What am I doing? What am I writing about or working on, or in this case, thinking about writing or working on? I have my MSc project to finish (and start) and a PhD place for October (providing the MSc is done, godspeed).
I’m interested in the grey areas. The grey areas of recovery and what it means to be a ‘recovered’ eating disordered person living in a world that equates exercise with weight loss and health with thinness, where you are bombarded by low fat yogurts and skinny teas in ‘health’ shops, friends on diets, vanity sizing as both a concept and a reality, a TV show where participants are asked to crash diet, thin people hunched over in pictures pretending to have rolls and proclaiming feminism, and, perhaps the worst, your own health system fat shaming its population. Yet we are still asked to recover. What does it mean to recover, when the new ‘normal’ is disordered eating, dieting, self-surveillance and body-animosity? What version of a walking, talking, living person do you recover to?
As someone who worked/still works hard to recover it’s almost unfair. How come the general public gets to engage in behaviours that I’ve been banned from? What’s the difference between me and you? In 2010 I stumbled into a MyFitnessPal forum on intermittent fasting. I’d never heard of it, but I knew what fasting was and practiced it regularly. These people – adults, athletes – were telling each other how to do it! Sharing their own experiences, tips on how to keep going, the best way to come off a fast, how to start with short fasts and then progress. Mouth-agape levels of shocked, I posted in the thread urging them to stop promoting this, didn’t they know that once they started they wouldn’t be able to stop? They were hurting themselves. I got shut down fast – “go get yourself the help you need, sweetie”. The responses were patronising beyond belief and I couldn’t understand why. Why can’t I post about fasting without getting my account frozen, when there are whole forums on how to fast successfully? Why are my tips and my community different from yours? How do you – the people posting from their accounts, and the moderators – know the difference?
This unfairness cropped up whilst as a day patient. We couldn’t exercise (I was told off for walking to the hospital, even though I lived in the same neighbourhood), eat low-cal or low-fat versions of food, couldn’t drink. There were pages of rules to follow. But we were there to break our own rules around food, because those rules were the wrong, ‘disordered’ kind. I remember us all ganging up against our nutritionist who was incredibly hot – bet you have a personal trainer, how can you tell us we can’t exercise!! She thought this was hilarious. I still believe she had a personal trainer. And, I’m being facetious, I know why it was important for us to eat full fat and not exercise, so that we could practice or imitate a disorderless life. But it still felt as though it was us, the patients (sick – fair enough), vs them, the grown-ups (well – allowed to stay out late, eat dairy free and do yoga). I knew I was sick and I needed to become un-sick, but the un-sick people in the supermarket buying 5% fat mince instead of the 20% were throwing me off.
If I’m not throwing up but I’m picking all the non-existent spots on my face until they bleed, am I recovered? If I’m not throwing up but I’m lumping chocolate puddings in my porridge every morning, am I recovered? If I’m not throwing up but I’m binge drinking and sleeping around, am I recovered? And, if at the start of lockdown, I take before shots, phone propped up on a book, and subscribe to a fitness app, setting my goal as ‘fat loss’, am I recovered?
I can’t lose the “I” in my thinking. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot recently. I can’t extricate myself from my research, I’m in too deep. My own experiences inform my lens, my angle. I came to this academic place in anger too, from seeing the vilification of eating disordered communities in the academic literature and in the media – seeing in action another double standard, I think. We can’t have a support forum, but breast cancer can? Yes, I went there. That’s a grey area: what’s promoting eating disorders, what’s experience sharing and community building, and what’s promoting recovery? How can you be honest about your recovery struggles and still separate yourself from a pro-eating disorder narrative? Is it through honesty? Because, if I am honest, sometimes I am delighted to wake up feeling slimmer, having digested dinner. I came to Ireland in the hope of a writing getaway but in my head hoped that I would lose weight, being away from the ease of London takeaways. I’m not promoting eating disorders (am I?), I think that I’m sharing my feelings, and parroting beliefs shared by millions of other women – secret hopes for weight loss even though there is nothing wrong with my body, which I genuinely believe most days now.
If someone who hasn’t shared that they have an eating disorder or used to have an eating disorder shared that, would it be OK to share that, to post their fears or desires online? Am I doing harm, is it more about the audience than it is me? And, how does an algorithm, looking to censor content that could be considered harmful, know what accounts and posts are promoting eating disorders? I don’t know. I’ll keep wondering, maybe even bother to look up the answers. And if the answers don’t exist yet, then maybe I’ll actually start asking the questions out loud.