“By the time I was 12 years old I had already begun to practice a powerful devotion to the religion of diet culture. I built my altar out of Weight Watchers cookbooks, studied all the ways my rounder thighs made me less worthy than the skinny jean clad pre-teens around me, I marveled at shrines of ‘before and after’ shots and my worship involved hating my body with every fiber of my being, but I felt, as all good clergywomen do, totally secure in the knowledge that one of these days, some higher power (probably Slimming World) would deliver me the perfect diet, paired with the willpower to carry it off. I would drop four dress sizes and all my problems would disappear.
Although you may have heard the term diet culture’ before, you may not be familiar with the extent of its effect on our society. Diet culture attaches moral value to food, to your body and above all, sells you the lie that whoever you are, all you need to fix your life is to lose weight (skinny equals pretty, equals happy). Basically you’re a better person if you eat more salad and less cake or have more abs and less fat than somebody else. Diet culture is reflected through television, advertisements, social media and magazines, as well as being interwoven through wider culture. It can be unexpectedly channelled through your mom, your boyfriend or even Janet next door. Even at such a young age, I (literally) bought into it with everything I had.
The total loathing of my body diet culture had manufactured in me (and just about everyone else I knew) wasn’t actually the roots which ended up growing into the bare and withered tree of my anorexia and bulimia. Diet culture simply acted as the rain, an unrelated yet essential component of development. The roots broke through the ground out of a raw need for control. I had been diagnosed with a muscular degenerative condition and was told sooner or later I would be completely wheelchair bound. It seemed it would be sooner as at 15 years old the pain had become so severe when I wasn’t dependent on crutches I was in a wheelchair. I had loved to play guitar, rock climb, perform musical theatre, ride horses and just a year earlier I had climbed Ben Nevis with my best friend. It was all being taken from me and I didn’t really think about it because I was finally losing weight.
It had begun as a ‘normal’ diet when my symptoms started to get worse. I started focusing on labels like ‘low fat’ and ‘sugar free’ a little more and when I had chosen whichever path I was on I ate a little less. A combination of this distraction technique and the stress of watching my mother mourn the life she had dreamt for me turned out to be that ‘perfect diet’ I was waiting for. By autumn I was counting calories, surprised and proud at how easy I was finding it to cut them. It felt easier than the juicing detox I had spent two weeks on at fourteen, it felt less restrictive than the Mediterranean diet I had lost and then gained back 7lbs on, how could it harm me when it felt more natural than the diets I had been told were ‘healthy’? Why would I even consider 800 calories a day as harmful when I was finally achieving everything I had wanted, everything I had been taught to base my life and my worth around, ever since I could read the covers of magazines on my mother’s kitchen counter.
It turned out to be a mistake. A misdiagnosis. In reality, I was showing the symptoms of Chronic Pain Syndrome. It isn’t curable but it’s manageable and with some work I wouldn’t need to be dependent on any form of walking aid. It was a (slightly traumatic) miracle. It was time to move on with my life, to take back all had been taken from me and to morph into the beautifully average 15 year old I was so desperate to be, but it was too late. I had been swept into an only increasing obsession with the feeling of power I had over my body in depriving it of one of its most basic needs.
I won’t go into huge detail of what my day-to-day life consisted of for the following three years, because writing about eating disorders is always burdened with the risk of being used as a ‘how to’ guide for a world in which fitting an impossible body ideal is chased at all costs by far too many. I may have achieved my dream of the thinness we’re all taught to aspire to (even though I never felt ‘thin enough’), but that was all I had. When you have an eating disorder, you can only be a person with an eating disorder. It is an all-consuming entity it takes over your mind and body until there is nothing but numbers and exhaustion left. My hobbies included panic attacks in friend’s bathrooms and fainting in rehearsals. One of the most terrifying things about beginning recovery is most people have already lost all concept of where the eating disorder ends and they begin; who would I be without this overwhelming and constant occupation with my body and food? Ironically, I feared recovery would bring an emptiness I had been physically inflicting upon myself for so many years.
I never thought I’d be one of those anorexics or bulimics who ‘took it too far’. Who ended up severely underweight or in a hospital or dead. I was right, I never reached that dangerous goal weight and I was never hospitalized from malnutrition but I didn’t realize those weren’t the only ways an eating disorder can take your life. On a daily basis I made decisions which took my life into my own hands and took risks I knew could have killed me. I woke up many mornings with a distinct sense of surprise I was still alive. At Christmas 2017 I woke in hospital after almost drinking myself to death on an empty stomach, after a week of fasting in reaction to a relationship ending. If I had arrived 15 minutes later I would have been dead. The look on my parents’ faces when I asked them what had happened and why I was there, broke my heart.
I wish I could tell you that that was the moment I realized I needed to change, that almost losing my life was the wake up call I needed to stop hurting myself, but that kind of perfectly-timed epiphany is generally reserved for Hollywood movies and musical theatre. In reality, I was spiraling and the momentum behind me was more powerful than I felt. It was a long time before, just for a moment, I noticed a single thought which had slipped through the facade my ED had built in me, ‘maybe I don’t have to live this way’.
That thought had been slowly lodging itself in my obsessed mind for many months until it was too powerful not to notice. It had been prompted by a single Facebook video which I had stumbled upon in mid 2017. It was of a woman who went by the instagram handle @bodyposipanda, being interviewed on a British television show about her viral ‘before and after photo’. In the ‘before’ photo she was skinny, toned and everything I had worshipped for so long. In the second she sat before the camera in her underwear, letting her roles of stomach fat hang free, yet smiling. @bodyposipanda, also known as Megan Jayne Crabbe, explained how miserable and obsessed and trapped she had felt during the numerous years she had spent chasing her image in the first photo but no change she made to her body was ever enough. By chance, she had discovered a community known as ‘Body Positivity’, in which all bodies were respected and celebrated. She had realized if shrinking herself had not brought her happiness by now, it never would and maybe her body, and the bodies of all the other women and men in her position just weren’t designed to fit one manufactured standard of beauty, but deserved to be accepted and cared for in whatever shape they fit. Maybe it was the way this woman described how she had always felt ‘wrong’ and how this resonated with the way I had felt not only about my body, but about my entire self for so long, (or maybe it was the fact I had never considered ‘fat’ and ‘happy’ a possible pair of co-existing characteristics before) but something had shifted.
It was hard, more challenging and laborious than I could have expected. The lack of funding for mental health, particularly eating disorder services, meant I only had the support of my friends and family to help me through recovery. Many aren’t lucky enough to have even that. In testament to how much work there is to be done, even at my worst, the period in which I was unable to get out of bed or attend school consistently, the blurry days spent in hellish cycles of hatred, punishment and obsession, mental health services were still not available to me because I was not thin enough.
In the beginning, I relapsed every 2-3 days and gave up for the next week. I was unprepared for extreme hunger, weight gain, fatigue, bloating and shame; all of which come with the early stages of recovery, no matter how prepared you are.
Figuring out how important it was to connect with people who were going through and had already gone through recovery helped me start making small steps of progress. On a whim, I set up a secret Instagram account (@friendswithmythighs) and began to read and post about recovery and body positivity. It taught me other people were feeling exactly the same way I was and there was a light at the end of the tunnel, even when you had come to know only dark. It taught me this intense fear of becoming ‘fat again’ I had held so tightly for so long was the furthest thing from something worth dying for: there are 1000 worse things to be than fat, dead is one of them. I learned all bodies are worthy of care and that included my own.
It is a cruel irony that recovery feels so much less like you are in control than just letting your eating disorder control you. Recovery won’t give you the same sense of power over your body that starving will but breaking free from a controlling relationship tends to require the power of hindsight to see the damage you were smiling through. Slowly, some of my bad days became okay days, seeing my body change became a little less distressing, listening to hunger signals felt a little less like failure. I started seeing glimpses of what it was like to feel happy without feeling hollow. One day at a time, I blindly felt my way to the other side of the term ‘Recovered’, finding my light at the end of the black I had become a part of for so long.
Now I am consistently surprised by everything my healthy body gives me, how much it is capable of surviving and how little I care about my weight or body fat percentage or whether I ‘should be wearing’ that crop top. I love my body with everything I have because I love the life it gives me: I love spontaneous pizza trips, I love having the energy to dance around for hours, I love knowing I can eat a salad and really enjoy it because it’s not all I’m allowed to eat, I love staying up late because being asleep is no longer the only pain free option and I love choosing food instead of choosing numbers. I’m not saying recovery is easy, I’m saying recovery is damn well worth it. I’m saying recovery is the best decision I had to make a thousand times.
The worst thing my eating disorder did to me was to take away my voice. I spent 3 and a half years in silence; I did not talk back to the demands my ED made, I isolated myself from friends and family who only cared about me, I was desperate to shrink myself until I would no longer need to take up any amount of space. I was too empty to hold a voice for a long time but I have one now. I have a voice to speak for the 1.25 million people in Britain alone who are suffering from these disorders, those who have not yet regained their voices. Through @friendswithmythighs, I have added my whisper to the growing roar against the shockingly numerous elements of society acting as the perfect catalyst for body image issues and eating disorders, just waiting for a trigger to fire them up. The body shaming gym advertisements, the fad diets telling you ‘healthy’ can be achieved on 500 calories, the lack of representation for bodies outside the Victoria’s Secret-dictated beauty standard, the ‘detox teas’ landing people in hospital, the institutionalized fat-phobia happening in places of work, schools and most disturbingly, GP’s offices. The moral value the western world continues to attach to body size and to food needs to stop. Too many voices, too many lives are being taken: mine will not be one of them and as long as we continue to speak out, many more will be saved.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Emma Taylor. You can follow her journey on Instagram here and Facebook here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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