TRIGGER WARNING: Extreme dieting/eating disorders
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week begins on 23rd February. The week long campaign aims to raise awareness of eating disorders and raise funds for the charity B-eat which offers online support and information to adult and teenage sufferers in the UK.
Up until very recently I thought I was in full control of what I ate and drank. I considered myself to be on the path to recovery after using several self-help books and seeing a therapist. But after I demolished a box of 8 French Fancies and a pack of Haribo in one sitting, alone in my room, it suddenly dawned on me. I wasn’t cured like I had previously thought. I was still suffering from an eating disorder. Specifically Binge Eating Disorder.
Binge eating disorder is when an individual consumes large amounts of food in a short period of time but doesn’t purge (get rid of the food) after eating, as is the case with Bulimia. These binges are then followed by feelings of despair for not being able to control the eating which can lead to weight gain.
I was 11 years old when I went on my first diet. My cheeks had increased in size due to medication to treat my asthma but to the outside world, I simply ate too much and loved food. I had become the cute chubby girl and was to remain so for many years to come. My dad had commented on my ‘weight gain’ and told me to diet. So I listened and started the very next day. My diet consisted of small portions of plain rice and meat and I eliminated pretty much everything else. I lasted just over a day after I almost collapsed during a PE lesson. I was sent home and then spent the next few days in bed.
After spending my teens hating my body, I decided in my early twenties to do something about it. I was in control of my body and this was something I could fix. I had been on various diets before but this time I was serious. I went to the doctors and asked them to help me lose weight. I did all the things recommended by them and within a year or so of starting my ‘low-fat’ diet, I had shed almost 4 stone. I was more energetic, had more confidence and finally I could wear jeans!
With my new found confidence, I started working at a book publisher, which at the time was my dream job. Finally things were coming together. My thin body had brought me success and happiness. But underneath all that, I was miserable. Losing 4 stone was not enough. My body didn’t look toned and thin like the ones you see in fitness magazines. In my eyes, I was still the fat chubby girl.
Feeling unsatisfied with my body I continued to diet, eliminating more and more foods. I weighed myself every morning without fail. I monitored everything and anything related to food and my body. At work, I would use my tea and lunch breaks to do squats and lunges in the toilet cubicle. I would buy salads for lunch but only consume a third of it. I joined the gym, bought fitness books and magazines. On one occasion, my size 10 trousers were so loose around my waist I had to use a safety pin to keep them from falling down. But still I wasn’t thin enough. I had become obsessed. Losing weight wasn’t just a fitness goal anymore, it had become an addiction. I counted calories, read ingredients lists and watched those around me who ate ‘bad foods’ with disgust and disappointment. Unable to lose any more weight, I turned to taking laxatives after every meal.
Within a year of losing weight, I had been diagnosed with depression, anaemia, hypoglycaemia, IBS and binge eating disorder. But nothing was going to stop me from losing that last stone. If I could only just get to 9 stone and stay there, then everything would be perfect. I would be happy and fulfilled. I searched the internet for the latest diets, I bought fitness products and lived on protein shakes. I even went as far as buying an Anorexia diet book.
During this time, I used my sick pay and credit cards to purchase size 10 clothes in preparation for my new thin body. I hoped that this would motivate me to lose weight. What I hadn’t planned for was my body rebelling against every desire to eat less and lose weight. I started eating more of the foods I had previously banned. I ate like a thin person around everyone but in my bedroom, in private, I over-indulged in everything from whole pizzas to full size cheesecakes. I would then dispose of the packaging so no one knew what I had just done. In a 10 month period, I gained over 3 stone. Every thought, every worry and every moment of my life revolved around food and what it was doing to my body. Instead of my ideal body, I was left with a larger body than ever before, a credit card debt and in a very poor state of mind and health.
As a teenager I used to wish to be anorexic because that meant I would be thin. But I wouldn’t wish an eating disorder on anyone. The damage dieting does to your mind and body is endless. Everything you do in life is measured against your ability to lose weight and stay thin and every time you ‘fail’, your already low confidence and self-esteem take another hit. You tell yourself you are not enough. That not being thin means you don’t matter to anyone or yourself.
In 2012 I was diagnosed with diabetes, a chronic illness that was so common in my family, I had anticipated it. In fact, I had initially dieted to prevent diabetes after being told I was likely to develop the condition being South Asian and having diabetic parents. Several fad diets later, I realised that I needed to stop relying on others to tell me how to nurture and nourish my body. I had to trust my instincts when it came to caring for my body.
I may have a long way to go before I have fully recovered, but what this recent experience has taught me is that health is far more important than how I look. Yes I want to be thin and wear skinny jeans without worrying about how my legs look but right now, at this point in my life, my health is far more important. When I look back at old photos of my ‘skinny’ self, it’s clear to me now that I don’t look happy. And more importantly I don’t look healthy.
After trialling most of the diets out there, I have decided on a different approach. Instead of eliminating foods and counting calories, I am trying something that we did as babies. I am using my intuition. It may seem novel or even scary to the expert dieter but I am willing to give it a go. I am going to listen to my body and give it what it needs. For years now, I have ignored my body and have neither trusted nor loved it. I didn’t listen when it told me to rest or eat. I starved it and abused it. Intuitive eating teaches you to ignore all the external cues and to listen to your body’s signals and needs. Intuitive eating asks you to feed your body when it is hungry and give it the foods it needs to survive and thrive. Seems so simple but for me it is an uphill battle. A constant battle between wanting to be healthy and wanting to be thin. A battle I hope to conquer one day because I do matter. Fat or thin, I am enough.