Dr. Anorexia: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my body
One of those things is still integral to my life. The other has not been for nearly two years now, which is an extremely positive change.
Writing about my experience is an extremely difficult thing, and reconciling my own beliefs with the way I behaved was even more difficult. How does someone who strongly believes nobody should be defined by others by any metrics, and especially the metrics society chooses to define us by – which are often external – judge themselves by them?
I grew up being called ‘ugly’, ‘hideous’, ‘unattractive’, especially to boys at an age when that was somehow all-important, an essential part of being a true girl, woman, whatever it was. It taught me several things. First, as I was becoming a teenager, and then a young woman, I believed strongly that I was ugly, and at the time, it mattered.
It mattered that nobody looked at me a certain way, or at least I thought it did. At 13, it began to consume my life, and I was told I was also too ‘nerdy’, and with that came the F-word that would go on to haunt me a good decade afterwards.
Looking back, I don’t think I was ever fat, just a regular kid with an inherited chubby face that I hated. It was a face I would grow to hate more and more in coming years, to the point that I would put an extra towel over my bathroom mirror.
Even if I were ‘fat’, according to whatever definition of that word suited people to use, that should not have been reason for me to hate myself. But I did.
Words have a far stronger effect than the people who say them ever seem to realise, and that effect is seriously amplified with time. The nickname my bullies gave me, although neither insulting nor complimentary in and of itself (it was in fact from a chunk of my name), came from them with the connotation of being fat. Unlike its namesake, however, I felt anything but jolly and cheerful.
“Oh, he wouldn’t like you,” said one person. “Oh, that weirdo,” said a boy my 13-year-old self, who had just discovered feelings for the other sex beyond Shah Rukh Khan and Chandler Bing on the TV, had a crush on. It devastated me, and it should not have.
In looking for that body type, I, and several others, begin in search of a quest. A quest for some form of belonging to something we crave. It is the beginning of a search of acceptance, a desire to not be the outcast.
For whatever other combination of metrics, I was always the ‘weird’ one. I was what I believed, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, to be a very round peg in a too-small hole.
The lessons begin quite early, and in this case they did for me. It starts with one person telling you why you’re not ‘good enough’, and another, and another. Even if it has ‘stopped’ by then, you have begun skiing down the slippery slope of self-loathing and are headed dangerously off-piste.
I missed out, as so many others who have grown up this way do, on formative years of discovering myself, which were accelerated later and learned eventually, but missed nevertheless. Instead of being outside playing, I spent my time away from books crying. The time that was not spent drowned in mystery novels and science fiction was spent wondering why I was not ‘like the others’, why ‘he’ thought I was ‘yucky’, and other things teenagers will do.
Food began being watched, and not for anything related to my health. Lunches would be brought back home, given to the poor kid and his mother round the lane, fed to the dog, flushed down the toilet, any way to not have as much food pass my lips.
The behaviour began with not being ‘good enough’; this ‘not good enough’ applied within the home and at school. It reflected in all of those young teens in the throes of puerile adolescent romance that I seemed to want and could never have, that unattainable, unachievable ideal that eluded my grasp because of the way I ‘was’, the way I ‘looked’, who I am.
This entire attitude was then predicated on the ideal that who I was, or how much I was ‘worth’ in the world, was either defined or circumscribed by whether somebody cared for me, and how much. That that meaning, that value, lay in somebody’s desire to hold my hand, to laugh with and kiss me, and as I grew older, to have sex with.
In light of my avowed feminism, which I continue to feel strongly about to this day, how was I allowing myself to define my value, or in this case, the lack thereof, by the men I had loved not feeling anything in return?
And it may not have been all of the answer, but a big part of it lay in the desire to control, a key word for anybody who has struggled with any form of addiction, which eating disorders are. In controlling what went into my mouth, I could control the way I looked, I could control what others thought of me, how they perceived me, and be found ‘attractive’, which I had never been.
Fitness had never been a problem – long walks and jogs with the parents and being a trained swimmer had helped with that, and helped immensely. But it wasn’t enough to be fit, because looking fit mattered far, far more. The thighs and calves I had earned running were too manly, too masculine, the strong arms from benching and lifting too big and broad, the muscled shoulders too thick.
But in the end, it is control that takes over. In this case, it was control over what I looked like. If I could control what went into my mouth, I could control what I looked like. If I could control what I looked like, I would not be thought of as ‘ugly’, and this would somehow enrich my life. Hindsight is always 20/20, but when you’re in the midst of a situation like that, everything seems right.
Far too many hours were spent in front of a mirror, plucking and pinching and slapping things that were ‘too big’. Far too much time was spent hurting myself over something ‘too round’, ‘not flat enough’, ‘too big’. In the quest for an unattainable, unfair, self-imagined ideal of ‘perfection’, you whittle yourself down to something you believe can be ‘loved’, or is in fact worthy of being so. In the end of the entire exercise, this quest of wanting ‘love’, ‘acceptance’, from oneself or outside, ironically makes you realise you hate yourself, and magnifies that hatred a hundredfold.
A teenage brain thought it was a good idea to eat that ‘one less paratha’ and smoke 3 cigarettes instead, because putting a nicotine stick in my mouth to suppress my appetite made more sense than cabbage and flour.
As I’ve grown older, stronger and become a more vocal feminist, I’ve come to realise how flawed it was, the very premise that the attention I may or may not have got from controlling obsessively what I ate, exercising 4 hours a day to the point where I felt lightheaded if I even stood up, was positive, was an indicator I was doing something right somehow.
That the clothes my teenage self wanted to wear but couldn’t because her breasts were ‘too big’ looked great now. That the male attention my younger self thought she wanted came with my younger self looking like she was about to snap in half as she ate two carrots and a cube of cheese for lunch because she was too afraid to eat any more.
I saw my bullies’ faces, heard their voices in the back of my head as I reached for food, laughing at me for even considering to be around them, because how dare my nerdy, lumpen self do that? How dare I think I was worthy of their male friends, or any male, really, giving me the time of day? And it mattered then, when it should not have.
Thankfully, I had a wonderful discussion with a friend last night, where he (correctly) argued that even insinuating male attention should be construed by women as flattering was ridiculous – the woman in question being a professional tennis player who was sledged on court in absentia.
In the years after I had spent most of my days forcefully tickling my throat and tasting bile as I downed Listerine to get rid of the repulsive aftertaste, I had begun to restrict. In the days after that, I saw change, and quickly. Lying down, I could feel my tailbone poking into me. I could feel and see my pelvis in the mirror and terrifyingly, I felt immensely proud. I could run my fingers over my ribs in the mirror, and those awful breasts had finally shrunk.
51kg. 47kg. 42kg. And finally I got down to 37, and then I thought I was happy.
It had felt then like a triumph, a victory over all the ‘ugly’ jibes, a victory over all of the rejection over the years, a victory over my own demons, when in reality it was only the beginning of a long and arduous battle, one helped only by the presence of my closest friends who had nothing but patience for me as I grated on them, breaking myself apart in the process.
Free of eating disorders or disordered behaviour for the most part, I am now nearly two years ‘clean’. Do thoughts still creep into my head, the guilt of that ‘one extra chocolate bar’? Of course they do. There are hours years later where you will look into the mirror and still see a ‘tubby’ stomach, too-big boobs, ‘man-thighs’, stretch marks and scars, and think of being that person again. Let those feelings pass.
They’re all part of your journey, a journey you need to let happen on its own.
Through nearly 5 years of disordered behaviour, the biggest lessons you take away are that the acceptance and love you need to give yourself are the most important things you will ever have in your life. Do not let anyone change who you are, and who you want to be. You don’t need to be ‘beautiful on the outside’, because that is not a way you should define either yourself or anyone else.
The next time that chocolate bar presents itself, it’s okay to eat it and not cry about it the rest of the day, or worry how much you’ve eaten. For those in recovery, your appetite will definitely shrink in the days after your recovery, and I find that a couple of years on I still cannot eat as much as I used to. But you’ll get there.
A human being is not a share on the stock market – you are not suddenly worth more if more people want you, or less if nobody does. What is most important is mattering to yourself. You can make little changes in your life that are good for it, but controlling it is impossible to do because that is just how life is. You are worth far more than the bits of your body you see.
Meanwhile, if loving yourself seems like an impossibility for now, begin with a deep, slow, gradual acceptance. Of how your body looks, how it feels, of the world around you. The most important relationship of any you will ever have in your lifetime is the one with yourself, and in the words of James Hetfield, nothing else matters.
About abohemiansrhapsodyWriter, reader, musician, crossword puzzle addict, social scientist, funnywoman, traveller and Beatlemaniac extraordinaire, I enjoy the first of those things the most. Editor and writer at Sportskeeda.com, loving what I do and doing what I love. Formula One, tennis and running editor, Ayrton Senna fan. I write about society, culture, feminism, politics, economics, film, advertising, of things that affect the world at large. I love to sing, and play the piano and a bit of guitar. I also love taking photos. Of anything and everything. My food, a dog on the street, a panhandler, a piece of trash. If I likes, I strikes. Whenever and wherever the inspiration strikes. When I'm not writing news articles, blogs and essays, I like working on a bit of fiction. You can find my short stories and other general musings at: www.anuthebeatlegirl.blogspot.com or http://anuthebeatlegirl.wordpress.com My photography and poetry at: http://www.schizoiddeviant.deviantart.com And my music at: http://www.youtube.com/anu2601
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