My terror of being fat drove me to anorexia, but I was rescued by the thrill of fighting for a cause

Working for something beyond myself, where outrage was welcome and productive, has made more of a difference than anything else

Eleanor Higgins
Friday 01 March 2019 17:52
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Beat Eating Disorders

I had always known I was too much. Much too big and too loud and too there. I was extra sensitive, attuned to the emotional climate around me at all times, and it seemed like I was a conductor for any and all feelings that I sensed in others.

It was at about five years of age that I felt this emotional too-much-ness becoming embodied and externalised. It was as if my body became the signifier for the dis-ease in my inner world; I saw myself as too fat and fleshy. The problem became physical, and, thus, tangible.

Fat and fleshy was bad. The Weight Watcher’s lady made that clear every week when my mum went to be weighed and measured and judged as my brother and I accompanied her. The body was the currency we used to pay our dues for daring to exist in the world and I knew I had a lot to pay back.

At the age of ten I read a book about a character who developed anorexia and it hit me as the perfect solution to my problems – shrink myself into safety, make myself so small that I would no longer be more than a whisper, an inoffensive shrinking violet. It wasn’t until I was fourteen that I put what I’d learned into practice.

I soon developed anorexia, spending my days walking around like an apology, eager to make amends for every breath I had taken when I had not actively tried to wither away. I lost a lot of weight, ate very little, and spent all my spare time working my part-time job or doing gymnastics.

You’ve all heard the gory details of anorexia, the glamorised suffering and fascination with “before” pictures of an emaciated white girl, so I’ll spare you. Those things don’t actually reflect the diversity of experience of those with anorexia, and contribute to the feeling many have that they are not thin enough for this twisted illness. An illness whose logic goes something like this: you’re only thin enough when you’re dead.

I never got specialised help for my eating disorder. Most of the time I wasn’t emaciated enough to need immediate medical attention, or I was too busy being suicidal for people to do anything but manage the severe depression I had. Consequently, I spent almost twenty years dancing with the devil that is an eating disorder and missed out on a “normal” adolescence and much life experience. I felt really proud of myself at first. I felt accomplished and powerful and omnipotent. No one could hurt me more than I could hurt myself, and I grew noticeably quieter and numbed. All I cared about was numbers.

I tried to recover over and over again, but I couldn’t tolerate the way my body felt with extra flesh on it. I equated this with being fat and I equated being fat with being lazy and disgusting. I feel ashamed of these feelings now, if I am honest.

In the end I became too sick and tired of a toxic existence in which fatness was to be avoided, and I became sick of running from something as innocuous as the shape and form that my body took in the world. It seemed like an absurd prison, handcuffed to a half-life, all for the sake of not taking up space in the world. All because I was scared of putting my head above the parapet lest I got shot down.

And so I reached out to friends online and soon became acquainted with the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement. I read a lot around body politics and intuitive eating and fat activism, which is different to body-positivity. That might seem strange considering I was not fat, but I knew I needed to rid myself of my fat-phobia if I was to trust myself and accept my body in recovery.

The effect of this new-found knowledge was profound. I began to feed myself properly, albeit reluctantly and with great trepidation, and I kept talking to people about my hatred of my own growing body, and my terror of being fat. With their help, and with online resources, I began to dismantle my own prejudice towards fat bodies. I slowly recovered the weight I had lost, and in therapy, I worked on my beliefs about taking up space, about the need to shut myself up, and batten down the hatches. I began to see the fears of being fat for what they really were as I let go of the belief that being fat was a bad thing.

I followed the social media accounts of fat activists like Ragen Chastain, and surrounded myself with messages that refused to demonise any bodies for any reason. As I got into a strong place in recovery I became involved with the feminist activist organisation, AnyBody, which aims to challenge and resist the toxic messages and imperatives of the diet and beauty industries as well as any source of body shaming and hatred in society. There I found a sisterhood, a bunch of incredible women who walked the talk, who fought for something better and did so with kindness and passion.

Curating the social media accounts for AnyBody meant that I was continually exposed to messages that turned the eating disorder logic inside out so that its propaganda was seen as just that. I slowly came to life. Being part of a collective body, fleshy and loud and unapologetic, working for something beyond myself, where outrage was welcome and productive, has made more of a difference than anything else.

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I have been in recovery now for a number of years. I eat what I’m hungry for, when I am hungry for it, knowing that I have full permission to eat anything I desire. I find that I stop before I am too full, and on the rare occasions I don’t I know that nothing bad will happen. It’s just food, it’s just a body, it doesn’t mean anything beyond a description of food or a shape/size. I am happier in my skin than I have ever been, which has happened as a result of bearing the discomfort, waiting it out, and working hard to problematise the ideals we have around bodies and appearance rather than making myself the problem.

Of course, eating disorders have deep and complex meanings that differ for each person and therapy can be invaluable if you have access to it. But supplementing treatment with an immersion in body-acceptance, fat-activism etc. may help, as can being part of a collective fighting for a cause you believe in, so long as you don’t use it as another method of sacrificing yourself.

This Eating Disorder Awareness Week, follow people like Stephanie Yeboah, Sofie Hagen (you’ll laugh your socks off and that is some fine medicine), Stacy Bias, Linda Bacon, Yr Fat Friend, Lucy Aphramor, Endangered Bodies, Sonya Renee Taylor, and immerse yourself in messages that validate your right to exist in your body without apology. Because we need you and your passion and desire and hope and your pain; we need you in all your glory to come out fighting.

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