Eating disorders: Some thoughts on being de-programmed

Yesterday I found myself in a room with a woman who was telling me that it was permissible to eat. She also told me that it was permissible to put on weight, and permissible to grow as you age, and permissible not to have rules about every single item of food that you buy. It was all very radical and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It felt a bit cultish, or rather un-cultish. It was as though I was being de-programmed, made to unlearn all that I’d come to believe. What she was saying made sense, yet it sounded so odd. I kept thinking “but that’s not what I’ve been told. How can you be right and everyone else be wrong?”

It is strange, what they tell you on an eating disorders programme. An awful lot of it seems based on the assumption that everything else you’ve been told about food and weight is completely untrue. Moreover, it is persuasive. I left the session thinking that the woman could be trusted. Yet how could it possibly be that way round? Surely no one would wait until individuals were actually ill before telling them that all those things they’d thought were right – all those things which had distorted their perceptions – turned out to be lies all along. The whole thing is so implausible it’s no wonder some of us spend years thinking “all that size acceptance stuff? It’s just an excuse for being greedy and weak. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect everyone to conform to a very restrictive ideal for body shapes. After all, if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be trillions of books, magazines, DVDs, advertisements and TV programmes telling us that it was”. Well, turns out I, and countless others, got it wrong. The expectations placed upon us are massively unrealistic. We just haven’t dared admit it to ourselves.

I can’t ever recall not having a messed-up attitude towards food and my body. I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder when I was 11, no doubt because up till then I was merely considered to be overweight. Aged 11 I became anorexic. It’s only extreme thinness that indicates distress. Fatness merely signifies badness, or at least that’s what I assumed. It certainly felt that way. I wanted to be attractive, feminine and unobtrusive, “a perfect size six”, like Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. I wanted to dance around daintily like the women on the Lean Cuisine and Crunch ‘n’ Slim adverts. I didn’t want to end up like Bella Emberg or the Mighty Atom. Everyone in my family laughed at them, the comedy fat women whose punchline lay in the fact that they mistakenly believed themselves to be worth as much as everyone else.

The book we were given during our “period talk” informed us that providing we’d always eaten sensibly, we should have no need for “silly crash diets”. The advice was illustrated by a line drawing of a plump girl in a leotard, standing on bathroom scales. She had a thought bubble above her head showing knickerbocker glories and hamburgers.  Her figure was like mine and I felt every bit as ridiculed as her for my lack of “sensible” eating skills. I cut out the knickerbocker glories that I’d never eaten, and then I cut out everything else.

It has taken me decades to admit that there is any link between popular culture, the dieting industry and serious eating disorders. I’ve always preferred to go for the “deep psychological trauma” line, the one that lets everyone else (barring your family or some mystery abuser) off the hook. It is tremendously embarrassing to admit that actually, that stupid yellow Count Your Calories book you bought for 45p from WHSmiths had some part to play, as did Victoria Wood with her One Cal adverts, and even Nancy Reagan, just because she was really, really thin and you weren’t. You’re basically admitting to dicing with death for trivial, frivolous reasons. And yes, you can still say “but I’ve got some trauma stuff, too” but already you’ve made yourself look like the type of person who’s too superficial to be deeply scarred by anything at all.

I don’t believe the link between diets and EDs is a simple one. Or rather, it is obvious why semi-starvation – sold to us as “detoxing” and “healthy living” – can mess with a person’s mind, and obvious why a continual barrage of low-fat, low-carb, low-everything marketing messages can destroy a therapist’s attempts to persuade an anorexic that it is in fact normal to eat normally. Still, it’s not clear to me why some people suffer more than others. One psychiatric nurse (who won no awards for her tact) once told me and several others that she’d had a much harder life than us but was “better at coping”. Perhaps she had and she was; I have no idea. But then why do any of us buy into some things and not others? I find it impossible to believe in God yet perfectly easy to believe that if the top of my thighs touch, this means I am a bad person.

So right now I feel like I’m being deprogrammed. I am recovering from a lifetime of brainwashing, a form of mind control to which some people are more immune than others. I wish I had been stronger when I was younger, but I wasn’t. I wish I’d been more like this brilliant young blogger here, someone who actually has the nerve to challenge the miseducation of her peers. It is amazing that these things need to be written at all, let alone that they sound unusual and powerful:

Having fat is absolutely normal I have fat; the queen has fat; everyone has fat so don’t be ashamed of it!!

If we’re going to hear messages every day telling us how we should be, why can’t they be more like this? After all, as I am finding, if no one ever tells you the truth it can take an incredibly long time to unlearn the lies.


10 thoughts on “Eating disorders: Some thoughts on being de-programmed

  1. Yes: trying to overcome the brainwashing that young girls and women suffer as soon as they can understand words is very very hard and takes a great deal of very very hard work. I find it really positive that blogs like this and the groundswell of resistance against the messages that we are fed encouraging. Thank you.

  2. Just recently found your blog and am so happy to have done so. I have nothing even remotely interesting to say right now and yet still feel compelled to comment, somehow, on this post, because it made me laugh and is also really terribly moving. So, that.

    Also: “better at coping,” what a helpful thing to say! Blergh.

  3. If your ‘better at coping’ is being cold, cruel, callous and lacking in empathy, then the only person you’re better at coping than is a fairytale stepmother and I claim my ten pounds because your lack of insight and human decency will cause you more issue than all my issues put together…

    I’m sure most of my ED issues were caused by societal influences and peer pressures putting thoughts and feelings in my mind so that when I did have an event I found traumatic and difficult, they offered a seemingly logical response. And it’s been peer influence and acceptance that made me realise I had an issue and are helping me tackle it now. I’m very brain-washable.

    But oh, the last few months when the incessant self hating voice has gone quiet has been brilliant. I’ve achieved more than the last 20 years put together (not hard…) so enjoy getting even a bit of respite. It’s blessed relief!

  4. I was watching old home movies last night. In one of them, my uncle had the camera and was filming the women in my family making lunch. All of them made comments about not wanting to be filmed eating. I had just turned 2, spoke in full sentences and could spell my name. I was sitting on the floor with a plate of crackers when my uncle turned the camera to me, I quickly hid the plate and burst into tears.

  5. Kudos to you for allowing yourself to learn about escaping the hell that is life with an eating disorder. I remember that when I was trying to recover from an eating disorder, I read that the secret is to “eat when you are hungry, and stop when you feel full”, and to eat all foods in moderation. This whole concept seemed completely unthinkable. I thought, no fricking way – I’m always hungry, so I would be eating constantly, and how could I allow myself to eat until I actually feel full! That’s gluttony and is absolutely disgusting. And the thought that I could allow myself to eat something high in fat/calories as part of a planned meal/snack (rather than as a guilty binge) was just ridiculous. And yet, somehow I learned to do all that, and though I am not rake thin I’m not big either, and it is such a relief not to have to worry 24/7 about food and eating any more. All the very best to you.

    1. And what I forgot to say (but was my main message, really) is: the whole key is learning what it is to be hungry, as opposed to distressed, angry, nervous, or needing comfort/reward. Our bodies need fuel; our psyche also needs nourishment but in a completely different way, and we get so many confusing and wrong messages about how to nourish ourselves.

  6. Really glad to have found your blog today. My daughter is still a baby but I’m terrified by the messages being passed on to our daughters. I’m planning a post on this soon. Thanks for this really enlightening and thought-provoking post.

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