an overwhelming drive to achieve, when other areas of life do not offer the possibility for achievement – when work is quiet, when studies are mind-numbing, when relationships break down – choosing to restrict and control food intake creates this possibility to congratulate yourself at the end of the day.
Without having encountered strong and kind women who had struggled with their relationship with food, I am genuinely not sure I would ever have acknowledged that there was anything wrong. There are so many ways to hide and justify behaviours that are characteristic of eating disorders; indeed, these behaviours are often met with more approval than more carefree attitudes. And as I mentioned, even now, right now, I can still find reasons to dismiss my experience as a disordered one. I have to remind myself of the greyness of those tunnel-visioned years that should have been filled with the joy of freedom and coming into myself.
The theme of NEDA this year is “I had no idea” and I think that is a great focus, and one that gave me that extra push to finish this post and hit “publish” when I began to doubt whether my story was good enough. The fact is that many people, like me, might be battling an unknown demon which hasn’t taken on a form that has been identified, and yet it might be at that stage that recovery might have the strongest chances of being full and lasting.
Also feel free to share this post, your own story, or any other resource that might help bust myths and preconceptions. Awareness really does help!
Thank you for reading and for being a part of this!