The summer my Dad died, my Mum booked for my boyfriend and I to go on a lovely holiday. Obviously, holidays don’t make up for the untimely loss of a parent—but let’s face it, we’d all rather grieve on a sun lounger.
It was the summer between my third and fourth year of studying; I had a good eight weeks to ‘get ready’ for the trip, so like a million women before me, I decided to take up a fitness regime. I’d like to say I exercised repeatedly that summer to offset my grief with endorphins, but that would be rewriting history. Mainly, I wanted to look good in a bikini.
My Dad had just died, but what I really wanted was to look thin in a swimsuit. I did not feel I was allowed to go on holiday with a plump stomach and rounded knees.
But I digress. I probably lost half a stone that summer, and looked pretty good for it. I wasn’t actually medically overweight to begin with, I should add. But when I headed off to start my Masters that September, I was fit and tanned, despite my grief. Having always struggled with my weight and body image, I felt pretty damn pleased—I’d been trying to lose my ‘freshman fifteen’ (read: thirty) for the last few years, without much success. On top of everything else, at least I didn’t have to worry about my weight.
Fast-forward a year of grief-driven terrible decisions. I was (somehow) starting a PhD, living on my own in a flat in Nottingham. That September, I got tonsillitis and lost my appetite. What happened next was peculiar: it simply didn’t didn’t come back. As physical and mental illness collided, I completely lost the ability to eat.
Speaking as somebody who once melted a crumbly Cornish cheddar onto an M&S cornflake bite (no, really) I can categorically say this was something I had never experienced before. When I forced myself to eat, it came back up within the hour: I once threw up a mouthful of scrambled eggs, back onto the plate, in the middle of a restaurant.
At the time, this was the least of my problems; my daily panic attacks and 3-hour bedtime crying jags were a bigger source of concern. I was getting thinner, but it was hardly the number one issue on my agenda. But then a few pounds turned into a stone. Bones emerged from cavities I’d never seen before. It was an interesting turn of events. But it wasn’t a choice.
For the first time, skinny was not a battle I was half-heartedly waging—it was a thing I couldn’t stop.
Friends tell me now I was too thin. I never felt that way, but there are a few photos fromthe time where I can see it, although I cannot reconcile those jutting elbows and scrawny neck with my own sense of self. I only remember the persistent cellulite of my thighs, the soft white rolls of my admittedly shrinking stomach. I was buying smaller sizes, of course; I went from a 12 to a 6. But the truly disturbing part is how it made me feel.
I revelled in it. I might have been suicidal, but at least I was skinny.
There’s a casual, dark glamour in whittling yourself away to the bone. Here’s the worst bit: did you know strangers are nicer to you when you’re thin? Isn’t that sick? The world is kinder to women who take up less space. As much as I was suffering, I felt rewarded for unintentionally stripping my body back to bone and sinew.
My feelings were not unusual. I have friends who have lost weight after anxiety stopped them from eating, and they have quietly admitted how good it can feel. How the rest of the world unwittingly praised them. I know too many women, and some men, who think their value in this world increases as they diminish their physical selves.
I also have friends—intelligent, kind, wonderful people—who have starved themselves, flayed themselves, binged and purged and exhausted themselves. All in the pursuit of Skinny and the strange rewards it brings. And this is endemic: our attitudes towards our bodies and the food that fuels them are broken. There are now many millions of us who on some level believe we are worth more when we take up less space.
It’s just… exhausting. Before my illness, I was on a lifelong semi-diet. What a depressing sentence (I LOVE food). 1200 calories a day, aged 16, to fit into a prom dress (which, in hindsight, made me look like a wedding cake-topper). Zumba five times a week to go on holiday with a man who already wanted to have sex with me when I was fifteen pounds heavier.
Years of my energy wasted on striving to be thin. All those opportunities to eat pastries, wasted. I never saw my body as a thing that carries around my brain, and deserved to be nourished. I saw it only as a thing I had to make smaller.
I only truly began to understand all of this when, having turned the corner of my mental health crisis, I decided—for the first time in my life—to try and put a few pounds back on.
Only when weight gain became a sign of my recovery did I begin to forgive myself for the crime of taking up space.
Excuse my language, but this is fucked. No wonder we’re a society undergoing a mental health crisis. It’s a marvel more of us aren’t completely batshit—we can’t even go on a nice holiday without torturing ourselves for a month beforehand about the state of our thighs. Worst yet, we treat fat like a crime—like a personal failing. We literally ascribe morality to food. PS., ‘naughty’ is bunking off work for a netflix binge, not scranning a chocolate brownie at your desk.
It’s exhausting, this notion of fatness as failing. I’ve been overweight, yes, but I was still able to hike Machu Picchu, and be a First class student, and quote all of the really bad funny lines from Star Wars. But when I think how differently people treated me, I shudder. I shudder too, when I think how quick my own mind is to judge and dismiss fat bodies. We turn our eyes away from them, don’t we? The more space a person takes up the more eager we are to slide our gaze past them.
My own body is now nothing of note; a size 10-12, a little wobbly in places, a little muscular in others. Work-out endorphins are incredibly important for my mental health, so I endeavour to do that. But I am also constantly reminding myself that my weight is the least important thing about me. I let myself enjoy the food I love, and try not to critique this shell of mine too harshly. My wonderful, strong body, that has survived all I’ve put it through. I exercise now to keep my demons at bay, not my thighs.
Of course, I’m still battling with this revolutionary idea. Sometimes I cry when I feel a little fatter. I don’t think it will ever really go away; that feeling of my body being unworthy when it gets a little bigger. But I try to remind myself every day that my worth is made up of a thousand things that aren’t my weight: I am smart and well-loved and kind. I stand up for people who need it and I can dance on stilts, and do obstacle courses, and raise a laugh in the office a few times a day.
It doesn’t always work, but it’s the world I want to live in—and I have to start building that world with my own actions and words. Yes, look after yourself. But please know: you are not worth more just because you have made yourself smaller. You are allowed to enjoy the simple pleasures of toast and chocolate and blue cheese and red wine. It might feel like you shouldn’t, like you aren’t allowed to take up space—but I promise you, you are.
You are, you are, you are.