The Face of Diet Culture: The 10 Year Challenge

The 10 year challenge shines a light on how much we as individuals have changed but how much has the face of diet culture changed in the last 10 years? In 2009, the same year that I left home to go to fashion school in London, starving yourself skinny was still cool. The severity of health implications related to the thin ideal came to a spearhead in 2006 when fashion model Luisel Ramos collapsed and died whilst participating in a fashion show. She died from heart failure related to malnutrition and ultimately anorexia. 6 months later her sister, Eliana Ramos who was also a model died due to complications related to malnutrition and anorexia nervosa. The same year, Ana Carolina Reston, a Brazilian fashion model also died due to complications from Anorexia Nervosa. The size 0 debate was started and the fashion world came under the spotlight – and this wasn’t a case of any press is good press. Many government and health bodies made the call for a minimum BMI requirement to be implemented for all models participating in fashion week events. In research links were drawn between the portrayal of excessively thin bodies as desirable, and the social pressures this placed on women to conform [2]. Size 0 was sold to us and we bought it with dire consequences: thin was in.

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During my 2 years at fashion school I remember hearing club kids talking about how many drugs they were doing and how long they’d managed to not eat for, with the aid of said drugs. Cheekbones and collar bones were in, even if that meant looking gaunt.With the rise of mephedrone at the time whilst it was legal, this wasn’t a difficult feat to be achieved. There were numerous times people weren’t in the studio from dealing with the aftermath of having taken mephedrone (Meow meow/Mcat) [3]. In fact, gaunt was good and not eating was cool. Some tutors would joke about how the cheesy carb fest the canteen was bad for your waistline. Thin was in at whatever cost, health was out.

Needless to say, in this environment I relapsed into my eating disorder and I relapsed hard. At my lowest weight, whilst I was an outpatient at an Eating Disorder Service I received the most praise for my appearance I have ever received to date: “you’re so beautiful”, “how do you do it?”, and on Facebook photos, “OMG gorgeous

This trend is evident beyond the realms of my fashion school anecdotes and misadventures with anorexia; a lot of people are reminiscing about similar changes in their 10 year challenge posts. It turns out that a lot of people in 2009 were skinny and in retrospect, feeling weak, unhappy and generally like a bag of shit. That’s how forcing your body to weigh much less than it is wants to be feels, like an absolute huge bag of shit. Fatphobia was high, and even healthy weight individuals were deemed as “curvy” or “plus size” – I mean honestly, just fuck right off.

These social pressures and appraisal did nothing to help me towards recovery and subsequently a few years later I left the fashion world pretty much over night. Size 0 sucked and the fashion world soon realised how much it sucked for business due to the public health, government and public backlash to promoting such severe thinness ideals. Surely this was a good thing? We were moving away from aiming for waists comparable to the average 7-year-old.

Heroin chic of the 90s had gone and pro-ana sites, blogs and forums were easily found and plentiful online. Entire communities gathered amongst the anonymity of the online world. Safe havens to encourage the pursuit of thin, and the glorification of such ideals became known as thinspiration, or thinspo for short. Fast forward a decade and strong is the new skinny; thinspo has been replaced with fitspo. Instead of collar bones and rib cages we now idolize sculpted bodies, low body fat percentages and big muscles. On the surface it seems health driven but when you get down to it, maintaining such low body fat percentages and building such quantities of muscle mass is just as difficult an ideal to work towards: it is also big business. It costs to get those muscles, cue the introduction of “clean eating” instead of dieting, phrases like “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle choice” and the rise of the social media influencers. Now people are paying crazy amounts of money to try to achieve a particular aesthetic. When you dig deep, it’s not all that much different, but instead with the introduction of classism – not eating is essentially free whereas superfoods and trendy gym classes are in the KERCHING!  regions, cue M.I.A. “I just want your money” (song title ‘paper planes’).

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The rise of visual social media platforms and smartphones making everyone a photographer, instagram has been a mass playground and propagator for fitspo, clean eating and ultimately a shit ton of social comparisons based on these visuals. Does my smoothie bowl look Michelin start enough? Are my abs clean-cut enough? How about in this pose? Additionally there are apps to add abs and change your photos to be who you want to be – so god knows how much of this stuff we see online isn’t even real, and here’s the catch, we compare ourselves anyway; it’s natural. Of course, we’re always going to come up short in such comparisons. Just as we always came up short to the photoshopped thinness of models in magazines and on billboards.

There have been associations made between exposure and engagement with healthy eating communities on Instagram and orthorexia tendencies [4]. Orthorexia is an obsession with eating clean foods, without impurities. It manifests as an obsessive preoccupation with eating perfectly and results in the cutting out of food groups deemed not pure enough [1]. In the rise of clean eating and the idea of purity invading in on our eating practices it’s a wonder of whether we are eating something because we like it and it tastes nice, or whether it’s trendy, seen as the new cult super food or looks good on Insta? The social pressures amongst these online communities is high, and food shaming is definitely rife like a plague amongst these online circles. Just as with starvation practices, this takes us away from listening to our bodies and their needs because external forces are dictating what, how much and when we eat.

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Although we might not be starving ourselves, models might not be collapsing and dying at fashion shows and smoking cigarettes instead of eating lunch the question lies in really contemplating just how much has really changed? How much of this change is a mask of the same old issues? The same motivations, feeding into the same desires and issues around controlling our bodies, minds and emotions? When we are so focused on our bodies and controlling them down to every minute detail, we do not have the energy to focus on bigger things. Being super lean and strong is not empowering if you’re obsessed with what you can and cannot eat. Fitspo is not empowering if it makes you feel like shit. Being enslaved to your reflection and how you look is not empowering. It might feel as such sometimes but if it’s taking away from your life in any way then it’s time to reconsider how we relate to fitspo and slogans such as “strong is the new skinny”.

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The irony of a lack of focus on holistic health in the health and wellness industries is laughable at best and shameful at worst. Are we really progressing away from hyper-vigilience around what we put in our mouths and the impacts this ha son our body shape in the pursuit of health, or is this a new era of diet, health and wellness fuck uppery? My advice for seeing between the lines? Be critical, be analytic and if an image is prescribing an aesthetic ideal get the fuck outta there quick sharp. Being pained by attaining a certain look is not progress, but instead the falsification of progress. For real change we need to call this shit out and disempower the hold they have over us as individuals, communities, men, women, and especially for our children. We need to learn to know better.


Sources:
[1] Beat (2017) Orthorexia. Available at: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/types/orthorexia .
[2] Costa-Font, J. & Jofre-Bonet, M. (2011) Anorexia, Body Image and Peer Effects: Evidence from a Sample of European Women. London: London School of Economics and Political Science.
[3] Rebekah Brennan, Marie Claire Van Hout, (2012) “Miaow miaow: a review of the new psychoactive drug mephedrone”, Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 12 Issue: 4, pp.241-253, https://doi.org/10.1108/17459261211286654
[4] Turner, P.G. & Lefevre, C.E. Eat Weight Disord (2017) 22: 277. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-017-0364-2

 

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Belly and Me Volunteering for Beat Eating Disorder Charity UK

Once upon a time I would regularly stand sideways in the mirror to scrutinise my body. Standing on the end of the bath I would use the huge wall sized mirrors to view myself from every angle possible. I would pick at bits that I particularly hated about myself to really ruminate and focus on, and trust me there were many.

In all of this extensive scrutiny my belly was the main focal point of my relentless barrage of self hatred. From taking selfies on dodgy cameras in the 2000s, to checking every reflection opportunity regardless of how skewed it may have been: the TV screen, changing rooms under dodgy lighting, and window reflections. I wouldn’t call it vanity although I understand that it may sound that way. It was never to admire myself, or to check my make up but instead to check how fat I was, and how much of a failure I was for not having lost any weight.

I used to stand in first position (ballet) and check my belly, my waist and shoulders from the back and side. Eventually I started measuring my waist multiple times a day because in my mind the weighing scales just didn’t show “progress” quite as well. I was in the depth of my eating disorder. Regardless of which eating disorder I was engaged with the same insecurities prevailed; the same poses regardless of how much weight I lost, didn’t lose or gained.

I will never get those hours back. For a long time, part of recovering from an eating disorder is removing triggers from the home: bread, cereal, weighing scales, mirrors, or whatever it is that you struggle with in particular. I only just recently graduated to getting a full length mirror again. I found it helpful in the process of learning to not obsess over my reflection and body shape or size to not have one. With just a head sized bathroom cabinet mirror to check for toothpaste, mascara smudges and whether I could push it another day without washing my hair. I’d consider these the basics. Now I have a full length mirror that I briefly check my overall outfit in sometimes. No belly checks. No shoulder blade analyses. No standing in first position and taking measurements.

I may have gained weight and realising just how much no one gives a fuck is brilliantly liberating. Sometimes now when I’m watching TV, or sat on the bed idle I actually like to rest my hands on my belly. Sometimes it pokes out from under my top in front of my friends and I’m not embarrassed anymore; it’s my belly and I’m healthy. It doesn’t mean anything more or less than that. It doesn’t need to be toned or trimmed or flattened. Sometimes it’s quite comforting to poke and prod my belly whilst sat around. I have no idea why or what exactly caused this seismic shift in mentality, but I’m quite affectionate of my belly and if I see it jiggling in a video it doesn’t upset me like it used to.

 

See here, I am having the time of my life running through ridiculously deep autumn leaves. My belly is jiggling. Yes I noticed it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t but look at that smile; that is more important to me.

Using my body to feel good and strong is more important to me. Wearing clothes that are comfortable and I feel nice in is important to me but the size label in them isn’t. I am proud of my recovery from my eating disorder. It was one of the hardest battles of my life and an experience I will never forget. This experience fuels my passion for nutrition, health and empowering others to make peace with their bodies and food. Soon, my belly and me are going to start training to be a Beat online mentor.

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There’s serendipity in this. Maybe all those hours I spent body checking, weighing and measuring myself wasn’t a ginormous waste of time. Something good can come from this in relation to my purpose on this earth; from that experience I have gained a passion, a purpose and a drive to help others. I feel that this is finally going to start happening in real terms with this volunteering opportunity and I’m really proud of that, perhaps more proud of that than my little belly.

 

Getting Active: The Preparation Position

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Getting active is and isn’t as simple as lacing up and getting out the door. Sure, to get out the door you just have to get dressed and lace up, turn the handle and put one foot in front of the other. It sounds simple right? Then why is it, that getting active is such an up hill struggle of a habit to establish into our every day lifestyles?

Excuses come up – often behind these excuses there is a reason that is stopping us from putting one foot in front of the other. Instead of inciting Nike and saying ‘Just Do It!’, which can be useful to a degree, it isn’t always an applicable attitude towards ourselves. Just Do It doesn’t harbour self compassion and reflection into why we can’t keep going out the door a few times a week on a regular basis to put one foot in front of the other.

This is a struggle I am well acquainted with. A year ago I swore I’d start running again and get active. It didn’t really happen on a regular basis and become part of my daily habit until February this year. So what was I doing for 10 months whilst I wasn’t exercising – I was engaging with a mental battle in order to get myself out the door to put one foot in front of the other – and I am 100% convinced that I’m not the only person to have undergone a journey just to establish the habit of movement.

I learned a lot during this period of time. I approached my hurdles with a problem solving mind-set, and trialled a number of solutions in order to conquer myself and the barriers that were holding me back from achieving my goal of running and climbing regularly. I have compiled a list of 15 steps that I took and learned of and from during this past year in getting active.


The Preparation Position

In order to decode the puzzle of movement, I have separated the list into 3 phases. In this phase, The Preparation Position, I address the pre-lace up hurdles that I’ve faced and how I’ve managed to push beyond them. Maybe you see yourself in here somewhere, or maybe someone you know.

The Preparation Position is as valid as any other position in our journeys to getting active – in the early days, these can be some of the most important hurdles to overcome in order to develop the habit of movement.

Despite best intentions, plans don’t work out for a reason: Find it

Over the years I have made numerous ‘fitness plans’, ‘exercise schedules’ and penned runs into my diary – which in my mind makes it an automatic commitment because y’know, pen! Until I close my Filo Fax and forget about all my plans, including those in pen.

What I came to realise this year, was that sometimes getting yourself into a routine of physical activity that you enjoy can be quite the process. At first, the excuses come along from every angle knocking you off your well-intentioned uni-cycle and underneath each excuse is a reason. You could opt to pick those excuses up and use them beat yourself up about making pathetic excuses to yourself – or you could take a step back and ask yourself ‘why?’ and therefore arming yourself with something much more powerful than self-defeating talk – you could arm yourself with an inquisitive mind of self-reflection.

Why is it always too hot, too cold, I’m too dehydrated, the roads are too narrow, it’s too dark, it’s too early? When I started asking myself these questions, I got down to the crux of what was holding me back. Most of the time it was anxiety.

I was anxious about being dehydrated and feeling awful.
I was anxious about not having enough energy to complete a run.
I was anxious about running in public and the attention that might attract, or the looks and judgements I might receive.
I was anxious about collapsing.
I was anxious about getting lost or stuck far away from home with no option to get home other than to run.
I was anxious about the discomfort of exercise.

The list could really go on and on and on. By acknowledging these anxieties and validating them I was able to think of solutions.

I began taking water with me for every run, even if it was just 2km around the block until I gained the confidence that I could handle my hydration more effectively. I started slow, and never set off running whilst hungry and realised that if I had more faith in my body it managed my energy availability and usage much more effectively than I gave it credit for. I chose to stop caring what others thought and felt about my body – I exercise for myself and no-one else.

So if you’re finding yourself reeling off excuses to yourself and others about why you don’t exercise despite wanting to get active – ask yourself why. The real why, and don’t be ashamed of the answer – by doing so you’re already a step ahead of where you were when you accepted your excuses.

Start Simple

When I first tried running and felt that god-awful burn in my lungs coughing up that metallic blood taste on my first try I decided running wasn’t for me. Instead I went to a big patch of grass and said I would just move vigorously and enjoyably for 30 minutes. I had music and I danced. I did some side steps and waved my arms around and just generally learned to enjoy movement of my body again. This is what I imagined discovering the idea of play for the first time would feel like – it was a freeing and liberating decision to just not care.

It’s perfectly fine to go gentle, it’s perfectly fine to not know which activity grabs you straight away. Embarking on a fitness lifestyle change can very much be a journey about discovering and learning about yourself in new ways that don’t occur otherwise. You learn to push your limits, make peace with your body and mind, and appreciate what your body can do.

Take it slow

Initially there was no purpose or method to my movement other than to move and enjoy it, which is purpose enough. I learned that I felt better for doing it, and I kept on until I felt a genuine urge to try running.

Don’t force yourself to do something you hate. Don’t listen to the media about how you should and shouldn’t exercise. You don’t need to go to the gym and lift or run Kms if you’re not ready. Boogieing around your house for 5-10 minutes is a perfectly good start place as any. Be flexible with yourself. Be kind to yourself.

Make it manageable and really put focus and energy on enjoyment, and the fact that you just did it was enough. No pressure for a distance. No pressure to get better. The focus became doing it for the fun of it, the good of it and essentially, the sake of it. Without trying, it will become easier.

Reframe Your Thinking

At 15 I started running because I thought I was fat. I felt like I needed to lose weight. My internal narrative during running at that time went something like,

“keep moving you fat bitch’

‘don’t stop, you’re pathetic’

‘youre so fat, that’s why you have to do this, youre disgusting, keep going you fat pig. you deserve this as punishment for eating’

In those 3 snippets of self-talk it is very evident that I wasn’t coming at myself from a place of compassion. This narrative enforced exercise as a punishment for just being. I did have an eating disorder at the time, so I’m not sure if this is actually an extreme example of negative self talk or if this is the average inner monologue if you’re dissatisfied with yourself.

Exercising as punishment isn’t healthy. Exercising to bring yourself into a constant energy deficit isn’t healthy. I managed to stick at it for a while – because I was unwell and the hatred was so ingrained. Unsurprisingly and much to my frustration, my running habit never lasted. I would never advocate anyone talks to themselves in this way, so why is it acceptable to talk to myself like this? It’s not, I deserved better and you deserve better.

It has taken a long time and may be a whole other journey to learn to love yourself, but through learning to love myself I have an entirely different narrative. It is one of self encouragement, self compassion, and self value.  Sometimes, I even hear my own voice as if it is a cheerleader, cheering myself on. So even if I’m running to that tree on the horizon with my face screwed up I will, somewhere within that creased up face, be smiling. I made it. I’m doing well.

Practicing self compassionate self talk in all areas of life helps build the habit of self-love, which can over-spill into when  you’re running up a hill that  isn’t even steep but is making a bloody big difference to the burn in your legs, the depths of your breath and getting up it is a challenge. Accept the challenge. Embrace the challenge. And congratulate yourself on even taking on the challenge. You’re allowed to feel good about yourself.

Address Health Barriers: Physical and Mental

Some barriers to engaging in an active lifestyle can be overcome with some motivation and positive self-talk and validation. There are some barriers that are physical, maybe you have a dodgy knee that needs specific attention to heal and function well? There is no use pushing through injury to strain your body further – although, maybe getting the medical and physical help you need to heal it would be a positive first step.

Maybe you’re nervous because you’re worried about the effect of exercise on you whilst  taking a medication – it is perfectly fine to seek advice on this. Pharmacists are great for this kind of thing, and massively underrated. They know their shit!

Currently, my meds can make me pretty thirsty, so I often drink a lot pre-workout and during if I can. Sometimes I feel like I’m a camel prepping to trek across the desert for 3 weeks but it helps and as a result it doesn’t stop me working out. If you’re feeling really depressed, then addressing that before you can exercise may be the way forward. Sometimes you need to improve your mood in order to exercise and improve your mood.  It seems odd, but when you contemplate sitting in your own urine because going to the toilet seems like too much of an ordeal, exercising is pretty much not going to happen. This is OK. You deserve help. We all need help in order to help ourselves sometimes. We can’t conquer ourselves on our own.

Most importantly, in this first stage of prepping to get active, you’ve taken the first step even if you haven’t laced up yet. That’s worth celebrating. Every little thing is worth celebrating and acknowledging. It’s not easy, and you can do it.


Other Posts in The Getting Active Series:

2.  Find Your Mind

3. Becoming a Kinetic Energetic

 

Dumping “Body Image” in Return for “Body Love”

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Diet culture is everywhere. It is pretty difficult to avoid, especially when dental adverts are colluding success rates with weight loss rates, and big influencers like Kim Kardashian are partnering with companies like Flat Tummy Co. to promote appetite suppressing products to their hoards of followers. It is difficult to believe that being in a body that doesn’t fit the beauty ideal of slim, toned and strong is OK. It’s hard to believe that you too are an acceptable body or that you can run a marathon.

Bryony Gordon and Jayda Seza ran the marathon this year in their underwear to show that runner’s bodies come in many different shapes and sizes. Being a different size to the bountifully pushed ideal does not mean you can’t enjoy physical activity, that you can’t be strong and most of all that you can’t be healthy. There are so many brilliant body positivity activists now showcasing that you can be “bigger” and healthy. There is a wave of activists fighting back against the body fascism and fat phobia in the name of “health”.

Since recovering from my eating disorder admittedly with a helping push from my meds increasing my weight in a way that was out of my control, I learned to relinquish any form of “control” over my body. I knew this time around on Quetiapine that it worked for me, but for it to keep on working for me I had to stay on it. Without it I relapse, plain and simple. A toss-up occurred between keeping a sense of control over my “recovered” weight and remaining mentally unwell, or relinquishing such control and giving the Quetiapine a real chance to work in the longer term. This was a very scary time for me. I have spent a decade of my life at war with my body, trying to control it and living in the safety confines of my eating disorder. Suddenly, recovery took a whole new turn – I wasn’t only maintaining a “healthy” weight, I was letting this medication cause havoc with my appetite and metabolism. If I had any hope of maintaining some stability with my moods though, this was it. Having tried most other medications suitable for my illness that this was the one that worked if I let it – and by let it I mean staying on it regardless of the weight gain. I made the only decision I could if I wanted to really start building any sort of future for myself. I stayed on the medication.

I learned a lot during this time. I learned that being well in a bigger body was definitely the right decision. My fitness journey into running, climbing and falling in love with movement, in addition to my studies in anatomy and physiology have caused a complete dimensional shift, and ultimately an entirely different view for me, on what body image is.

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Although I am no longer a skinny, my stomach has an extra padding of fat as opposed to the almost concave structure of previous years, and my thighs touch for the first time in my life. I have boobs, which are great although still slight, and it is easier to catch myself at an angle wherein which I have a double chin on show. I can shake my arms, and they wibble a little, and I have speckled cellulite over my thighs and bum when I tense. Speaking of which, I still have absolutely no bum. I need a larger size of clothes than I ever have previously yet still, no bum, and you know what? I am the most comfortable I have ever been with my body.

Yes, it looks a certain way in pictures and mirrors – but really, my body is not a picture. My body was not made solely to look a certain way. My body was made to function, to breathe, contract, relax, move, jump, run and skip for joy. My body lets me enjoy the senses of living be they the smell of fresh bread or dog shit on my shoe. My body brings me enjoyment in food, and digests it pretty well as energy in order to continue functioning as the amazing, complex piece of biological machinery that I am. Not only do I function, but my body allows for me to have a mind and a conscience. My body allows for emotions, and it fights diseases so I can still keep on enjoying experiences and living healthily. My body is not a picture. My body is so much more than that.

The sum of all this? I value my body more for what it can do, where it can take me, and the experiences it can give me. I’m no longer so hung up or concerned with looking a particular way, but more in doing particular things. Sure sometimes I have a momentary dip in confidence, sometimes I catch myself iterating diet culture messages of too much, need to lose weight, pain is gain and all that tom fuckery – but my choice in responding is to try to check in with myself when I notice these thoughts cropping up. I remind myself I am more than my mirror image and always will be.

I want to climb walls, and climb them better. I want to gain strength and resilience, and run all these races that I’ve signed up for. I want to dance, and move, and shake and enjoy what my body makes achievable for me every single day. I want to celebrate my strengths, and work on enjoying my body in more ways than I can possibly imagine. I can eat wonderful foods thanks to my body. I can conquer feats I never before thought would be possible for me like The London Marathon. I can have sex and enjoy all the sensations that brings. I can get myself around every day, and my legs do a fucking fantastic job of getting me around London on my bike. My arms do a great job at allowing me to do all the things I enjoy:  writing, reading, playing the ukulele really badly, climbing, eating, drinking, and in a hap hazardous way they contribute to my atrocious list of dance moves that I like to bust out when the party’s right. My eyes, they let me see all these beautiful sights that make me thankful to see everything I can: nature, skylines, sunrises and tropical storms. I can smell the warmth of the rain, and the freshness of cut grass and fresh coffee. The complexity of these joys cannot be captured in a photo or a mirror. Life is richer than that and so am I, and so are you.

My awkward smile may hint at the joys I have been experiencing, and my over excited crazy photos may capture a moment, but how my body looks, fuck that. It’s not important. I am healthy. I am capable, and I am taking advantage of those biological wonders that nature has blessed me with. So it no longer matters that I don’t fit into my skinny jeans, and it no longer matters that my arms aren’t spindly spaghetti features. My face is no longer structured by emaciation and malnourishment, and my waist is no longer so tiny it’s to die for, quite literally. My body is giving me life, and it is up to me to capture and cherish that fact.

So for as far as my body image goes, it’s not about image; it’s about sensations, feelings, experiences and love. Instead I will say that my body image is largely irrelevant but my body love is engaging with a pattern of exponential growth.

So there it is. I fucking love my body – and I bet yours is pretty darn fabulous too regardless of how it looks.

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What Is ‘Health’? And How Do We Define It?

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What is health and how do we define it? It’s a pretty complex topic and our interpretations will vary as much as our personalities. In 1946 the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (1) at the International Health Conference. This definition was put in place as of 1948. I don’t know about you but aiming for complete health in each of these areas feels like quite the daunting task, much like asking your crush out face to face in year 8 it isn’t going to happen.

“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”
– Mahatma Gandhi (2)

Well-being focus and all the buzz around it is booming. Gone are the days when it’s a popular idea to starve yourself to nothingness in order to achieve a fashionable “look”. The greater the engagement from each of us with our health can only be a good thing. With all this focus on healthy living, healthy eating and “living my best life” what happens when the foundations of understanding what health is and is not are poorly understood? In this sense, striving for health can be like navigating the maze in a Triwizard tournament with an extra catch, you’re blindfolded and there is no cup to be found. Bah ha! You’ve been Tango’d. Except when health is concerned, the consequences can be a bit more dire than a double happy slap. 

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Being aware of and taking responsibility for our health can help us in many ways, whether it’s feeling able and capable, happy and content, experiencing sadness in proportionate bouts and even saving us money on health visits and prescription charges. With the age of the internet however, the health messages we receive can be combobulated and skewed – identifying fact from fiction is a bit of a tough cookie to crack.

So how does the evidence for what is and isn’t healthy translate into simpler ideas? Is it being a certain “ideal” weight? Having the “right” body fat percentages? Is it healthy to living in one emotional state? Is avoiding the GP unless you think you might be legitimately dying mean you’re healthier than everyone sat in the waiting room for said GP? The waters become murky very quickly and it’s easy to lose sight elusive Goblet of Health whilst sashaying amongst the currents and tides of fads, shock factor headlines and public health campaigns that are somewhat not accurate anyway – think Weight Watchers in American schools and the Ob_s__y campaign by Cancer Research UK earlier this year. 

The crux in relation to nutrition and our relationship status with food doesn’t boil down to one measurement, or one aspect of health. What we eat and how we do or don’t eat affects countless aspects of our bodies and functioning. Some very real questions in relation to health and nutrition is currently in an antler head bashing contest amongst those in the field, whether accredited and qualified or not. Is it healthy to marginalise a population group because of a pattern of association without identifying causation? Is it healthy to drill diet culture into young minds, and thus setting them up for a lifetime of living “healthily” on diet culture? Is that even possible? I’m not convinced. I’m also not convinced that everything stocked in Whole Foods is automatically healthy – sorry not sorry. I’m also not convinced about the healthiness of many modern day normalities, such as our phones becoming an extra part of the human anatomy, using social media to gain self worth and validation, or extreme approaches to anything much at all. 

With health food shops donning more supplements than we can possibly afford or swallow, and health influencers donning skimpy clothing to show off abs, glutes that can crush walnuts and who can do more chin ups than an excitable dog can tail wags, does being healthy have to be so extreme? I’m going to go out on a whim here and speculate that there’s no extremes in being healthy. It’s actually more about a balance and happy medium as boring and unexciting as that may sound.

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A little secret not pushed by those cashing in on the trend, you don’t need an extreme diet to eat healthily. You don’t need an extreme exercise regimen to be healthy. You don’t need to always be happy and content to be healthy. Nor do you need to spend crazy dollar on fancy ingredients and farfetched meal plans. Health isn’t even a number on a scale. The BMI is a tool for guidance and definitely not definitive – many athletes have a BMI considered obese and I’ve never seen someone typically considered to be ‘obese’ competing at the Olympics.

Each of us will define health differently drawn from our lived experiences. The most important point to be made though is that health is not a destination but a tool for living. It isn’t the be all and end all, merely a snazzy individualised car for scooting through your days with. Yeah, you want to keep the gear box in check but you don’t want to be obsessing over whether your gears are always sliding perfectly. You also need to keep your oil and waters tanks topped up, but you don’t want to be watching them furtively whilst missing out on the enjoyment of your drive. It would be a shame to not enjoy and take in the views.

Sources:
1. http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/
2. 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705649/

To The Bone Behind The Mask: Inside Anorexia

*Trigger Warning* – If you are experiencing or have experienced an eating disorder this post may be triggering for you.

The song of the morning birds has just begun, she can see through the crack in the curtain that the morning dawn is about to break. Her partner remains still as the night, unaware of the creeping day ahead. Pushing and kicking the duvet between her legs she rolls over to try and grasp at another few moments of peaceful slumber, “why is it that she can’t stay awake during the day and can’t sleep at night?” Tucking her extra pillow between her jarring knees for padding she twists her body so the least of her jutting angles are bruised from the mattress.

The tranquillity of peace is unbeknownst to her. Her only peace is found when calorie limits are adhered to, when pounds drop or measurements shrink; and despite the constant battle with herself and others, these moments are few. The human body can only lose at such a rate, she can only muster the strength to push herself to such a limit, and below nothing, there is no less to eat. Of course, she does eat, just not every day, but what more can she do to please this need?

The ruminations never desist, they merely quieten in a moment of victory, a moment when she has “done well”; she has adhered to the strict regime set by her demon of X calories, less calories, less calories. The congratulatory prize is small, a minor victory – and after a while does not extend to the praise of those around her as it had done when she began losing weight. No longer is she cooed with, “oh you look so beautiful”, “oh don’t you look marvelous, look at her cheek bones and toned stomach” or, “I’m so jealous, how do you do it?” There is a fundamental issue with society here; she was never overweight in the first place and she was never fat despite repetitious hollers. Her stomach isn’t toned, it’s bordering concave; her legs aren’t sculpted; they’re weak, aching and bruised; her arms possess no strength, they’re minute and painfully angular; her face isn’t chiselled like a catwalk model, but gaunt, lifeless and exhausted.

Her complexion pales whilst she walks through town smelling the foods she can’t have, staring in the windows of restaurant chains and eyeing up menus that she can’t even dream of ordering from. The thought fills her with a fantastical excitement at how good it must taste, but the engulfing fear and dread of actually eating it is too much. She had once felt empowered by her ability to say ‘no’, to deny herself and to not need but now she needed, and she wanted so desperately to say ‘yes’. She had become powerless to her disorder.

Wandering into the supermarket she’d stalk the aisles. Picking up foods she felt intrigued by and looking at it closely through the packaging. Turning it over and looking at the calories and fat grams, 90% of what she picked up had been a far cry from what she was now “allowed”, but with each package the fascination grew: if only she could taste, feel and enjoy food: longing to let herself need, to find true enjoyment and to just eat. Each packet was sat back on the shelf for someone else, someone less greedy, and someone who deserved to eat it. Aisle after aisle: dairy, confectionery, foreign food, it all amazed her. To just read the labels and ingredients engaged every morsel of her obsession until the anxiety and pressure to actually buy something began to creep in and ruin her fun. Leaving with nothing, she tried to sneak out without raising suspicion with security. She hadn’t stolen anything, but didn’t want to be pulled over because who spends two hours in a supermarket looking at food to walk out seemingly empty handed? She was painfully aware that her behaviour would be deemed as unusual.

When she got home, her cupboards were filled with foods she could eat. Feigning enjoyment of these choices to herself she was convinced that water on cereal was delicious and how could anyone not like a bowl of lettuce and mustard? Her demon had tricked her, fooled her into thinking in new ways and instilling relentless rules of survival: cutting up food into the smallest pieces possible, chewing x amount of times each time, no eating after 7pm but no eating before 5pm either, always eat alone, measure everything, weigh ten times daily. It went on. It went on and on. She was governed by barking orders from this voice within.

She had to keep it a secret. She had to lie. She had to remember everything she ate for the last fortnight. She had to count how many items she had consumed. She had to count calories or every bite, medications and vitamins included. She had to walk here, there and everywhere that she could. She had to exercise. She had to listen, she had to comply, because if she didn’t she would be berated to a withering heap. “You’re a fat bitch!”, “You greedy cow”, “You’re a failure and disappointment.”

Once immersed within the health services she has only more people to hide from, to lie to, to fight against. She is a slave to her own game. It’s not working out so well now; she has lost her autonomy, her independence, and her freedom. Caged in a cell of constant torture she is a shell of who she used to be: no longer laughing, no longer energetic, sociable, fun or fulfilling her potential.

What started as a diet to save her from “fat” hollers, what had started as a method of ‘self-improvement’ is gradually destroying everything she was. What started as a means to control her inner turmoil and world has grasped at her every molecule and refuses to let go. Entrenched, she is obsessed and caught up in the relentless need to abscond from greed, to not need and to be less. The “oh you look so beautiful”, has turned into, ‘Is she OK?”, “She looks so unwell.”, “I don’t know why anyone would want to be that thin. It looks disgusting” but the truth is, in her eyes for as long as she is alive, she will always be fat. She will never be thin and never has been thin and that really, ‘thin’ has become irrelevant. All she ever wanted was a bit of control, and to feel a bit better.

– If you want more information or are affected by this story, something-fishy.org and B-eat are good organisations for help, support and more information.

Flushed: Inside Bulimia

 

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*Trigger Warning* – If you are experiencing or have experienced an eating disorder this post may be triggering for you.

To the buzz of 7am she hits ‘snooze’. 7.10am. Snooze. 7.20am. Snooze. Each day is dreaded and deferred for as long as can be; it is a school day. Another day of skulking along in the shadows of school walls, of silently answering the register and trying to climb the stairs to classes without collapsing into the dizzy embrace of starvation. Running her hands over her body she smoothes over her stomach, ‘how fat am I today?’ feeling the angular jut of her hip bones, ‘are they more than yesterday?’ Conveniently she doesn’t have time for anything more than her morning coffee, the warmth of which gives her a hazy buzz of faint energy to push her on the school bus where she sits by the window trapped behind her own panes of glass that suffocate her with self-hatred, anger and despair.

The noise of chaos has wound to at the full throttled pace at which it will be all day, “Fat bitch. Don’t eat. You don’t deserve to eat. You’re a fat pig. You’re a fucking ugly mess. Exercise. Burn the calories. You can survive off the fat you’re carrying you greedy bitch” and on it goes, tallying calories upon calories, adding, subtracting and goal setting.

If she could just avoid all food completely, if she could just get past those dinner time hours she would be fine, if she could just lose 40lb, she would be calmer, happier, and loved maybe? Instead of heaving into the porcelain whirlpool each and every night, homework would be done, extra study like she used to maybe. She could pull that grade up that’s been slipping so stealthily through her grasped hands. She’s not a D Grade student; predicted A’s the doubt is setting in with teachers. Her future is slipping into disappointed prospects and being flushed away just like every other part of herself, her life, her everything.

In class she answers ‘yes miss’, ‘yes sir’ so barely there, a shell of her former self. No longer is she told ‘quieten down please girls’, ‘stop the chatting’ or ‘I’m separating you three’– now, ‘I can’t hear you’, ‘can you speak up?’ ‘Oh there she is’ on resignation that speaking up is no longer an option.

Lunch is a compulsory routine in the gym alone whilst the echoes of everyone else having fun and hanging out bounce between the corridors and through open windows from the field. Being with people is exhausting. Cracks are showing. “I’m really tired too” – they retort to her passing sighs, “no, you don’t understand” fatigued, she’s unable to muster the strength to say anything; this is a whole new type of tiredness. Speaking, thinking, just existing is a task so soul destroying that she wishes for nothing more than to disappear. Unable to concentrate in class, her head meets the desk discretely and she drifts off unable to stay awake until finally that last bell of the day rings.

The kettle simmers and the taste of her hot chocolate is so soothing, the sugar rush so gratifying: shakes subside and weakness eases. Ready for bed she naps. She hears of her friends talking about hanging out after school, those days are gone. The thought of being around people for any longer than absolutely necessary rises an intolerable frustration. Loneliness is much easier; there’s no pretending to be OK, forcing smiles or hiding behind breaking defences.

Frantically grasping at and pulling boxes of cereal from the cupboard, pouring bowl after bowl she eats so fast she cannot even taste or chew before she even realises that she is in the kitchen. Frenzied with hunger and despair she has mastered the art of eating cereal and toasting slice after slice, smothering it a centimetre thick in butter and marmalade. In between toasting she lathers up pieces of bread and whilst raiding the outside freezer taking solace in knowing no one will notice. Grabbing frozen bread rolls that are too many to be counted, grabbing at frozen meals she piles a heap of chips in the oven whilst defrosting the bread in the microwave, stuffing it all in whether it is fully defrosted or not, whilst another defrosts into a soggy mass of starch in the microwave. Peeking into the food caddy, are there any leftovers from their dinner last night? How about the bin?

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She slows down, bent over nearly double, unable to stand fully for the pain of her distended stomach. Pounding the stairs fearing that she might explode in agony she heaves on 3 time after time, again and again. Saliva, snot and tears stream down her face and arm, her red raw knuckles and puddle of urine on the floor from heaving so hard are the mess she finds herself in every day. This is her secret life, this is what she is becoming, and this is her world of lies, shame and hidden torment. She hates it, but hates to be without it more. It is an addiction.

8f0e7d8485e36888d3d9faf48f0cd15eAlways home alone, there is comfort to be found here from the tip toeing around afraid of making a wrong move and listening to the screams, tears and punching of walls. Bingeing is a whirlwind of turmoil that she so desperately wants to stop but by comparison the retching is peaceful for her, a tranquil haven from reality. It is never enough until she hits exhaustion, until she is collapsing on the floor from violent heaving, and resting in the haze of the aftermath.

Climbing into bed entirely unaware if her parents even came home that night she writes a diet plan for the next month. Her goal weights are beyond emaciation yet she remains a ‘healthy weight’. Diet plans, diet pills and fad diets consume every other waking moment. Tomorrow she vows to not eat. Tomorrow is a new start. Tomorrow will be different, until it pans out exactly the same and with each grinding day, the obsessions entrench, the self-hatred deepens and the original conflict hides beneath another surface, another layer, another mask to wear.

– If you want more information or are affected by this story, something-fishy.org and B-eat are good organisations for help, support and more information.