Moving to university can be a tough time for anyone; you’re away from home for the first time, managing and navigating life nuances that you never knew existed, council tax, bills and containing the mouse infestation in your squalid student accommodation. All whilst studying and expecting the best of yourself 24/7, putting yourself, in addition to your tutors, under immense pressure to perform for yourself, and the institution. Throw in some financial hardship for good measure.
It is no wonder, if not adequately managed, that anyone having suffered from a mental health difficulty and anyone who hasn’t, prior to going to university may face the chance of relapse. This rings true for eating disorders. Having never fully recovered from my bulimia: I would still slip up had I the chance and remained submersed deep beyond the surface in the eating disordered mentality of feeling fat, ugly, disgusting, wrong, bad, ugly, fat. Fat. FAT! Recovery for that time had been developing some self management techniques to avoid a binge, and in turn curbed the purging. My motivational force behind the success of these changes was that ultimately, if I didn’t binge and purge, but instead ate properly, I ate less: thus halting my weight gain and aiding my first chunk of weight loss.
I relapsed. During my second summer I was dismissed from my job at a children’s camp because I couldn’t be attentive to the children, and I kept almost collapsing due to subsisting on a liquid diet of very minute calorific quantities for someone chasing 6 year olds all day long. I had been referred to The Maudsley and was awaiting an assessment at the time. I was forwarded as a n emergency case. What was initially ‘relapse prevention’ became a phase of 2-3 appointments assessing the best treatment option before morphing to 2-3 appointments per week for 2-3 months. I had dropped a lot of weight, and even though the weight wasn’t the most concerning difficulty for me at the time, it was the lowest I had been in my life. I was torn between fear and the excitement of achieving weight loss goal after weight loss goal: this was a convenient distraction might I add, from the real difficulties taking place in my life at the time.
I looked unwell. My face was drawn, and my clothes draped from my shoulders and hip bones, clinging onto what they could. Pale, and with a suffering immune system I became unwell with stomach flu again and again, also thanks to germy children and their sporadic hand washing habits I suspect. Weak and exhausted, just staying awake throughout the day became impossible. Functioning became impossible, and I started to require a lot of care in order to make sure I ate, digested what I ate, and stayed safe.
Looking back at pictures is alarming for myself, although I was not the stereotypical media image of emaciation, my body was just so. I had bones, and angles where I had not known the skeleton jutted previously. I was at a weight I had not imagined possible for my height, and during a check-up weigh-in with my GP I remember being shocked at the number the dial hovered on. “Surely they must be broken?”, “No. Have you scared yourself? You seem shocked.”
The answer? Yes. I was scared. I knew that number wasn’t right for my height. I knew it was far too low yet I still felt fat. I knew I didn’t look well, but because I was too much, right? I could only see reality in pictures, but reflections and dropping clothes sizes spoke nothing to me.
“It’s just vanity sizing” I would say. “You just want me to be fat so you can be the thin one” I would retaliate to my partner. “I will stop at X lb.” This scared me the most; I had said that 10lb ago and it hadn’t been enough. It still wasn’t. I began to realise that staring at me in the face was the horror of anorexia: would it ever be enough?
Some old friends came over for a girly meet up. We hadn’t seen each other for 2 years. We went out, and pictures were posted on Facebook in a speed that only Generation Y know how. “You’ve lost weight!!! Oh my god, you look amazing! You look so much better than before!!”
“Oh wow. You look gorgeous! You look so beautiful. How do you do it?”
“Look at your legs! They’re so small and toned, and that stomach! Look how flat and toned your stomach is. Wow, you look amazing!”
The truth is, I wasn’t toned. I had lost a lot of muscle. My stomach was technically flat but it wasn’t muscle. and I looked so much better than before? Before when I was in the range of a healthy weight for my height?
I thought that initially these comments were happening because I had been attending fashion school for 2 years, and that maybe it was just the fashion mentality of people in that area of my life, because even though I felt better within my body visually speaking, every time I lost weight I lost strength too and my partner kept me in check with reality to that. Refusing to glamourise my weight loss she fought very hard to bite her tongue when I was complimented on my xylophone ribs and flint sharp hips.
I was wrong. My other friends who weren’t anything related to fashion cooed the same remarks and compliments. My Dad even, who didn’t recognise me at a family funeral complimented me on looking “well and good”, once he recognised me that is. My own father didn’t recognise me.
The harm in what seems at face value to be a self-esteem boosting stream of compliments is that I was entrenched in eating disorder pathology. These comments furthered these beliefs: “I”m only beautiful when I’m losing weight”, “I’m only pretty when I’m minuscule skinny.”, “I’m only desirable when I can be something that not everyone can” and that something was emaciated. Every compliment on “how much better I looked than before” confirmed to a deep-rooted degree that I was fat and ugly at a healthy weight, but beautiful when I was thin, skinny, and getting smaller.
a) This made coming to terms with the idea that recovery meant weight gain exceptionally difficult.
b) It furthered my associations with being beautiful and desirable with being ill and this could not possibly be accomplished whilst I was eating, or living on anything much more than safe liquids and cigarette smoke.
c) I really was ugly and fat then?
The truth as I know it now is a very different picture. I am not ugly and fat at a healthy weight; here I am and I’m not the horrifying ogre I once believed myself to be. Now I know that was psychological because now I can eat, I can be healthy, and I can feel good about myself.
It is my belief that a lot of this is to do with our societal ideals of beauty in both fashion and society. In TopShop and Urban Outfitters on Oxford Street for example, I feel like I am too big, too much, the ugliest woman to ever exist, and that perhaps I ought to lose weight if I want to look good. I know that I can, but I also know that I don’t want to. I would rather just walk out of the shop and go to a museum, or for lunch, or to a nearby park. Besides, I have enough clothes anyway.