To the eating disordered at Christmas

10 anti-shame mantras

Up until last week – yes, literally last week – I was one of you. I had been eating disordered for 38 years, which isn’t really a fact to relish, but nonetheless is true. My eating disorder ranged in severity from, say, a 7/10 to a 3/10, with zero being completely fine and 10 being life-threatening.

I would like to expand on this further, for those who think that they might not be unwell enough to call themselves ‘eating disordered’. This thinking brings a lot of shame because others can sometimes insensitively suggest that claims of mental illness are nothing but attention seeking. Really? People who have disordered eating usually hide their behaviour from everybody around them. People who can’t relax without tracking every single calorie are doing it surreptitiously, pretending to look at text messages as they frantically log the crisps that they just ate, or might even still be eating. People who can’t eat breakfast without weighing it by gram are waiting until the kitchen is empty so that nobody realises. So – if you think you are eating disordered then you probably are. Eating disorders exist on a spectrum and if your eating causes you discomfort, anxiety or shame in any way, then this is a disorder.

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Pexels.com

What I want to say in this post is a message of hope. After years of trying everything from therapy, self-help books, talking to friends, more therapy, following recovery Instagrammers (which I will reference at the end), keeping a journal, looking after my needs in other areas of life, more therapy and now training to be a therapist, I am free of it. It shook loose, like a pesky knot that I had been picking at for years, and now it is gone. I know that it will not come back in the same way that I know I will never return to fundamentalism or my ex-husband. So there is hope.

The last and most stubborn piece of my recovery is sudden and dramatic. I can testify to the fact that I have: weighed a carrot, ran a half-marathon when hungover to burn the calories, logged a meal as I ate it, checked my calories to see if I had enough for 3 dried apricots, drank gallons of water to make myself feel full, weighed myself after using the toilet to see if it made a difference, trained for marathons with injuries to burn the calories, limped around with a popped achilles to burn the calories and ranged at least four stones in weight throughout my adult life. This morning, I shook some muesli randomly out into a bowl and didn’t even think about how much it was, what brand it was or how to establish how many calories was in it. If I gain weight over the next few months, I trust myself to decide what to do and to get it right, for me, always.

I haven’t made my own eating choices ever in my adult life as a free person. My decisions were made by my mum and, from thirteen upwards, by my eating disorder. At 51 I am facing a world of decisions and will curiously watch as the world of food choices opens up to me and I learn to navigate that. I trust that I will learn wisely and I am excited about what unfolds. I have learned to make my own choices in every other aspect of life. I have rid myself of people-pleasing, mollifying others and choosing to keep ‘everybody’ happy (as though that’s possible). I think that path towards autonomy is a pre-requisite to recovery. Food was the last bastion and I have now re-claimed that, too.

So, I have so much compassion, empathy and sorrow for those still suffering any level of anxiety as Christmas approaches. It can be a time for significant angst. For those trying to track and keep control of their food intake, it’s nothing short of a nightmare. And for those who ‘take a holiday’ from the normal control, it is full of anxiety and dread of the weight gain. And whatever you decide to do, to mollify your eating disorder, it won’t be right and it won’t feel good. With an eating disorder, there is no winning.

This next section gives you ten eating disorder thoughts. Every single one of them is an eating disorder thought. And below it is a potential response. Say it as though you believe it, even if you don’t. And eat! Eat anyway!

ED 1. I am going to gain so much weight but it’s OK. I will burn it all off in the New Year.

SELF: I have the right to gain weight, keep the weight on and never lose it again. It doesn’t make me less of a person.

ED 2. I don’t know how many calories are in that, therefore I will have the tiniest slice possible.

SELF. Calories are life giving units of energy that fuel my brain and my body and give me a great deal of pleasure. I will eat the amount that feels right to me.

ED 3. I might as well binge everything for the entire week because I have lost all control in any case.

SELF. All food is equally valid and allowable. I am free to eat whatever I choose, whenever I like. I do not need to say ‘fuck it all’ because I am a free agent who can eat it anyway!

ED 4. I have to go to the bathroom to log all of my calories before I forget what I ate.

SELF. Wait for an hour, do some deep breaths and remember that I am a whole person, not a computer or an automation that lives by a formula of calories.

ED 5. I have to go for a massive run tomorrow or purge as soon as I can leave the table. I’ve got to get rid of the calories somehow.

SELF. I need to find a quiet place and meditate. I am a worthy and valuable person whatever my weight and however much I ate.

ED 6. I am disgusting. I ate so much. My stomach as huge and my thighs already look bigger.

SELF. I would not talk to anybody else like this. I love and respect others regardless of their size and I owe that to myself, too.

ED 7. Tomorrow I’m going to drink water and not eat until evening.

SELF. Tomorrow is another day and I deserve to eat, no matter how much I ate the day before. I am deserving of nourishment and pleasure, just as everybody is.

ED 8. I am so full. I always eat until I’m so full at Christmas. I am pathetic and have no self-control.

SELF. Christmas is a time of feasting. It’s understandable to feel uncomfortable because I am usually ruled by shame. But Christmas isn’t a time for shame and, actually, neither is any other time.

ED 9. I can’t go to that Christmas meal/party/event, because of the food. I will be eating enough over the Christmas period and can’t risk any more.

SELF. The only valid reason to isolate myself is Covid, and if I choose to stay in because of that, I can still treat myself with as much food as I like.

ED 10. I can’t stop thinking about what to eat, when to eat and how much I’ve eaten. I can’t even enjoy the company I’m in.

SELF. It’s understandable to feel that way. This thinking has dominated me for so long. I will try to listen and focus on what people are saying, and if I struggle, it’s not my fault. I am a good person just trying my best and I respect myself for always showing up.

I recommend practising this sort of dialogue, even if it feels untrue. I got my recovery by practising and practising until, one day, it became true for me. I took back the territory that was always mine, and I know that recovery is possible.

And to finish, my top ten people to follow are: @jennifer_rollin @chr1styharrison @virgietovar @bodyposipanda @foodisntmedicine @laurathomasphd @glitterandlazers @sofiehagendk @lindobacon @evelyntribole

These people range from nutrition experts and dietitians to weight science researchers and diet historians. They are all brilliant in their own way. Education is almost everything and these people will educate you. The missing piece is self-empowerment. Pushing the shame away. Kicking it into the gutter. It has no place in your food, your body or your exercise choices. Have as happy and peaceful a Christmas as you can carve out for yourself, and never, ever give up.

Why ‘healthy’ is a stupid concept

The truth about what ‘healthy’ means

We are a society that thinks in polar opposites. Man or woman. Black or white. Good or bad. Maybe I am more this way than most. As the product of a fundamentalist upbringing, I was taught about good and evil, us and them, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, and everything seemed so simple. But now I’m officially grown up, at 50, I find it glaringly obvious that the world doesn’t consist of polar opposites. We aren’t either a man or a woman. We might be male or female, although that’s not the case for intersex folks, and many people with bits of chromosomes that muddle the issue, and as for gender – well that’s a whole confuddling mess of cultural norms which many just don’t get. Even happiness isn’t that clear cut. Why do we have to be either happy or unhappy. For me, I can be 80% happy most of the time but there’ll be a small element of irritation or worry about some aspect of my life and that doesn’t make me unhappy – just a bit of a mixture.

So why do people still insist on saying that they are ‘trying to be healthy’ or comment on others being ‘so unhealthy’? People aren’t either healthy or unhealthy. What is meant by the word ‘health’ anyway? It is NOT used by most people to signify an absence of sickness. We all get colds and coughs but can still be considered by those around us to be healthy. Some people have chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis or even Stage 4 cancer but are deemed to be ‘healthy’ and people raise their eyebrows in confusion as to how they became so sick. ‘She/he was always so healthy’ and I find this quite pernicious as though the person somehow failed and nobody knows how. I was asked by a good friend if I would be really pissed off to get cancer. Well, the answer to that is definitely yes! But not for the reason that she asked. She was alluding to the fact that I’m a vegan runner and therefore shouldn’t expect to become seriously ill. But people do! I’d be pissed off because it’s a vile illness, not because I didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves it.

So ‘healthy’ is not used in our society to signify an absence of illness. If this were the case, we would not discuss our plus-size friends and acquaintances in terms of them being so ‘unhealthy’. Are they sick? Probably not. So why are they ‘unhealthy’? Oh, the risk of heart disease? Well, in that case, we are using ‘unhealthy’ to allude to risk. But lots of risk is genetic. My Nan and my Dad had heart disease so therefore I am at risk. But nobody calls me unhealthy. A friend in Leicester had a double masectomy because women in her family were 90% likely to get a hereditary and aggressive form of the disease. Did this risk make us think of her as unhealthy? It did not. There is a massive risk of heart disease from being sedentary. But 39% of British adults are failing to meet the recommended quota of weekly exercise, but we don’t know who they all are and have no way of knowing who they are, and I’m pretty sure that if we see them eating a salad every day and they are thin, we’ll think of them as ‘healthy’.

If health isn’t used to signify the absence of illness, then, for the purpose of this blog post I will assume that it refers to a long, good quality of life. The chances of having such a blessing is determined by so many things that we couldn’t possibly know who was healthy or not without a PhD in long term health and its causes and many many case studies from different social groups and countries. For example, the biggest indicator of good quality of life in old age is socio-economic status. Yes, money. Why? I suppose having enough of it results in less stress and better quality fruit and vegetables, more information and opportunity regarding exercise and social opportunities as well as the gift of time – time that can be used in the pursuit of meaningful hobbies and interests. Another indicator of good quality of life in old age is social contact: laughter, friendship and the knowledge that there are people who have your back, always. People in happy loving marriages have better health outcomes. I can’t reference all this because it’s not an academic essay but it’s easy enough to fact check on google!

What are the indicators of poor health, early death etc? Being poor, being unloved, being part of a stigmatized group such as a gender minority. These are the things that make a difference and our focus should be on making a world of greater equality and acceptance. A world where a bearded person who wants to be called Annabelle is just fine. A world where a hairy person wearing a lace dress is just fine. Just another person in the street or, even better, the room. A world where people can be addressed using the pronouns that they choose, and where they can express their identity and be with the person they love, without fear of violence, ridicule or death. We are so far from this in the world as it is that it beggars belief. People are still being killed for being a minority and that’s not just in some far-flung, desert country that, deep down, we think of as barbaric and backwards. It’s here in the UK.

The real reason for this rant is the way that people seeing me lately, perhaps after a long time, comment on my appearance and, in particular, my weight loss. I started losing weight last year and put it down to marathon training although I had trained before without getting quite so thin. Comments have ranged from how much better I look, to whether I’ve forgotten to eat, to how ‘healthy’ I am. I’m not healthy. I’ve lost weight because my thyroid went berserk and my body is flooded with thyroid hormones which, untreated, are literally toxic. My skin has broken out in spots, I am exhausted from the carbimazole and I still need a betablocker at bedtime to stop my heart from attempting to escape my body. But I look healthy, apparently. Which leads me to the conclusion that ‘healthy’ means ‘thin’.

To be thin, in this culture, signifies obedience. We were trained up, us 50 year olds, to look after our figures, to battle the bulge, to not pinch an inch. We had Slimfast and the cornflake diet, now 80/20 and intermittent fasting. We still have Slimming World and Weightwatchers, and a hundred ways of losing weight that just stubbornly clings to our thighs, tummies and ‘problem areas’. Our bodies are a battleground of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and in order to be ‘good’ we must appear to be ‘healthy’. This means either losing weight, being thin or talking about losing weight. We must denigrate ourselves in order to fit into the ‘well-behaved’ group or women who, heaven forbid, must never eat cake with unrestrained pleasure or let their tummies flop out with happy abandon.

I’m tired of it. Now I’m on the right dose of medicine I am gaining weight again and hallelujah for that because it means health! Real health! I am a naturally curvy woman with thighs that touch and a rounded tummy, sturdy arms and quite a big bum. I want to be healthy again and that includes eating cake with friends, spending time with family, laughing, loving, moving with freedom and joy and trying to make the world a genuinely healthier place for every body of all colours, genders, sexuality, size, shape and socio-economic status.

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