*Trigger warning for self-harm/anorexia/bulimia*
This is a cliché, but it is difficult to know where to start when writing about my body. From existence? We talk about ‘bodies’ as if they are somehow separate others, yet what am I if not purely my body? Perhaps that scares me more than if my body and mind were separable. Growing up my body was me, always – I ran, or grew, or was damaged in a playground fall – yet at the beginning of the inevitable slide into puberty bodies become something else; untrustworthy objects that swell and act defiantly out of our control, things to be scrutinised and unwillingly accepted with time.
Since around about 2nd year, I increasingly saw my body as something I should use in some way to express myself – whether by trying to distort it to somehow show the ‘real me’ or (this came first) by using it as something which I could use for emotional release. I got into the habit on binge-eating after school to deal with stress and general teenage angst (and then grew increasingly horrified at the weight gain, which felt completely unconnected to my actions); later, when that didn’t help, I got a release from pocket scissors in the webbing of skin between my middle and ring fingers. I wore gloves to hide any marks, but eventually stopped after a mortifying moment when holding hands with a friend.
Every year, I made a secret New Year’s resolution to lose weight, and gain control over my body, and eventually, in 2009 I gained ‘control’ in the form of an eating disorder that effectively lasted for two years, and which still lingers in some ways. The mind-set of these things is incredible – the only way I can describe it is to compare it to an addiction where control, starvation and listening to the commands that eventually occur unprompted in your head are the drugs. The first six months are now a sort of blur of rules and numbers, and a thrill in feeling my body shrink that increasingly gave way to exhaustion, and the unwilling realisation that I, in fact, was no longer the one who had any control at all. Recovery was longer and slower than I ever expected it to be, and in many ways lasted longer than the disorder itself. But the process taught me so much. Calorie-counting is insane! A calorie is the measure of the energy required to heat 1 litre of water by 1 degree C. Thin doesn’t mean healthy, fat doesn’t mean unhealthy. If you listen, physically, bodies tell you what they (you) need. Scales are inaccurate and weight fluctuates by kilos. Most importantly, advertising is mad: for years I failed to see that women are beautiful when they are healthy and confident, not when they starve and pout. I still have difficulty doing this sometimes, but at least I can now see it’s a lie.
The most important thing that came from recovery was a newfound, unshakable, almost instinctive respect for my body. It never fails to amaze me just how strong my body can be, and how fine-tuned it is to my needs. When I starved, my metabolism slowed right down; my periods stopped to save energy; the hair or my arms and face grew longer and faster to keep me warmer; I craved food until I binged. Despite my best efforts it held on to every ounce it could, and kept going. That alone, and the disparity between how I felt and how I feel, have made me eternally grateful for my body – regardless of the occasional hatred of my body’s appearance or new weight – new hips, new boobs, the sour disappointment of ill-fitting clothes – I can’t help but love some small, deeper part of it simply for being alive and strong.