From Fresher's Week Diets To Veganuary: The Complex Reality Of Disordered Eating
The Debrief: While many young women have diagnosed eating disorders, plenty more of us brush our troublesome eating habits under the carpet - rebranding them as 'diets,' 'clean eating,' or a 'new year's resolution'
‘Our housemate is great; she bakes for everyone’, one of my male friends said.
I was surprised, mostly because baking is bloody expensive. But it was my other male friend’s reply that stuck in my mind, ‘she barely eats any of it, yeah she eats like a sparrow. Just how she is.’
‘I wonder if they know?’, I remember thinking to myself. ‘I wonder if they know that this girl might have a problem’. From the casual way they were speaking, it hadn’t even crossed their minds.
University is, for most of us, the first time we’ve lived away from home, shopped for ourselves, cooked for ourselves and been completely in control of our diets. For those who have problematic relationships with food, it can be the most testing time in our lives so far. Communal student living shines a light on all of our idiosyncrasies, putting disordered eating, particularly, under a magnifying glass.
We all know the statistics about the number of young women who suffer with medically diagnosed eating disorders. It’s serious, life-ruining, on the increase, and not nearly enough is being done to help. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I want to discuss the women and girls whose relationship with food doesn’t fit a well-known medical definition. These women would vehemently deny that they have an eating disorder. It might never threaten their health to the extent that they become a statistic, but their relationship with food is far from a healthy one.
I’m talking about women like myself. I’ve always been within the ‘healthy’ BMI parameters, and I’ve never had to see a medical professional about my relationship with food. And yet, when I am honest with myself, when I look really hard in the mirror, I can’t deny that my relationship with food is troubled.
It first started when I was at high school. I remember a creeping awareness that I was, comparatively, chubbier than all of my friends. I devised an extremely clever system of chewing gum throughout the day to stave off hunger, allowing myself to eat only what low calorie food could fit in the smallest tupperware box for lunch. I walked to and from school every day, and went to a dance class three times a week. I slimmed down pretty quickly.
It felt good. I was getting complements from my peers. I was succeeding in my aim to stay thin. But I was also hungry. In fact I was hungry most of the time. I told myself I didn’t have an eating disorder. I still ate dinner with my parents and consumed chocolate (once a week). People with eating disorders don’t do that, do they?
When it comes to undiagnosed eating disorders, it’s impossible to know the real scale of the problem because there are simply no records. However, I was wrong to think that because I didn’t have symptoms of anorexia or bulimia, there wasn’t a real problem. OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder), is a new classification of EDNOS (eating disorder not specified). Dr Richard Sly, a medical advisor for the eating disorder charity Beat, classifies the condition as ‘a diagnosable mental health problem in which a number of indicators for an eating disorder are present, but without meeting full diagnostic criteria.’He stresses to me that while the disorder may be lesser known, it’s no less serious.
For a long time, I didn’t tell anyone about what I was doing: about the limits I imposed on myself. When I did, I found that almost every single one of my female friends went - or is still going - through a similar thing. My closest friends, who I see as beautiful, confident women, have struggled with intense internal self-criticism and unhealthy eating habits. What troubles me is that I would never have known, had I not asked. We’ve probably inhaled a portion of cheesy chips together after a night out and nothing, outwardly, would have lead me to be concerned about them.
But that’s just the point; many of us are cocktail-sipping, pizza lovers at night, whose days are filled with regret. At university, my friends and I would consider, in complete earnest, juice fasting, deliberately drinking on an empty stomach, and even ‘sleep dieting’(sleeping as much as possible during the day so as to stave off hunger). These extreme measures seemed to be the only way to be the ‘cool girls’we were supposed to be - to enjoy a night out and look great in a dress.
University was certainly a catalyst for my problematic eating, and I’m not the only one. ‘Any period in which there is considerable change in a person’s life can create a period of vulnerability’, says Dr Sly. ‘Often big changes can lead to people feeling as if things are out of control, which can be an overwhelming and unpleasant experience. Trying to wrestle this control back via eating disordered behaviours can, in the short term, alleviate these feelings and give the sufferer a false sense of control’.
The message resonates with Amy, now 30.‘I first became hyper-aware of weight gain and calories at university’she says, ‘suddenly, I had my own money to spend on food. I indulged sweets, chocolate, pizza and takeaways, which had been forbidden as a child. This diet inevitably led to weight gain, and I tried to counter act the extra pounds with stupid plans. I tried sticking to two meals a day, or reducing my calorie intake drastically’
‘I had huge feelings of guilt’, she says, ‘which resulted in what I now know is called "last supper syndrome”- binge eating with the mental promise of starting a healthy diet “tomorrow” or “Monday morning”. The cycle of healthy eating would normally last a week or two until I got a taste of junk food, then the cycle would begin all over again.’
In her more extreme moments, Amy tells me she ‘tried quick fixes’like ‘diet pills and cleanses’. I had a ‘complete all or nothing mentality’she says. ‘This yo-yo-ing will probably always continue in some capacity, and I still have unhealthy thoughts.’Amy says that she thinks this kind of behaviour is common among all of the women in her life, ‘my sisters, colleagues and friends are permanently on some kind of diet or new fad’.
For Emily, now 20, it began at school, as it did with me.
‘From about 12 or 13 years old, I remember being very aware of what I was eating’she says, ‘at high school it was the fashion to eat a bag of crisps for lunch instead of a proper balanced meal. In my mind, being skinny meant being healthy.’
On going to university, her behaviour stepped up a gear.
‘It wasn’t long before my eating went completely crazy. I felt so out of control; my whole first term was one massive binge. At its worst, I would have three takeaway pizzas a week, as well as normal meals. Most of the time I’d get through a large pizza by myself. I wanted to change but I just couldn’t, I felt like I was stuck in a vicious circle of binging and self-hatred. After putting on nearly a stone and a half I’d lost so much confidence in myself.’
How is she now? ‘I’m a term into my second year at university. I honestly feel much more comfortable in myself after losing some of the weight I gained last year. However, I’m still not entirely sure what a healthy relationship with food is, I’m not convinced that I’ve got one yet.’
As women, our relationships with food are complicated from a young age. We see unrealistic images, body types and beauty standards all around us: in advertising, films, magazines and on social media. We’re told that being attractive is, essentially, directly linked to being thin. And yet, as with the trope of the ‘cool girl’in Gone Girl, in order to be ‘fun’and ‘likeable’we are meant to eat junk, drink beer and never obsess over our weight. It’s an impossible double bind of unspoken but universally accepted double standards. Is it any wonder that so many of us have a difficult relationship with eating?
‘I remember being told I looked ‘skinny’one day [at school] and feeing so proud of myself’Alice, 21, tells me. She reflects, it’s ‘only now I can see how bad that was for my mental and physical health - no wonder I was tired all the time’. ‘Sometimes I still struggle with eating enough’, she says ‘and really struggle with guilt about what I do eat, although you’d probably never guess by looking at me - I have what you’d consider an “average”build.’
For her, too, leaving home for university sent her further into the problem.
‘In my first year at university, there'd be times when I’d look in the mirror and focus on the negatives; my round face, the areas where all my fat seemed to accumulate. I’d feel so bad about myself that I’d cheer myself up with a takeaway.’She explains that binges would be followed by guilt and self-punishment, ‘I’d feel guilty and eat as little as possible the next day. I’d track my calories on an app and it became a competition with myself to eat as few calories as possible. But soon enough I was back to drinking excessively and eating junk food again. You would have never known any of this from my appearance. I didn’t tell anyone either, so no one knew.’
Out of term time, she says, ‘I went to the gym and just did cardio. This worked at first, and I lost the weight I’d put on. Then I went back to uni and got into the same lazy, binge-drinking and junk-eating cycle until the summer, where I lived on a treadmill and lost weight again.’
Exercising lead her into an even more problematic place, she explains. ‘I became interested in bodybuilding after meeting someone who used to have a bad relationship with food, as I did. But again, I went too far; I was weighing all of my food and sticking to my macro nutrient targets rigidly. I hated eating out, so much so that I actually cried before dinner one night because I just didn’t know how to track any of it. I even cried once when my mum put some cheese on my pasta, because it meant that I’d gone over my macros for that day.’
Alice thinks that when we talk about eating disorders, people often only think of the most extreme, life-threatening cases; ‘I think people hear the termeating disorderand immediately think of someone who is severely underweight, but when I think of my old mentality it seems blindingly obvious that there was a problem’, she says.
These eating problems can, and do, severely impact young women’s daily lives, but it’s not something we tend to talk about. It can seem like we’re under pressure from every angle; we shouldn’t ‘complain’and ‘be a downer’, and we don’t want to ‘play the victim’. So what should we do when we feel like our eating habits control our lives? According to Dr Sly, an ‘open and honest dialogue’is vital. We need to seek out support networks, and that means talking - even if it is hard to do.
As for me, although I’m much better now than in previous years, I still have bad days where I feel I need to eat everything or nothing. I still hate formal events where I’m expected to show more skin (because for women, dressing up really means stripping down). And what’s worse is I still hate to admit all of this. It feels like a weakness. I want to be a fuck-you-patriarchy, fuck-you-unrealistic-beauty-standard, eat-the-damn-cake sort of woman. I know my dress size has zero bearing on my value as a person, and I’d never suggest it does for anyone else. But, hard as it might be to admit, something as simple as eating when I’m hungry and stopping when I’m full is difficult. It’s time that the conversation about our difficult, problematic and damaging relationships with food turns from an internal monologue into a more public conversation. That’s the only way we’re ever going to help one another, support one another, and actually enjoy the damn cake.
At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating