I can’t remember how much, if anything, I’ve written about this. That is the problem with keeping a blog for 6 years that is primarily focused on your mental state. You think you have a break through and then, disturbingly, you look through your old pages and realise that you had the SAME break through at least 4 years ago and STILL NOTHING HAS CHANGED. It’s like a really long-form version of Groundhog Day.
But, I’ve done a quick scan of the related pages and can’t find anything similar, so I guess I’ll just dive on in.
So, look. I’m going to lay it out straight for you. From the age of 15 until around the age of 27, I had some pretty serious issues with food. I starved, binged, purged and choked down increasingly strange, unhealthy and quite frankly, disgusting, meals (plain carrot and celery sticks with an entire bottle of red wine, what could possibly go wrong?) in various patterns and variations for a good 12 years. My weight fluctuated up and down within a 26kg range. There were periods of stability when I would be able to buy clothes without worrying they wouldn’t fit in two months time and there were times when I was at risk of my arse breaking out of my jeans because I was too ashamed to buy a pair two sizes larger.
I don’t know really know what started it all. My justification has always been that I wanted to be an actress and actresses are skinny (yes, I should be using ‘actor’, but this is, I think, a particularly gendered problem. Not to say that men don’t get eating disorders, but the fact that I wanted to be an ‘actress’ and not an ‘actor’ is significant to me and this particular problem). And, to be honest, the times when I gave up on acting (or, at least, gave up on being a particular type of actor), were the times that I had the healthiest relationship to food over that 12 year period. But, the justification doesn’t quite hold up when I look back over the facts. I was 50kg at the age of 15, which, I knew, was the same weight as Jennifer Aniston (I used to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the weight of actresses. Oh, the wasted brain space). So, I was ostensibly the ‘perfect’ size, because Jennifer Aniston was my ideal. Not because I thought she was a great actress. But definitely because I thought she was successful and popular and we had the same name and that must mean something. In spite of this, my brain went, ‘you want to be an actress? Actresses are skinny. Actresses diet. You need to go on a diet. You should be extra skinny, just to be on the safe side. Be so skinny no one could ever call you fat. Have some skinny in reserve.’ My brain viewed losing weight in the same way that financial planners look at saving for retirement. The more the better.
I didn’t know much about nutrition at that age. And, it’s hard to remember what I did or didn’t know at the time, because my brain has been stuffed to the brim with competing diet information and weight loss plans ever since. But, I think I was fairly ignorant of calories, fat, how your body reacts to hunger, how your body reacts to starvation, how much of anything you should have in one day – aside from some vague awareness of the food pyramid. I felt like it was going to be pretty easy. I would just stop eating. That was what I would do. Just, stop eating.
Of course, things weren’t actually that simple and hunger is awful and I didn’t want to argue with my Dad about not eating dinner and so what ended up happening was a starvation through the day and a binge at night. To my absolute horror, I started to put on weight. 10kgs in a year. Of course, there’s the possibility that I was going through puberty and I would have put on 10kgs even if I hadn’t screwed with my eating. But, to my mind, that year and those 10kgs were my fault. This was my (very public) shame to bear. It was my massive failure. If only I hadn’t been so stupid with my eating. If only I had stayed a size 8. If only I hadn’t done this to myself. My life would be so much better. Everything would have worked out. I’d be a successful actress. That guy I really liked would like me back. I’d be super impressive (not so clear on the details). Everyone would love me. If only, if only, if only. Surely the solution was another huge diet and to finally get back to 50kgs again.
Whenever I started talking about food or diets, one of my therapists would always say, ‘I don’t want to talk about food. I don’t want to talk about diets. What you’re feeling and the problems you’re having is nothing to do with food.’ It used to annoy me. I wanted to talk about food all the time. I wanted to talk about what a terrible person I was for eating two slices of cake instead of one (or none!) the night before. I wanted to talk about how anxious it had made me. I wanted to talk about my desire to throw it all up. I wanted to talk about my misery/triumph/anxiety that I hadn’t gotten it all out of me after I had thrown it all up. This all seemed like excellent fodder for therapy, why wouldn’t she let me talk about it? But, the point she was trying to make was that all the anxiety about being skinny was masking something else, something bigger and that was what she wanted to talk about. She didn’t want me to list calories, she wanted me to list anxieties.
A few years ago, I got pretty exhausted from being on a diet for the majority of my adult life. I happened to consider myself to be obscenely ‘large’ at the time and giving up on the dream of weight loss was less to do with giving myself a break (‘hey, you’re pretty great just the way you are’) and more to do with giving up on myself entirely (‘you’ve completely failed to achieve this one simple goal, why waste any more time on it, you’re clearly a loser’). Luckily, it has had kind of the same outcome. The diet obsession is gone and doesn’t seem to be coming back anytime soon. I see my anxiety and self-hatred for what it is. That doesn’t mean I have much better control over it or am nicer to myself, but at least I don’t believe there’s a magic life reset button if I can just get back down to 50kgs.
But I find that my thinking still, often, goes down paths that I don’t want it to. Even though I haven’t had the desire to diet in a good 5 years, my brain retains some of the habits of the 12 years before it. Here are some of the ways I can’t seem to shake that disordered eating/thinking.
1) I’m still weirdly (and ashamedly) proud that I was anorexic
After the first year or two of disordered eating in my teen years, I went to Norway and developed fairly typical bulimia. Starving, then massive binges and then purges, sometimes two or three times in one day. And, amongst all that hideous turmoil, I was beating myself up because I was bulimic, not anorexic. I had lost the eating disorder lottery! If only I was a better person, then I would have been anorexic. I was such a second-rate human that even my eating disorder was second-rate!
I’ve since found out that is a common feeling amongst bulimics. So, you can imagine my delight when I finally hated myself enough to successfully starve myself for a good 6 – 7 months in a row. Hooray! Now I had the set!
I’m fully aware of how fucked up this thinking is and, I’m not suggesting I *should* be proud that I was anorexic. But there is still a tiny part of me that feels some kind of weird relief over the fact that I wasn’t *just* bulimic. I was anorexic too.
2) Clothes sizes are the worst
Worrying about clothing sizes was always the companion piece to worrying about food. Each size has a huge amount of emotional baggage. Of course, that’s the case for most women. It’s been pretty well established that women’s clothing sizes are fucked. Established in 1959, the Australian standard for clothes sizes was based on data from a 1926 study of women conducted by underwear manufacturer Berlei and some US Department of Commerce Standards. There were all sorts of problems with the way they got these measurements, starting with the fact that it was mainly poor, white women who were measured (potentially undersized because of starvation or poor nutrition) and that the measurements were primarily interested in bust size – they just assumed you had an hourglass shape underneath it. So, we have a warped system to begin with and then clothing stores adjust their sizes according to how they want women to feel and how many of each size they sold in the previous year. So, if they see that more women are buying a size 12, then, hey presto! The year after, what was a size 12 is now a size 10, because women are more likely to buy a piece of clothing if they’re feeling better about themselves and what makes women feel better about themselves? That they’ve unexpectedly lost weight and a dress size. Which is fine, until you go into the next store and they have a different sizing system and suddenly you’re a size 14 and everything is terrible (please note that I’m not suggesting everything is actually terrible if you are a size 14. I’m saying this is how we’re trained to think and how the fashion industry views our bodies and I’m also saying that this lack of consistency amongst sizes is confusing and can be distressing if you’re already anxious about this kind of thing).
My relationship to clothes was almost as screwed up as my relationship to food. I would buy clothing that didn’t fit me so I would have something to aspire to – ‘if you just lose weight, you’ll be able to wear that beautiful dress that you love and have never worn’. I would keep pieces of clothing that I used to fit into (size 8s, small size 10s) and whenever I was feeling skinny (whenever I was feeling good about myself), I would take them out and try to squeeze into them and when it didn’t work I would resolve, again, to eat less and exercise more and be a better person. I would wear clothes that were too small for me for months because I could not deal with the fact that I had put on weight and besides which, I was definitely about to lose weight, as soon as this new diet/starvation routine started to work and I couldn’t bear to go into the store and buy something that actually fit me because it would have the wrong number in the label (size 14, size 12) and, besides, I’d be skinny in just a few weeks, honest, honest, and then I would have wasted all my money. I would buy clothing that was just slightly too small for me and choose to wear it even though it was uncomfortable and tell myself that the waistline already cutting into my stomach fat would remind me not to eat too much when I was out. It was a kind of exquisite torture.
My weight has slowly and naturally fell as my relationship to food has normalised. I’ve come back to a weight that seems natural to me, in that my body keeps returning to it over the years and it luckily corresponds to a clothes size I can bear. But I still have issues in clothing stores. I have to be in a pretty strong state of mind to buy a piece of clothing marked ‘Size 12’ or ‘Medium’. It doesn’t matter how much I like the piece of clothing, how comfortable it is, if I’m already feeling vulnerable that day, I will refuse to buy the clothing. I bought two pairs of jeans recently from Muji (which is what started this whole blog post in the first place). They had a sizing system that I had never seen before – inches, rather than 10, 12, 14 or Small, Medium, Large. It was the first time I was able to buy clothing based entirely on how they felt and how they looked, because I had no emotional connection to what size I wanted to be – it was so relieving. So freeing! Instead of going to the clothing racks with a feeling of rising panic and thinking, ‘Well, I should be a size 10′ and then seeing if I can squeeze into that size or not and then, if I can’t, refusing, point blank, to try the size up because if that fit, what would it possibly mean? Of course, now that I have an idea of what size I *should* be in Muji, if it ever changes… well, let’s just hope it never changes.
3) I’m supremely uninterested in your diet/weight loss/exercise/wellness routine or your anxiety around it
I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t care about you. It’s not that I’m not happy that you’re happy that you’ve found something that works for you. It’s simple self-preservation. I’ve read about, tried, and failed enough diets to fill a hundred lifetimes. If you convince me that you’ve finally found the golden ticket – the diet that works – you’ll just be leading me back down that 12 year old, well-trodden path of thinking that if I can just, somehow, get back to 50kgs, if I can just, somehow, reset my life to 15 years old again, everything would work out differently. I cannot allow myself to be interested in diets. I cannot allow myself to be interested in calorie counting, fat watching, gluten-free, lactose-free, coconut water, high-protein, low-carb, sugar free, 3 meals a day, 6 meals a day, the 5-2 program, only choc-chip muffins on a Sunday and blueberry ones every second Friday, whatever the hell it is that you’ve discovered. It might work for you. That doesn’t mean it works for me. Telling me about the diet and encouraging me to try it is akin to saying to a recovering drug addict that they can try just a taste of their old crutch and nothing bad will happen this time, this time everything will be a-ok.
On a related note, I struggle to react correctly to the fact that you’ve put on weight, or lost weight. I’m too busy telling myself it doesn’t matter and I don’t need to get worried. I don’t like to be told that I’ve lost weight. I know that sounds like a ‘nice’ thing to do, but it will only demonstrate that people judge bodies and, more specifically, that they see my body and they judge it too (even if it doesn’t matter to you, even if you wouldn’t think I was a bad person for putting on weight, you’ve still noticed that it’s gotten bigger or smaller). This will only serve to reawaken the part of my brain that thinks weight and diet are acceptable things to worry about. You might be worried about your weight for health reasons (though there’s plenty of evidence that maybe you shouldn’t be so worried), that’s completely fine and you do you. But I cannot listen to you worry about it.
I try to think in broad generalisations. ‘I’m going to try and eat more vegetables.’ ‘I’m going to try and find better protein sources than just cheese.’ ‘I’m going to try and drink a little less alcohol and a little more water.’ ‘I’m going to make sure I don’t eat the same thing, day in, day out.’ Broad generalisations are good for me, because when I come home exhausted one night and only want to eat cheese pizza with two ciders, I don’t freak the fuck out. Diets and wellness have rules. They have absolutes. Sugar is evil. Gluten is poison. I don’t care how ‘easy’ your particular rules are to follow, I will inevitably fail at some point and then the question becomes, what do I do to make up for this failure? How do I atone? I’m a terrible black and white thinker with tendencies towards catastrophizing, it’s never just, oops, I was so hungry that I ate three slices of bread instead of two, guess I’ll do better tomorrow, no, it’s the END OF THE GODDAMN WORLD AS WE KNOW IT.
4) Hunger is very confusing to me
People with eating disorders are often disconnected from their bodies. You spend most of your life trying to ignore or distort the feelings that you are having, whether or not that’s hunger, anger, sadness, anxiety, love or something else. People recovering from eating disorders tend to have real difficulty knowing what, when and how much to eat. When you take away all the rules of what you should and shouldn’t eat and just say, ‘What would you like to eat?’ a person recovering from an eating disorder may not know. They may not know what a craving for a particular food feels like. They may not remember what hunger feels like, or what being full feels like.
I’m pretty good at figuring out what I like to eat these days. But I still, very often, miss the signs of hunger. Headaches, fatigue, anger, sadness, hyperactivity, being super jittery, all of these things mask my real and actual hunger. Alex will have to point out that he thinks I’m feeling hungry. I have to rely on someone else to point out that I’m hungry! This is ridiculous. Ridiculous! Happily, I do feel that every day I am getting better at noticing. On the flip side, if I work out that I’m hungry, if I get the rumbling in the stomach, there is absolutely nothing that anyone will be able to do to stop me from focusing entirely on the horrible sensation until it has been resolved.
5) I’m super bad at sharing
When I was counting calories obsessively, it was hugely important to me that I knew exactly how much food went into my mouth on a particular day. So, if people offered me a ‘taste’ of their food because I had expressed admiration of what it looked like (‘ooh, that looks yummy’), I would refuse Every. Single. Time. I did not know how many calories were in that taste. I couldn’t calculate the calories in 4 lentils, a cashew and a piece of sweet potato. Who did they think I was?
Conversely, if I was eating something and someone expressed a desire to taste it, panic would immediately grip my stomach. These are my calories! I have carefully counted them and arranged them into my day! I can’t give them my calories! I got very good at surviving on huge quantities of low-calorie food (which is why I once turned yellow from eating too much pumpkin and too many carrots), but if I had decided to indulge in 100 calories of salt and vinegar rice crackers, then I wanted Every. Last. Calorie. There was no guarantee I’d be allowing myself food later in the day or in the days to come. I had relented and given myself food at this point, so it should all be mine, mine, mine!
While I’m way better than I was, I still slip into this mindset when I’m very, very hungry. I essentially go into starvation mode and think that I’ll never be full, ever again, oh god, how will the hunger ever end. Do not ask me for some of my food at the start of a meal when I am in this mode. Wait until I’m halfway through and have realised I’ll never finish three vegetable samosas, two naan breads, a pile of rice and two curries all on my own. Then I’ll be happy to share.
On a related note, do not ask me to order two meals with you and we can share. Do not suggest we split a slice of cake for dessert. Again, while this used to be about making sure I knew exactly how many calories I had consumed, these days it’s about the opposite. I do not want to share your rocket salad. If I want cake, I’m eating the whole thing. I goddamn hate Tapas, everyone uses it as an excuse to under eat. Don’t try and limit me to the number of calories that you want to eat so you feel like you’re not missing out. Even if that’s not what it’s about, that’s how I’ll feel. I’m going to choose exactly what I want to eat and I’m going to eat it all and no-one, least of all me, is going to judge me (unless, of course, it’s a situation like above and you’ll get half my meal halfway through)
6) Large meals are a massive comfort
My stomach still kind of doesn’t trust my brain. It’s not convinced that my brain won’t, some day soon, turn around and announce that it will be starving my stomach once again, in a new and exciting way that will be certain to work this time around.
Additionally, a lot of experts and sufferers of eating disorders equate food with love. A lot of people who don’t even have disordered eating equate food with love. It’s about caring for yourself, it’s also about indulging yourself. So, every time my stomach gets to eat, and gets to eat as much as it likes, that is a happy moment. That is a moment that tells me I am still feeling healthy, that I am still looking after myself. I cannot abide snacking. Forcing yourself to eat when you’re not hungry just so you can eat a smaller meal later on sounds far too much like a controlling diet to me. I like to wait until I’m certain I’m hungry and then just eat until I can’t eat anymore. That is comforting. That makes me feel happy and looked after and loved and not judged.
I was talking things over with a doctor recently and she pointed out that it’s fantastic that despite the stress of the past few years, I haven’t reverted back to old habits in the form of disordered eating. And she’s right. I don’t really know how it’s happened (oddly, it seems to have happened when I wasn’t looking, when I wasn’t focusing on it), but I do seem to have overcome the worst of it.
But, I am still surprised sometimes by the weird leftover thoughts from that period of time. They are quieter. They are less powerful, less sinister. But they are still there. I hope, some day, they might be gone entirely.