'How Competitive Under Eating Flourished In My Student Shared House'
The Debrief: There were five of us, and we'd never had to manage our own food or budget before. As our dieting became increasingly competitive, we became known as The Hungry House...
In my second year of university I lived in a dilapidated student hovel under a train track with four other female friends. Moving straight out of catered accommodation into our own house, none of us had properly been totally in charge of our own food or budget before – it was a learning curve we were going to have to navigate together.
What we didn’t realise before we moved in was that you couldn’t have imagined a group of young women less well-equipped to deal with these issues together.
As with many girls of twenty, we were all far from achieving physical self-acceptance; our body images all warped in some way. General body dysmorphia, ex-anorexia, bullimia – you name it, one of us had experienced it/was still experiencing it.
Living under one roof magnified and fed our problems. By the end of the year, we were all miniscule, having kept in a constant weight-loss race. Years later, I found out we had been nicknamed the Hungry House by the rest of the college, which is actually rather creative and would have been even funnier if the takeaway website had existed back then.
We all knew about each other’s separate issues and cover up schemes. It takes one to know one so we figured each other out quickly. We gossiped and created unhealthy and rather cruel alliances all in the futile attempt to distract general attention from our own problems.
As one housemate lost a vast amount of weight rapidly over three months, another housemate would experience an onset of panic and self hatred. The girl losing the weight would pretend she was immune to hunger and the panicked housemate would beat herself for her lack of willpower, while trying to fatten up the first.
She’d bring home treats and snacks for her, watch for and bring attention to when she hadn’t eaten under the guise of being worried about her.
Two girls would always split food down the middle to make sure they were partners in crime with their low-calorie intake. Meals would consist of absolutely no carbohydrates, fruit and yoghurt, Bovril as appetite suppressant, all accompanied with cigarettes and vodka soda. The thought of drinking wine was inconceivable.
Another girl, although she denies it to this day, secretly added oil to another’s vegetable soup and was found trying to ladle out the film that sat on top, having not thought through the fact it would float and be glaringly obvious.
It was a mess, but we were all so caught up in the constant partying, drugs sex and alcohol, that we didn’t have a moment of clearheadedness to assess what we were doing to ourselves and how instead of helping each other and being honest, we were living in a dangerous and deceitful continuum.
This isn’t the only example I’ve heard of this type of detrimental competitive behaviour. My close friend spent seven years in an all-girls boarding school.
‘At least 10 people in my year suffered from disordered eating. In such close quarters, eating together every day, it’s hard to remove yourself and not notice everyone else’s diets, try to eat better or worse or emulate the “skinny cool girls’” eating patterns. My roommate put herself on a diet which was a different colour food for every different day of the week, which meant eating very minimally when you only had what was on offer at the school canteen.
‘When she lost weight, I immediately put myself on the same diet. We were only 13 and it’s tragic we were worrying about stuff like that so early, but of course that was when we first started going to dances with the local boys school and we wanted to get picked because we were the podgier girls in the class.’
Rebecca Field, head of communications at B-eat, says, ‘Competitive behaviour focusing on food and weight is common among individuals suffering from an eating disorder. It is not a direct cause of eating disorders, but it can be a trigger for those who are susceptible as well as making it much harder for someone to recover.’
In my case, I was ‘susceptible’ and in an environment for my anxieties to flourish early on, but for some people it could happen later on. This is why I am entirely adverse to anything that advertises eating and weight loss through comparison or competition.
The people who create shows like The Biggest Loser or apps like Dietbet (which makes you lose weight by competing with others and winning (or losing) actual money) forget that when it comes to eating concerns, being kind to yourself and to your health is the only approach there should be. Striving for long life and better living should be the best motivator.
It’s always a struggle, given the society we live in, but it’s imperative to keep consciously working towards loving ourselves for ourselves, regardless of what everyone else has to offer the world. Life becomes horribly closed and thoughts become mightily constrained when you’re constantly side-glancing and envying the next person’s genetic pot luck.
Like this? Then you might also be interested in...
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