Sorry about the lack of a Mental Health Monday post last week, folks! I’d been catching up on GoT and discovering Pokemon for the first time, so blogging kinda went out of the window! However, never fear, I have a very interesting topic for you today – a personal look at my and my boyfriend Jay’s atypical eating disorders. There are trigger warnings for body dysmorphia, unhealthy ways of dealing with mental illness, unhealthy attitudes towards food and exercise, and self harm.
Let’s start with me. Ever since I was little, I can remember looking different from other girls. When I was doing ballet, we were often put in weight order in classes. The slimmest girl had a white ribbon pinned to her, the next had a pink ribbon, then a blue ribbon, then a yellow one. I was always the yellow one. Thinking back, this was a clearly physical mark that I was bigger than the other girls. Early puberty didn’t help. I got my first period shortly after my tenth birthday, and I developed years before any of my other classmates. I had to wear bras and shave whilst other girls were still children.
When getting changed for gym, I used to hide in a bathroom stall, getting changed in private. I thought that the slimmer girls wouldn’t have any problems with their bodies (though now of course I know that is not the case.) I wanted to be one of them so badly, even if I was smarter or funnier than them. I pitied anyone who looked like me, and I deliberately distanced myself from any of the other overweight girls so that I wouldn’t be considered as ‘one of them’. I deeply regret having this attitude now.
Society around me didn’t help, particularly family. I felt like there were value judgements on my weight. That I could never be my best self unless I was slimmer. However, I was also raised with the idea that food and exercise were not to be enjoyed, but rather were a chore. Sweets and unhealthy foods were rewards for doing well in school, and I think that I unconsciously associated unhealthy foods with academic success. This changed when I came to university. Food actually became a big part of both my relationships to date, especially learning how to cook healthy and delicious meals.
This came to a halt last year when I was severely depressed, and had just started on my medication. I just stopped eating – I survived on cereal and Haribo for about a month and a half. I fainted a lot, and I lost a lot of weight. (I was a UK size 6 then – I’m a 16 now.) It wasn’t on purpose, but rather as a side effect of my depression. I knew it was unhealthy, but because I was so slim made me ridiculously happy. I thought of it as the one thing that I had going for me during that time. Even now, I look back at pictures of myself during that time and I’m almost happy for myself, even though I look unwell.
My attitude to diet and exercise is slowly changing, I think. I would like to be slimmer, I am not going to lie, but I am also trying to gain confidence in my body as it is now. I’m in a very stable, loving relationship, and I’m actively trying to challenge many of the ideas about my attractiveness and desirability. I still have bad days, but I am trying to work on it. I’m trying to make body positivity come more naturally to me.
Jay has a very different story. He used to be very slim. He was athletic, healthy, and ate enormous amounts of food without gaining weight (and he still does!) When he turned 16, he noticed that a lot of his male friends went to the gym. He felt like he needed to change – no one would find him attractive unless he did. He threw himself into the deep end, weightlifting and eating more. He got much bigger very quickly, and it felt good when people noticed the changes in his body.
He did this until his first year of university, when he was living alone for the first time. He was often binging on unhealthy foods, and did not exercise. (This was also when his depression first became quite severe.) In his second year he decided this would change, and he started doing athletics. He looked at sprinters in the 2012 Olympics and decided he wanted to look like them. The next couple of years were the complete opposite: he trained with athletics 4 times a week, worked out intensely, and ate ridiculously cleanly. Every day he had porridge for breakfast, tuna and salad for lunch, and chicken, veg and brown rice for dinner. No exceptions. He wouldn’t eat anything sweet, but rather pushed himself to look the way that he wanted. Since 2015, he has been 10% body fat or less – sometimes down to 6 or 7%. A sort of numb depression soon took over.
It radically changed the way Jay looks at food. He always looks for certain amounts of protein and calories. Turns out that in practice, clean eating was an unhealthy habit – although it sounds good on paper, in reality you feel guilty about food. He didn’t realise that this wasn’t mentally good for him until he started dating me, really. Even today he looks at food this way. Exercise too can sometimes be used unhealthily – sometimes he used exercise as a form of self harm. Feeling the pain and soreness was a bit of a badge of honour, but he took advantage of that, making himself feel pain without hurting himself.
Some of this also has to do with his body dysmorphia. His weight hasn’t changed in about 6 years. He knows that he is in good shape. But sometimes he looks at himself in the mirror and thinks he looks too slim, or his muscles aren’t as defined as they were yesterday. He feels silly and vain because he knows he is in good shape, but doesn’t feel that way in comparison to top athletes and models. He feels that looking this way is a part of his identity – people know him as being in good shape, and he wouldn’t be himself if he went a day without exercising.
Like me, Jay is actively trying to be happier with himself. He’s trying to stop letting diet and exercise interfere with daily life, no longer allowing himself to skip social events because he needs to exercise. He lets himself have some down time without feeling guilty. This was a big thing when we went to Paris a couple of months ago – he let himself eat croissants and not exercise. Although he had to mentally psych himself up for that, he is trying to embrace it more often.
We are also trying to help each other. We know each other very well, so it is relatively easy to keep an eye on each other, as we know both person’s unhealthy habits. Jay’s focus on healthy eating and exercise is good for me, but I also encourage him to relax a lot more. Having fun together is more important! I think as well, it is important that we know that what comes easily to one person might be a big deal for the other.
This is a long post, I know, but I thought it was important to talk about eating disorders for both men and women, and raise awareness that not all eating disorders are clear-cut anorexia or bulimia. They often are deeply connected with societal ideas of beauty, and other forms of mental illness.