SlimFast. Weight Watchers. Tea-toxes. We are bombarded each day with adverts informing us of the multiple sins our bodies are committing, and what exactly we should be doing to rectify these ‘problem areas.’ I am not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with diets, or with any of the methods I have listed above (the exception to this, in my opinion, is the ‘detox tea’ – as well marketed as these are, they are essentially laxatives in tea form, and are incredibly easy to abuse). If calorie counting, monitoring ‘syns’, or tracking macros enables you to feel happy and healthy, and helps you stay at a body weight right for you, then that is commendable. It just hasn’t worked out for me.
I fell into the trap of obsessively calorie counting. I gained weight at university, as many of us do. I drank far too much and comfort ate out of boredom and loneliness. A very understandable, human thing to do. I was still the same clothing size as when I arrived, but was certainly much fluffier and wider than I had been. There was fat where there had been no fat before. I took to pinching it whenever I showered or looked in the mirror, disgusted, feeling like a stranger in my own body. I was revolted and uncomfortable that there suddenly seemed to be ‘more’ of me. I’d always been insecure, with my body image and how I felt about myself varying from day to day. However,
things were becoming increasingly worse. The more I stared in the mirror, the larger I felt. I analysed my reflection, panicked, my heart thudding. Irrational thoughts would creep insidiously into my brain, spreading and taking root like poison ivy. What if I just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger? I imagined myself blowing up to gargantuan proportions, ballooning in Harry Potter Aunt Marge style. I felt that Something Drastic must be done. And quickly. I would gain back control of my rebelling body.
So I turned to the unfailingly reliable source of information (ha!) Google, and started scrutinising Instagram ‘fitspiration’ accounts for tips. Most advised a strict diet of no more that 1,200 calories (what I now know to be the recommended intake for a six to eight year old child). I gleaned that I must exercise intensely as much as possible in order to achieve maximum fat loss. I must record everything I consumed on a calorie-counting app, so as to keep myself ‘accountable.’
I went about it with a vengeance. I lost my tiny little mind. I had dreams about vanilla cheesecake. The low-calorie aisle in the supermarket was my kingdom. Everything I ate was now low calorie, low fat, low flavour. This new ‘healthy’ lifestyle resulted in making me the most mentally and physically unhealthy I have ever been. I became fearful and stressed around food, and was undoubtedly a nightmare to live with. I can only give a sincere apology to my parents. It must be unnerving to watch your child, once not adverse to following an entire takeaway pizza with generous scoops of Ben & Jerry’s, almost cry when necessity dictated I must eat white bread instead of brown. Today, I still hear the tension in my own voice when I am faced with a food choice I am uncomfortable with. I anger and frustrate myself. I hate that I seem unable to just enjoy delicious food without worrying about the impact it will have upon my body. It’s irritating, and representative of everything I do not want to be as a person. I sincerely hope that the day will come soon when I can truly feel free in my food choices.
So, following this new punitive regime, the weight fell off. Sure, I was miserable, exhausting myself with hours of exercise and for a particularly dark weekend subsisting on unseasoned salad and reduced Sodium Covent Garden soup, but I was getting skinnier! I was also really f**cking miserable. I isolated myself on the off-chance that this sick regime might be noticed and challenged. I had panic attacks alone in my room. Even to the very few friends I eventually confided in, I found it difficult to be honest about how much I was struggling. I continued getting smaller. I was losing the love handles I’d loathed, the ample chest I’d been embarrassed by. I was hooked. My previously large chest was flatter, so looking down at my body, I only saw more fat that I felt needed to be erased. I couldn’t see how thin I was getting. I whittled myself down to a clothing size that wouldn’t have fit me at thirteen years old. I certainly didn’t feel any more attractive than I had previously. On days that I had a clear perception of what I truly looked like, I just got a sick sense of achievement from noting that the fragility I was feeling on the inside was finally being reflected in the mirror. I felt lost, and so my food intake became something I could control at a time I felt increasingly powerless.
Fat is not a four letter word. As much as our culture demonises being overweight under the self-righteous and dubious campaign of concern that ‘it’s just so unhealthy!’, the underweight body is just as unable to function optimally. My current lack of body fat ensures that I am permanently freezing, when others are shrugging off their jackets. I am embarrassed to shake hands with strangers because my hands are always icy. The health risks of being at a weight too low for your body’s comfortable ‘range’ are numerous and vastly frightening. Skinny is not always glamorous.
As a society, we need to work to stop the labelling of food as ‘good,’ or ‘bad’, and to stop proclaiming that we are so ‘naughty’ for eating that biscuit and that we must ‘work off’ that slice of birthday cake. I am trying to re-learn that food is just that – food. Calories are not insidious shadow demons. They are units of energy, designed to keep us alive. I deserve to eat whether I do a ten mile run or sit in bed all day, and you do too.
Lately, I have improved vastly, and am eating so many foods I would have deeemed ‘forbidden’ this time last year. I am attempting to regain to a healthy body weight. I will find it uncomfortable. I have become used to the protruding bones, the angled shoulders, the stick-like thighs, the lack of padding when I sit down. But I must, and I will. I am slowly learning to silence warped thoughts that whisper lies into my ear: that I must be small to be worthy of love, that I must control every aspect of my food and exercise regime or else I am a failure. They are not true. I would not hold anyone else to such an evil, f**cked up standard, so why do I punish myself with such unforgiving thoughts?
I want to be healthy, in its true, balanced sense. I want to get my period back, be more fun, more spontaneous, and live life to its fullest. I want to stop uncomfortable toe cramps from constantly numb feet. I want to stop feeling the chill that comes from the inside. I write this post not out of any desire for pity, but rather as a form of therapy. I must drill it into my psyche that I am more than a number on a scale or clothing tag. I deserve to be defined by more than my gravitational pull towards the Earth. As the end of my university degree will hopefully herald a new era of descreased stress levels, the easier I imagine it will be to gain, and to build a life and mentality that does not revolve around worries about the way I look. My new motto: Healthy = Happy. Happy is the new skinny.
In conclusion: I’d rather have a life over a thigh gap, and happiness over dizziness and fatigue and irritability and heartburn and lack of menstruation and all the other delightful things that come part and parcel of being at an unhealthily low body weight. If you’re reading this and struggling: please know that people don’t love you on the condition that you’re skinny, or that you can do ‘x’ number of minutes on a treadmill. They love you for you. For your laugh, for your kindness, for the light in your eyes that may have been duller, lately. Your life is for living now, not when you’re down a clothing size. Food is not something you earn, it’s a requirement to function. Love yourself now, as you are, and do what makes you happy. You deserve to. For the first time in a long while, I feel that I may be able to start following my own advice and live a life that reflects my beliefs. Life is precious, and we must make the most of it.