As a body image activist, feminist, and recovered anorexic dedicated to the cause of eliminating fat phobia in society, I believed that I was immune to ever falling ill with an eating disorder again. I had been recovered from anorexia for around five years after discovering the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement and learning to eat intuitively when, in January of this year, I found myself in a starvation haze once more. Having come to the realisation that there is nothing wrong with being fat, that bodies are meant to come in all shapes and sizes, and that eating is pleasurable, social, and necessary, I couldn’t see how I could be lured into a disorder characterised by a fear of fat.
In previous episodes of anorexia I was scared of being fat, and would often associate this with being disgusting and greedy, but people were quick to reassure me that I wasn’t any of these things. This happens frequently by well-meaning people, and also by professionals in the eating disorder field who don’t seem to, but should know better. By telling someone that they aren’t fat we are also saying that there is something wrong with being fat, we reaffirm that fat is something to be avoided, and that terms such as ‘greedy’ and ‘disgusting’ have a place in relation to fatness. They don’t. I have heard professionals say ‘don’t worry we won’t make you fat’, which legitimises the narrative people with eating disorders are often trapped within instead of offering a way out of the I-feel-fat loop.
In my encounters with HAES, I had found a space for myself and my body in the world. It was okay that I was not naturally thin, and I had come to a place of trust in my body by getting to know its signals. A couple of years ago I became involved in activism through AnyBody UK, and the days of self-induced hunger and a hankering for a smaller body seemed a lifetime away.
In January I was admitted to a psychiatric ward to treat my depression, and found that I had lost my appetite. I believe that this brought about something of a ‘high’ – an experience I’ve heard many people with eating disorders say they experience as a result of restricting. There’s something addictive about it and it probably initiated the downward spiral that would follow. I was being treated against my will with electro-convulsive therapy, and I felt that I had lost all agency. My voice was not listened to, what I felt was best for me went unheard, and I was powerless. I believe that I unwittingly allowed my body to speak for me.
The experience of being a body image activist and anorexic has primarily been one of shame. The overwhelming feeling has been one of ‘letting the side down’, and feeling like I should know better. In particular, I felt like I was letting down all the people I try to stand with in my activism – those subjected to fat-phobia and body shaming, and those who are struggling to accept their bodies. I have always felt that the way we treat ourselves as activists can have very powerful consequences. I believe that if I am able to live as an example of someone who is willing to take care of herself, and work towards accepting herself, then it will show other people that it is possible to live securely in one’s body in this society.
The cognitive dissonance inherent with being an activist while struggling with anorexia is unsettling. I believed (and still do) that all bodies deserve love and respect, but at the same time I was treating my own body as if it isn’t worthy. I knew that I had lost a lot of weight, but couldn’t see it in any consistent way. My experience of myself and the world became fragmentary – looking at my reflection was like being in a room of funhouse mirrors. I knew I needed to eat more, but also had no desire whatsoever to do so. I could see the anorexia at work, and would listen to myself spouting eating disordered thoughts as if from afar, feeling powerless to change it.
In hindsight, I was also getting some sense of satisfaction from people (mainly nurses) who would say I was strong-willed. This is of course a fallacy – eating disorders are a mental illness, not about strength of will – but it spoke to my need to be seen as fearless, needless, and self-contained. As well as the shame, I also felt tremendous guilt for giving up on life, and the people who cared about me. I could see the distress in people’s faces, but felt once removed from everything. It took many months before I could take myself seriously. I woke up one morning at the lowest weight I’ve been since middle school and suddenly saw just how pointless it was to be looking for some solace or solution to my problems in the numbers on a scale - that it just wasn’t delivering on its promises. It might sound like an elementary realisation, but it was something I finally felt, rather than thought. My friends had been persistent in their attempts to get me to see the reality of the harm I was doing to myself, which I think finally broke through to me. Further, I believe that my body-image activist work had a lot to do with this turnaround. I don’t think it was coincidental that when I began re-engaging with my activist work (online, from my hospital bedroom), something in me clicked and I was able to re-establish a desire for recovery. You could say that this was ground zero for me, that it was just the beginning.
No longer believing that there is anything wrong with being fat, I have been forced to look beneath the surface of the eating disorder and ask myself, what am I really shrinking away from? What is my body saying for me? In starving myself I believe I was trying to starve the feelings away. I felt that if I didn’t come across as emotional then I would be taken seriously, that my wishes would be respected. Women are often accused of being overly emotional, and in turn, less rational. In order to be heard we can feel that we have to be measured and restrictive in our presentation – an anorexic presentation, if you will. Moreover, I wanted to do away with any needs because I didn’t feel they could be met in the situation I was in. Rather than advocate for our needs to be met, many of us seek to change our needs, or to eliminate them altogether. Paradoxical, perhaps, given that a starving body is the epitome of need.
Another aspect to my relapse was a great sense of being overwhelmed. Depression is a leech to the spirit, and it’s hard to feel socially responsible when you’re fighting for basic survival. I think starving myself was also a way of saying, ‘don’t expect anything from me, don’t look to me for change, because I can’t even take care of myself’. Not a particularly attractive revelation, but I think activism and simply caring about social justice can make dealing with mental health issues extra hard.
An anorexic existence is barren, but it is predictable. It means not putting your head above the parapet. It’s about dodging criticism. It’s about avoiding the vulnerability of taking risks, of doing things you care about, of putting yourself out there. It’s about apologising for existing, and about hurting yourself more than anyone can hurt you. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of being a living, breathing apology.
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I’ve been back in recovery for a couple of months now, and feel confident that I can regain the relationship I had with food and my body once more. For those of you who may relate to what I’ve written, here are some things I find helpful:
1) Feed your mind the kind of resources that honour all bodies, for example reading HAES-friendly articles, blogs (check out Dances with Fat), etc.
2) Find professionals who understand that we each have a weight at which our bodies will settle naturally, and that BMI is not a reliable indicator of health. This may mean educating the professionals involved in your care about how you wish to be treated if you don’t have a say in which professionals you work with.
3) Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself, who do not use fat-phobic language, and with whom you can enjoy food without the guilt-police being invited to the table.
4) Set boundaries with people who can’t or won’t, for whatever reason, refrain from body-shaming or food-policing behaviour.
5) Let people love you, and accept their compliments – even if it’s a challenge to believe them.
6) Stand up to size-discrimination when you see it because in doing so you are also standing up for yourself.
7) Ask yourself what you are really feeling if you find yourself being pulled into the “I feel fat” narrative.
8) Treat yourself as you would a dear friend.
9) Accept that recovery is a process, and whilst loving your body is an awesome goal, you might have to work towards feeling neutral about your body first in order to get there.
10) Trust that you have the right to take up space in the world, to have your opinions heard, and that your needs are valid.