11 February, 2013

Eating Disorder Awareness Week: When I Learnt to Eat Again

This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week which works to enhance people's understanding of eating disorders and to help them recognise where someone they know might be in the grip of one. While this concept is a positive one, I think our society has a lot more to do than raise awareness for a week, when we're simultaneously buying magazines with painfully thin models on the cover and are constantly being led to believe that anything above a size 10 ain't cool.

Fad diets are rife at the moment and it appalls me that in a time when our understanding of science and technology has never been better, our approach to eating has never been worse. We understand the science behind our dietary requirements to the nth degree, and most of us have the cash and freedom to adhere to them, yet people still believe a healthy approach to food is to fast for 2 days out of 7, or to cut out one major food group forever, or to just eat as little as possible. No no no! Being healthy is about common sense. Eat 'normal' food in 'normal' portions, listen to your body and what it needs and you might, as if by magic - sorry did I say 'magic' I meant 'science' - find yourself with a healthy AND happy physical self.

I get a little angry with extreme diets, because they encourage something I am passionately against - eating disorders. To me it feels obvious how to approach food, how not to get fat and that super-skinny does not equal attractive. I do have some compassion for the people who aren't there yet though, because my currently healthy approach to food hasn't always been this way. In 2013, aged 26 and a half, my relationship with food is a healthy one. I exercise regularly, eat 3 nutritious meals a day and like my cake and wine as good as the next girl. This has been my attitude towards eating for the best part of 3 years, but before that things weren't good.

I am the classic personality type conducive to eating disorders - ambitious , a perfectionist, with a history of low self-esteem. Throw in a few childhood traumas and a fear of loss, and you've got yourself one extremely anorexic 16 year old. At my worst, at the beginning of my serious battle with food, I didn't eat for 4 months. Literally did not eat to the point I wouldn't have milk in my morning tea, I'd have one bite of the banana my Mum brought me for breakfast and hide the rest, nothing passed my lips during the school day and I would only nibble on the protein/vegetable part of whatever tea my Mum had cooked me. That started in September 2002 and by Christmas of the same year I was barely 6 stone.

Thankfully I got better and gradually my weight crept back on, but my relationship with food remained poor for nearly a decade afterwards. I wasn't stupidly thin anymore, but I didn't eat proper meals, I skipped lunch, I substituted dinner for wine at uni and I binged when I was miserable. The last time I made myself sick following a binge unfortunately wasn't that long ago and I will never not be at risk from the habit.

They say eating disorders are linked to a deep need for control and there seems to be a lot of truth in that. It's no coincidence that when we're finding life a struggle, or are going through big changes, we resist the very first thing we learn to do as babies - eat, feed yourself, fuel yourself to live. I tend to eat in a very 'controlled' way when going through a big life change. Most recently, I lost some weight when I started my current job in October of last year - in a mainly healthy way, still eating 3 meals a day and I was happy and healthy, but my controlled eating did get a bit severe again. I knew it deep down. My life was shifting again and I had a few other battles going on in the background that were a cause of anxiety for me. This Christmas, coming home to my Mum who knows me better than anyone else in the world, she said to me one lunchtime 'you look great Han, but have a bread roll with your soup please because you're on the cusp of something that if it gets a hold could be very dangerous.' She didn't need to say anymore, but she was right. I am healthy and happy now, I really am, but sometimes I need my loved ones to pull me back away from the grips of an eating disorder when they see the first signs.

That will be me for the rest of my life.

I'm not ashamed of my history with eating disorders, but I am ashamed of my society for encouraging this demon in me, and in so many others. I am proud of me now. For me, eating healthily, feeling happy with my body and feeling confident when trying on new clothes is a massive, massive achievement. What's a bigger achievement is that I ate a massive slice of cake yesterday and I didn't even care. The only scales I use are for baking and I'm a big fan of my 'Let them Eat Cake' biscuit tin.

So, the reason I get so angry when yet another friend or acquaintance thinks the next fad diet is going to be good for them, is because I have been far too close to the bad side of that fad diet and I cannot believe that educated, intellectual adults think that just drinking water with syrup or living off bacon without bread is going to give them a healthy body and happy life. They'll get there, they may have their own battles before they do, but for the love of god, world can we please stop thinking that a healthy and happy physical existence needs to be anything other than 'run around a bit, eat your greens and don't have too much cake.' There are so many ways to live healthily, and if you get it right it can ultimately be what forms the foundations of a very happy life.

You can donate to b-eat, get involved in the events taking place this week or just watch this Everybody knows Somebody campaign video. Beyond that you can work hard to resist the distorted perceptions and concepts that promote eating disorders and unhealthy body images today, because for every time you accuse your size 12 body of being 'fat', someone starves themselves to death. Some people will always be bound by the chains of eating disorders, but collectively we have the power to prevent our society from sinking further in the wrong direction.


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