Warning: This article contains potentially upsetting material.
Over one-and-a-half million people in the UK suffer from eating disorders. According to Anorexia and Bulimia Care (ABC), a national organization for anyone who suffers because of an eating disorder, one in six women and one in 10 men regularly skips meals in order to lose weight. In the past four years, the number of people under the age of 18 who have been admitted to the hospital because of an eating disorder has increased by nearly 10 per cent.
With these statistics in mind, there’s a good chance that at least one person in your next lecture, or even in your own friend group, suffers or has suffered from an eating disorder. As we begin our University’s eating disorder awareness week, it is important to remember that our somewhat sheltered world of academia in the Bubble is by no means free from this issue.
I never used to think that an eating disorder would directly affect me. Attending an all-girls boarding school had exposed me to plenty of them among my peers, but as much body-anxiety as I may have felt, I never felt the temptation to follow suit, and none of my closer friends had ever fallen into such traps either. In fact, it took me the longest time to actually discover that I had a problem because I had only ever been exposed to sufferers who were extremely underweight as a direct result of their illness. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that one could be anorexic, and yet have a normal BMI. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened to me.
It started off innocently enough. I was somewhat overweight toward the end of my senior year of high school and had been bullied extensively as a child for my weight, which had led to many problems with body image and self-confidence over the years. At that point, it wouldn’t have hurt me to lose a few pounds—and I did, with the help of healthy eating and exercise. As soon as I started to see visible evidence of my efforts, I was on a high. If I look this much better after losing five pounds, think of how great I’ll look after losing ten! It was a far slipperier slope than I’d imagined.
Gradually I increased the amount and intensity of my weekly exercise and began cutting out certain foods from my diet, foods that would soon become infamous “fear foods.” Bread, potatoes, sodas, chips, cheeses, desserts? All entirely gone. Almost all caloric beverages soon followed suit, because who wants to waste part of their precious (and ever decreasing) daily caloric intake on empty calories from drinks? Some fruit is very high in sugar, and let’s not even get started on dried fruit! And most dairy and meat products are quite high in fat, so I think we can do without them, too. Let’s see, that leaves us with a diet of… apples and green tea? Excellent.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the eating disorder. It goes by Ana or Mia or a myriad of other names, but its voice is always the same. It’s sharp but soothing, a voice in the back of your head that starts off its friendship with you by chiming in quietly but persistently every time a potential fear food comes into view. Soon, however, it is narrating your life. Every decision you make revolves around food. Not a moment goes by that you aren’t thinking about food: how much you want it, how much you can’t have it, how much you wish other people would shut up about it. Everything you want to do has to be run by the voice first, and it is ruthless.
My daily goal intake was usually 500 calories, no more than 1000 on “bad days.” A typical daily menu (planned out every night before going to sleep so that I wouldn’t deviate from the plan) would consist of cereal in the morning to keep me going for as long as possible until I allowed myself a tiny dinner. I used to drink litres of tea and black coffee and Coke Zero just to stop the hunger pangs, but sometimes I had to succumb to snacking throughout the afternoon to stop from passing out in lectures.
In the first month or so, I allowed myself a piece of fruit and maybe a yogurt as snacks throughout the day whenever I needed them to function. Soon, though, the yogurt was cut out, and by December, a successful day included no snacks at all. Around Christmas time, I was surviving (barely) on no meals, just a few morsels sporadically throughout the day. My motivation was the satisfaction of those constant checks in the mirror, being able to see and feel the ghoulish progress I had made.
People started off by complimenting me on my new and improved appearance. Having never had much self-confidence, this only added to the high. As time went on, reactions became more drastic. When I went back home for the holidays this year, the owner of my local bookstore did not even recognize me when I, a frequent customer and acquaintance, walked in. This should have alarmed me. It didn’t.
Nothing fazed me. I was addicted. I saw my friends and family becoming increasingly concerned, but I couldn’t stop. In pursuit of control over my body, I had completely lost control. Even the increasingly worrying physical symptoms were something I convinced myself I should ignore. I remember being unable to sleep because of the pain of lying on my ribs and watching my once thick and shiny hair get thinner and thinner and begin to fall out in clumps every time I would brush it. I was confronted with the ugly truth underlying the pursuit of beauty.
The little voice kept telling me that it was all part of the process, that all the people complimenting me on my so-called metamorphosis were right, that finally, finally, I had the chance to be beautiful. When you’re destroying yourself inside and out in pursuit of some unattainable abstraction or some warped sense of control, it’s understandably easy to feel like your world is crashing down around you. That’s when your friend the ED steps in. It’s the one constant, a sick comfort.
As anyone with an ED will know, stasis is weakness. This is why “goals” are completely arbitrary. We can fool ourselves into thinking that we will stop once we reach a magic number, but once we reach it, there is always another flaw lurking somewhere in the shadows, a flaw that can only be eliminated by losing yet another five pounds. And another. And another. In the end, only acceptable goal is zero. Nonexistence.
This is what eating disorders do to you. They try and reduce you to nothingness. They tell you it is cowardly to listen to your body’s screams for survival, and that courage is fighting your natural urges. It’s a disappearing act. You watch yourself contort into shapes you didn’t even know you possessed, and yet that voice keeps telling you that it’s normal—even desirable.
As it turns out, eating disorders are deadly liars. Courage is not silencing your urges. Courage is silencing that voice once and for all. Courage is fighting every day to be healthy and free. And it is a constant battle, even for those far into recovery.
As I write this article, I’m far from OK. I’m just starting to pick up the pieces, and I have a long and hard road still ahead of me. However, I try my best to keep a few very important things in mind, things that I wish I’d been able to understand a lot earlier.
Whether or not you have ever suffered from an eating disorder before or even ever felt the temptation to fall into one, we have all certainly experienced the feeling of living in a world of “can’ts.” You can’t have that cinnamon bun, you can’t eat more than the recommended portion of that ice cream, you can’t have that many calories, etc. As we come into eating disorder awareness week, I have a challenge for all of you. Try to change at least one aspect of that world of “can’ts” into a “can.” This can be the hardest thing some of us will ever do, but there is no freedom quite like finally allowing yourself to live after slowly killing yourself for so long.
Human beings are beautiful and complex creatures, and it is absurd to even attempt to define them by numbers. And yet, that is exactly what our society does. Whether it is a number on a scale or on a clothes tag, your value is entirely numerical—the smaller, the better.
We don’t need to go along with this. We don’t need to live in a world of numbers and “can’ts.” We can choose to live in a world of beauty and freedom, a world where you are of an infinite value that is impossible to reduce.
I think I’m finally beginning to understand this.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the goal of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is to put the spotlight on the seriousness of eating disorders and to improve public understanding of their causes, triggers and treatments. This year’s theme is ‘I Had No Idea,’ and the focus is on the importance of early intervention and recognition of diverse symptoms.
For more information, please go to: www.nedawareness.org.
NB: The person in the photograph is a model and has no connection to the topic of this story.