Trigger Warning: This article contains references to eating disorder behaviours.
I have always been skinny. For most of my childhood, I didn’t even notice it. I was far more concerned with stuffing party rings into my mouth at birthday parties or pigging out with my family when we ordered takeaway food. ‘Clean eating’, ‘veganism’ and ‘intermittent fasting’ were empty phrases to me. My body seemed to burn calories at five times the rate I was consuming them, so I just never gained weight. It was that simple.
Then, puberty rolled around, and I began to perceive my body’s development as something that threatened to disturb my ignorant bliss of unhealthy eating. I obsessively observed my wobbling thighs when I walked. My delusion coerced me into researching detoxing teas. I stuck posters all over my room of beautiful women, showing off their washboard abs and smiling whilst snacking on a single carrot stick. I would allow myself one ‘cheat meal’ every week, skipping dinner to ensure that I was always in a caloric deficit. By 15 years old, I was neck-deep in an eating disorder.
My eating disorder brought out an ugly side of me. I abandoned health and happiness for a flat stomach and 24-inch waist. I was never diagnosed with the disease and I was never admitted to hospital. But that is not to say that I didn’t suffer. I did suffer, and I still do.
However, I also believe that my eating disorder has changed me for the better and that I have learned so many valuable lessons along the way. I want to share five of these lessons in this article. In a world full of weight loss, diets and social media, body positivity is needed now more than ever.
Progress is not linear
In a utopian world where progress is linear, we would all be able to overcome our eating disorders and never look back. We would emerge from the darkness, knowing and loving ourselves for the rest of eternity. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Even when you do overcome the worst of your eating disorder, this is just the beginning.
Yes, I am now a healthy weight. I do not skip meals and I only exercise when I want to. I enjoy eating out with friends and family, and I do not count calories. But the wounds remain. There is always a voice in the back of my head, trying to reignite my strive towards perfection. This voice emerges when I stare at myself in the mirror and poke around at my belly rolls. This voice emerges when I compare myself to beautiful women on social media, foolishly believing in the internet’s distorted reality.
This voice still exists within me, three years on, and continues to instil me with feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy. The difference, now, is that I know how to deal with these thoughts. There will always be bad days where I can’t even stand the thought of looking in the mirror, but I accept these days as minor setbacks, not spectacular failures. Progress might not always go in the direction you want it to, but the fact that you are making progress in the first place is a huge achievement.
Food is more than just calories
For so long, I only saw food as a number. An apple was not a juicy piece of fruit; it was 52 calories. A glass of milk was not the perfect accompaniment for my chocolate chip cookie; it was 42 calories. A bar of chocolate was not a Friday night treat; it was 500 calories.
My daily routine constantly revolved around calories. I had to ensure that I was burning more calories than I was taking in. In reality, I was starving myself, but I never dared to use the s-word. Instead of bringing sweets to the cinema, I brought raisins. Instead of eating a big lunch at school, I ate a single chicken breast. My body couldn’t cope and I soon gave in to any sugary treats I could find in the kitchen cupboards. Binge eating turned into shame and guilt, so I would starve myself… and the cycle began all over again.
Whilst recovering from my eating disorder, I was introduced to veganism, which completely transformed my perception of food. I left the calories in the past and began to realise that food was nourishing my body, not destroying it. The thought of eating breakfast was no longer something I dreaded, and I now get excited about eating out with friends, regardless of what I order. Veganism may not be the answer for you, but learning to love food is a crucial step on the way to recovery. It has taken several years for me to detach these numbers from the food I eat, but the ability to do so has been liberating.
Health is more important than appearance
In my first few months of losing weight, I was on cloud nine. A strict exercise and eating regime had led to me losing a few pounds, and I could really notice the change. I proudly boasted to a friend about how many pounds I had lost and what my plan was to keep this trend going. However, my sense of confidence and pride was shattered when she admitted that she couldn’t see any change. To her – and to most people – I looked exactly the same.
The squats, crunches and hours spent sprinting up and down my road suddenly seemed wasted. The meal-skipping and starvation were equally futile. This disappointing answer only fuelled my strive towards perfection. “If people can’t see the difference, I’m going to work even harder until they do”, I thought to myself.
This mindset was toxic and only stands to confirm that eating disorders are a spiralling sickness that proposes no end in sight. My energy was so concentrated on losing weight and looking a certain way that I seriously risked my health. I ignored my mum’s concerns that I was beginning to look ‘too skinny’ and that my ribs were starting to show. I tried to convince myself that my mum’s opinions about my body were distorted, failing to realise that it was the other way round.
I have since learned to favour my health over my appearance, because I have accepted that my value is not determined by the way I look. As the anecdote above proves, people think a lot less about our appearance than we think. Although our bodies do not define us, it is still crucial that we look after them. You only get one body and it’s up to you to nourish it with what it truly deserves.
You will never be satisfied with the number on the scale
Eating disorders thrive off dissatisfaction. We set ourselves a goal – a particular body type or a number on a scale – and believe that, once we achieve this goal, we will finally be happy. But eating disorders can very quickly spiral into a never-ending process of goal-setting and disappointment. The eating disorder tries to convince us that we are in control, that our goal towards skinny perfection is possible, whilst it continues to prey on our disillusioned perceptions.
I remember setting myself the goal of reaching 7 stone on the scales. Palms sweating and heart pounding, I would tiptoe onto the scales and anticipate the final number. For weeks, I endured workout after workout, believing that this magic number 7 would solve all my problems. But when I did finally achieve my goal, it only spurred me on more. 7 stone became 6.5 stone, and although I found help before ever reaching this number, I know that it would have continued to decrease, one pound at a time.
This is the psychology of eating disorders. They work against our health and our well-being, trying to convince us that we are not good enough and that the strive towards warped perfection must continue. It took an exceptionally long time for me to realise that a number on a scale simply is a number, nothing more and nothing less. It doesn’t tell us who we are or what we deserve. We can only find this answer once we begin to love ourselves for who we are, not for what we see reflected at us in the mirror.
Your worth is not determined by your weight
Eating disorders are not merely built upon the belief that you’re not skinny enough. There is very often a deeper and more complex layer of emotions, which attempt to convince us that our value lies solely in the way we look. When my eating disorder began, I felt like I had no real friends. I lacked any sense of self-confidence, so I often turned to studying and exercise to convince myself that I was good enough to other people.
I also began to notice the ‘popular girls’ in my year, believing that they held so much more worth than I did because they were beautiful, skinny and flawless. They had friends and social lives. They had boyfriends and parties. Surely, this was down to their skinny perfection.
Perhaps my eating disorder would have never occurred if I had simply learned to love myself in the first place. Perhaps I would have developed a healthy relationship with food if I had accepted that worth lies in how I view and treat myself; not in how I am seen by others. Although it took a nasty eating disorder and three years of recovery to realise this, I am so grateful that I now accept my beauty – not beauty defined as what we look like, but as who we are and how we treat others in the world.
So, whether you have recovered, are still fighting or are yet to fight (because, unfortunately, eating disorders are far from extinct), I hope that you never again look at a scale to determine your worth. All you need to do is look in at yourself.
If you need help with any issues raised in this article please contact NHS or one of these helplines.
Words by Katie McCarthy
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