Some wounds are too shameful to hold up to the light.
It’s popular, these days, to talk about removing the stigma of mental health. And I think that’s certainly happened in some quarters: depression and anxiety feel more ‘spoken about’ than ever before.
But we don’t really talk about eating disorders, do we? You wouldn’t announce: ‘I’ve got binge-eating disorder!’ the way you can now talk about having anxiety. I know that I baulked, seeing the title of Freddie Flintoff’s new documentary about Bulimia. And that I double took (and then raced to buy) Caitlin Moran’s account of her teenage daughter’s anorexia.
And that’s strange. Because sometimes… sometimes I feel like I barely know any young women whose eating isn’t disordered. Or at least, whose eating isn’t disordered in some way. Approaching the end of my twenties, there are less ‘obvious’ candidates, but unhealthy relationships with food and bodies are still everywhere I look.
There’s the one who eats nothing but ‘clean’ foods, the one who eats mostly nothing at all. The one who embraced the strong not skinny doctrine with open arms, grateful for the mask of acceptability it gives her desire to control her intake of food. The one who measures out teeny-tiny portions with a slender, slightly shaking hand, and the one whose days revolve around a brutal binary of famine or feast. The one whose body was attacked – so she made it a fortress. The one who has an eating disorder by any metric, but is fat, and will likely never receive help for it.
And all of us, captivated and appalled by the fluctuations of our stomachs.
We all know this, don’t we? We all see it. Our relationship with food is actually, mostly, fucked. Every time someone says: I shouldn’t be naughty, I need to be good, I wince, thinking: how did we end up here? Why do we all accept that food has a moral quality? And why aren’t we talking about it?
I know why I’m not talking about it: I’m embarrassed.
It’s like I say. Some wounds are too shameful to hold up to the light.
Sometimes I think we’re self-obsessed. But maybe my generation was born to be hungry. Growing up in the noughties was a perfect storm of thinspiration: emo, Tumblr, Kate Moss for Topshop. We didn’t just hunger to fit into our clothes; we hungered for digital approval, contorting our bodies and posting the results for likes.
I remember hunching over my laptop, tracing my finger wistfully over the xylophone ribs of an anonymous stranger, stretched out on the floor. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, Kate said – and, agreeing in principle, but lacking the will to starve – I tasted my own vomit instead.
Teenage brains have more synaptic connections than adult ones, did you know? It’s why they’re so impressionable. Every moment, they’re building new connections, and modifying them as they go. Shaping themselves forever.
Blame it on the neural junctions, I guess.
Fast forward more than a decade. We have an uneasy truce, now – me and this body of mine. I imagine many of my age-mates have done the same.
You move it and stretch it, walk it up mountains and sprint in strobe-lid studios. You potter around the house naked without wincing at it in the mirror. You moisturise it, massage it, spray it with perfume that smells of lemons and the sea. Sometimes, in a trance, you pick at the skin on your thighs until they bleed. You feed it sad little salads, but also chips and spicy red wine.
You never make myself sick anymore, except when you do.
The future feels hopeful, in many ways. I have hope. I want my body to grow stronger and stronger until I can stand on my hands as a party trick. One day, I want it to make a baby. I want to give it peace. I want to give myself peace.
I’m well, I’ve done the work, I’ve put the hours in. I’ve read the books. But the cage is still there. In times of stress, controlling my eating and exercise – like, say, during a national fucking pandemic – is still my first recourse.
(Note. Let me be clear: making any sort of truce with your body is made far, far easier by the form and colour of it. I am white and thin. I was fat once, but not very. The battle being raged on my body is nothing but a skirmish, in comparison to the onslaught heaped upon fat, Black, queer bodies. But that’s a story for wiser voices than mine to tell.)
As I sit browsing the internet, I’m served multiple editorials about ‘losing the lockdown weight’. It makes me sad. In lockdown 2.0 – wintry, gloomy, wet – food feels like just about the only comfort left. I lean a glass of whisky on my belly at night, wander to the fridge and slice brie from the packet with a knife.
It makes me than sad, actually – it makes me worry. I’m worried about what this time is doing to people with a history of disordered eating. I’m worried about the disorders people are going to develop. In a lockdown, our collective gaze turns inward. More time to reflect, to probe, to be completely alone with our bodies. All the glorious, distracting things are snatched away. And all the mechanisms, too, for keeping those insidious voices quiet: structure, group exercise, busyness.
But does the government care? Will it do anything? Will we commit to funding mental health services and tackling the root causes of disordered eating? According to Beat, the eating disorder charity, it usually takes six months between a first GP visit and treatment starting. For most people, the help isn’t there – not when they need it.
In the morning, puffy with the salt and booze of the night before, I twist sideways in the mirror. I examine the small roll of existence around my middle, and tell myself I really must go for a run.