For Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Izzy Harris shares the insights gained during her recovery from anorexia.
Eating Disorders Awareness Week is upon us, and for lots of us that means nothing more than a recommended article on your frequented news site, a five-minute segment at the end of Newsnight or a sponsored post from a mental health charity as you scroll through your Instagram feed. But, for lots of people, this awareness week is far more. For people struggling with eating disorders, from bulimia to binge eating, it’s a week where their illness is represented honestly in the media. For the friends and family of people struggling, it’s a week where they can read and share support and advice from other people with ill loved ones. It’s also a week when lots of people struggling find the courage to speak out about their experience, or open up to someone about what they’re going through. Stories and experiences of people who have been to hell and back with eating disorders are widely circulated this week, and rightly so. The ugly truth of these illnesses need to be shared, not just to raise awareness, but to somewhat counteract the glorification and glamorisation of anorexia on TV and in films. When I fell ill with anorexia in my teens, I would read these stories of people suffering like me, and feel understood, yet so few stories talked about recovery and how possible it is. That’s why I chose this week to talk about what I learned through recovery from anorexia, and hopefully share a bit of hope, not just for those going through an eating disorder, but for the people who love someone who is struggling too.
One of the first, and most difficult lessons I learned during recovery, was that the decision to get better had to come from me. That’s not to say that I didn’t heavily depend on the constant love, support and patience of my friends and family, or that I didn’t need the help of a professional. It takes a village to raise a baby, and a community to heal someone with an eating disorder, for sure. But no matter how much anyone loved and encouraged me, or what a mental health professional said, I would never have started to get better unless I made the first step, and committed my heart, soul and body to recovering.
Another thing that I quickly learned was how toxic the media, and social media can be, not just to someone recovering from an eating disorder, but to anyone with insecurities about their appearance. The diet industry is booming and companies selling weight-loss products find every possible way to tap into our insecurities. If you’re struggling with feeling guilt or shame about your body, particularly your weight, it’s hardly surprising when you consider that you can’t scroll through Instagram without being bombarded with edited waistlines, ads for appetite suppressant lollipops and our favourite celebrities promoting tea that claims to ‘flush out the fat’ in two weeks. I realised that I wasn’t at all to blame for hating the way my body looked. We have grown up in a society where the most powerful companies make billions just by profiting off our insecurities. What’s the answer? Detox your social media feed by unfollowing anyone that dictates, even subtly, how your body should look. Read books like The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, The Ministry of Thin by Emma Wolf and Body Positive Power by Megan Crabbe. We have to re-educate ourselves on how to respect and care for our bodies in a world where we can only look perfect by buying things.
One thing that I learned truly changed my life. And that is, when I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full, I no longer obsess over calories, spend every waking hour thinking about my next meal or being overwhelmed by body-hate. This is called intuitive eating. When you starve your body, naturally it thinks it’s in an environment where food is scarce, so it sends signals to your brain to crave, obsess and plan your next meal. When you feed your body, your brain can move on to thinking about other things. Now that I don’t starve myself, I have so much more brain space, and mental energy to pursue hobbies and be with friends, rather than spending every minute thinking about how much I wanted a doughnut.
When I was anorexic, my body started shutting down. My periods stopped, my nails and skin were flaking off, my hair fell out and my liver and kidneys slowly started to malfunction. During recovery, I gained a lot of my important body fat back, and every day I marvelled at how my body was fixing itself. I learned that no one wants me to survive as much as my own body. My body forgave me for the all the damage I’d done to it, and gave me back my hair, my nails, my organ function and my periods. We don’t give our bodies enough credit for fighting for our survival, relentlessly every day. Our bodies bounce back when we allow ourselves to heal. I learned to treat my body with the love and respect it deserves. I owe her an apology for all the trauma I’ve put her through over the years.
The most important lesson that I learned is that recovery from anorexia is long, hard and exhausting, but so possible. During recovery, I thought I would never look in a mirror and not cry at what I saw reflected in it. I believed that I would always be stepping on the scale every day, and hating myself if it didn’t show me the number I wanted. I really thought that I would always feel crushing guilt and pain every time I ate something I hadn’t planned my daily calorie allowance around. But recovery works in strange ways. Recovery feels like decades of hard work and little pay off at times. But one day, you’re eating lunch and you realise you didn’t pick the lowest calorie item off the menu, and you didn’t even think about it. One day you wake up and realise you haven’t weighed yourself in months, and you don’t care about a number on a scale. One day you’ll look in the mirror and you’ll realise that you’ve been looking at somebody strong, resilient and beautiful the whole time, and the body you see reflected is something to treasure and love, not to loathe and fix. When that day comes, there will be happy tears and laughter and hugs and carrot cake. Or whatever cake you like best. You won’t be looking down at your plate, you’ll be looking at the faces of loved ones and the world around you, because life is beautiful when you’re not hating your body.