Trigger warning: eating disorders, weight (numbers and photos), anxiety.
‘Worrying about our bodies is a trap. It’s a great, big, ugly trick that keeps girls quiet and under-confident. It is used to keep them occupied and small and it stops them from being and doing whatever they want to be and do.’
I saw Laura Bates, founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, speak in Oxford earlier this month. The words above, from her new book Girl Up, resonate with me. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t aware of the societal tendency to ascribe worth to thinness. I had a happy, loving childhood but that didn’t exempt me from seeing weight loss praised in magazines and the idea that fat is bad demonstrated by the slender bodies dominantly represented on television and in films. I observed the women in my family expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies, then dieting to try and fix “problem areas” that were never a problem at all.
When I was young, my shape drifted between “healthy” and “chubby”. Like many children, I avoided green vegetables when I could and experienced the sugar rushes of too much chocolate. My weight fluctuated in my teenage years, especially when I went on the pill and developed a baking habit. I did well at school, so my default self-criticisms were always to do with how I looked. Aged 13, a friend had told me that I would never be skinny. In the same year, I overheard boys in a Geography lesson saying that I was fat. What may have been passing thoughts to them turned into a message I carried with me – that smaller is better and that I should shrink to meet other people’s expectations.
Underlying health issues also complicated my relationship with food. As a child and teenager, I visited doctors and specialists who failed to identify coeliac disease as the cause of my symptoms. At university, I became frustrated that feeling unwell was interfering with my life. I tried eliminating different foods (gluten, dairy, meat, refined sugar) to see if I felt better. I gained energy, my brain fog cleared, migraines became less frequent and I no longer had stabbing pains in my stomach on a daily basis. To some extent, this enabled me to be in better health and enjoy learning, making friends, living independently, volunteering and figuring out what I wanted to do after graduation.
However, I gradually ate less and less. I was caught up in perfectionist expectations and, even at a size 8 in my second year, I felt too big. Although there were periods when I made resolutions to stop my rigid behaviours, these efforts fell through when I felt coeliac symptoms flare up, worried that I had put on weight or grew anxious about the future. I took up yoga and running to help my anxiety and, although the endorphins made a difference, I was soon burning off far more energy than I was taking in. During my final year of university, I was intensely focused on doing everything well and not paying enough attention to actually being well. When I returned home in June 2015, I weighed less than 7 stone.
It’s been a year since I began to recover from anorexia and went through the diagnostic process for coeliac disease (you can read more about my experience of this on the Student Minds blog). I’m proud of the progress I’ve made and I’m happy to have had some great personal and professional experiences in this time. Now, I don’t let my body dictate my sense of self-worth and I have other ways to manage uncertainty and stress. I exercise when I feel like it, but I don’t force myself to if I’m tired. I’m still figuring out what foods, and how much of them, make me feel my best – remember, food is energy. Finding balance is a work in progress, but I’m getting there.
I also make a concerted effort to avoid triggering media and conversations (taking what Maddy Moon calls the ‘low information’ approach), because I don’t want to be influenced back into old habits. We shouldn’t feel ashamed of being hungry or proud of resisting food. Nor should we demonise particular foods or people who eat them. As Ruby Tandoh says in this article for Vice: ‘when wellness balloons beyond the individual, swelling from personal lifestyle choice to sweetheart of the diet industry bolstered by supermarkets who see kale, coconut oil and chia seeds as a great profit opportunity, that’s a problem for all of us. When the pursuit of health becomes obsessive and fearful, that’s not health’. Although I cannot eat gluten and avoid other foods to ease my coeliac symptoms, I wholly agree with Ruby’s argument.
Thankfully, the body positivity and Health at Every Size (HAES) movements are gaining momentum. As stated in the All Party Parliamentary Group Report on Body Image (2012), ‘[a]t the heart of HAES’s approach is a drive to foster health and body acceptance for all people regardless of body size and shape, through taking care of one’s body, eating healthily and engaging in appropriate amounts of physical activity’. For Registered Dietitian McKel Hill, a ‘happy weight’ is one that allows a person to feel well and live healthily without having to compensate for, or control, eating. This sounds like an excellent goal to work towards. We need to stop equating health with thinness and accept that our bodies will change throughout our lives.
On this note, it seems fitting to finish with another quote from Girl Up: ‘Pretty much the strongest, most badass and rebellious thing that you can do is to love your body in this world that screams at you that you shouldn’t’.