*TRIGGER WARNING* The content of this blog may be disturbing to some people, especially those who have experience Binge Eating Disorders themselves
If you have ever met me, or were ever going to, the first thing you would notice about me is that I am fat.
Now no matter how much you deny that, to me or yourself, it’s the truth. It’s the elephant in the room, so to speak. And I am not blaming you for it, it’s just a fact.
But, there are two things that you should know about me.
1) Yes. I am fat.
2) I have an eating disorder.
Not many people consider that those two things can go together. Neither did I, until the recent pandemic induced lockdown. It gave us all time. I used this time to reflect on my mental health and, as I was doing so, a website fell into my lap. It changed my entire life.
I had never heard of “Beat”, an eating disorder charity. Even through my work as a support worker, I had never come across it. And why would there be any other reason? I certainly wasn’t experiencing an eating disorder. I mean, sure, I have a messed up relationship with all foods, I can’t stand other people seeing me eat, I have supremely low body confidence and self esteem – but an eating disorder? It simply wasn’t possible. Because I am fat.
That is what I have been trained to believe my whole life. It’s what doctors have said to me. Dieticians. Weight specialists. Consultants. Counsellors. Even my own family.
Perhaps I should rewind a little.
I was a pudgy kid. Not overweight, not obese, just pudgy. And somewhere, along the line, my pudginess became a problem. Maybe it was something a doctor said to my mum once – she looks a little big for her age – that triggered my headlong dive into a world of diets, calorie counting, failure, and shame. Some of my earliest memories are of being told to watch what I’m eating, being told off for having that last sweet, and generally being aware that my appearance was a problem. That it was wrong. From as early as 8 years old, I experienced body shame.
My mum enrolled me in dance classes from a young age, and I loved it. I loved feeling the rhythm of the music in my body, I loved moving to the beat, I loved performing. But as I grew older, the environment of the dance studio went from one of enjoyment to toxicity. The costumes became smaller, more revealing, and my body shape became even more problematic. I stopped being picked for competition troupes. I was a good dancer, great even. But no matter how good my technique, how passionately I practiced, how much energy I put into the dance, I couldn’t change the one thing that was considered wrong – my appearance. Eventually, I gave in and gave up. I left my dance school at 14 years old with the feeling that I had failed everyone.
It was when I was 11 that the bullying began. At this stage, when I look back at photos of myself, I wasn’t much different to any other kid. Maybe a tiny bit bigger? But at 10 or 11, we all still hold that cute roundness that childhood bestows us with, so I wasn’t all that different. But I was just different enough. I remember the first time another child turned to me, with a twisted scowl, and hissed “fat!” in my direction. I remember how everyone laughed. I remember the burning shame.
Going to secondary school was very much out of the frying pan, into the fire. I was taunted, pushed, shoved, spat at. I had food thrown at me every day. In fact, I had all manner of objects thrown at me. One boy cut holes in the back of my trousers so everyone could see my chunky thighs. I was disgusting. I was gross. And I was getting bigger. Every time someone was cruel to me, I took comfort in eating treats. It made me feel better as a kid, so why wasn’t it working now?
At the same time, I was being examined by doctors and dieticians. My mum monitored what I ate. I attended WeightWatchers as soon as I was old enough. I kept food diaries. But no one ever asked me how I was feeling. What was happening in my brain. If anyone had asked me, I would have been able to tell them that every time I put a piece of food near my mouth I felt sick with anxiety. I could feel all eyes on me when I had a plate in front of me, everyone studying it and deciding whether it was too much or not. I would have been able to tell the dieticians that I was raised to understand what healthy eating is, but that all food was making me feel ashamed, disgusted, and anxious. Salads, vegetables, fruits had the same effect as eating chocolate, takeaways, crisps… anything considered “bad”. All of it filled me with terror. But I was still using it as a coping mechanism to deal with all the abuse being hurled at me on a day to day basis. All of that combined was ruining my relationship with food forever. But I was too ashamed. I couldn’t tell people who already thought I was disgusting how disgusting I truly was. That I would stuff food aimlessly into my mouth without tasting it in an attempt to try and get the bad feelings to stop. The fact that it wasn’t making me feel better, they would have said to me, should tell me to not do it anymore. Simple as.
But it wasn’t that simple. Eventually a coping mechanism became habitual behaviour. I would hoard and hide food. I would eat until I became sick. All at the same time as hating my body, hating my self-proclaimed “weakness”, wanting so hard to be different, wanting to please everyone, but feeling compelled to continue the self-destructive behaviour. It was a vicious cycle.
Hurtle forward to now. I’m in my 30s and I have slowly built a career in health and social care, and I like to think that I am good at it. I hope I am. It was never work I considered doing when I was younger. I wanted to perform. I wanted to sing and dance onstage and make people feel good that way. Somewhere along my journey, all those dreams died – I was too afraid to stand up in front of others because I knew that all they would see was my shape.
Now, I spend my days trying to support others. The irony is not lost on me, and I believe it happens a lot. “Physician, heal thyself”. But it is rewarding work. It’s important, and it means the world to me. Feeling like I can make a difference in someone’s life, not only feeling it but seeing it, started to give me back some of the confidence I lost along the way. Started to make me feel more comfortable in my abilities. And if I had managed to prove people wrong, by being able to build this career for myself, then maybe everything else people had said to me was wrong too.
Those other wrongs though… are harder to shake. Because, ultimately, fat is still seen as funny. Fat is still to be ridiculed. Fat is still undesirable. In fact, if you find fat people attractive – it’s considered a “kink”. But I am not someone’s kink. I am a person.
Weirdly, the place that started to help me realise that, amongst other things, was Instagram. At first I thought I would hate the platform, it was all image sharing – which was one of my least favourite things to do – but I discovered a community on there. They called it “body positivity”. I started following more and more accounts that were body positive. I saw people of all colours, sizes, and shapes celebrating themselves, and being celebrated, for who they were. For daring to be courageous, for pushing back against diet culture and its poisonous impact on us, for speaking up and saying “I am valid too”. And wearing whatever they wanted! This idea was thrilling to me – I could wear colours? I didn’t have to just wear black? I could wear horizontal stripes! I have always loved fashion, but never felt accepted by it.
Still though, an Instagram account cannot fix a lifetime’s worth of self-hatred. It cannot undo what has been said. It cannot change your habits. But it can sponsor “Beat Eating Disorders” as a charity, and have them show up in my feed.
That is how I learnt about Binge-Eating Disorder (BED). A mental health condition. An eating disorder. And finally, a way of understanding myself.
When I first read what BED was, I cried. It was like reading my life story.
And then all I felt was anger. Fury. That the last 20 years of my life had been so pock-marked and scarred by abuse that could have been avoided. If only I had lost weight as rapidly as I piled it on. Because, uncomfortable as that may be to read, it is the truth. If it had been the other way round, I would have been diagnosed. I would have had easier access to treatment. I wouldn’t have been pushed into, what I now know to be, the worst possible position for someone with an eating disorder – diets, dieticians, weight loss programmes. I’ve done them all. And that is because fat is simply not acceptable by society’s standards. We’ll deal with your weight first, then we’ll have a look at your mental health.
When I read this statement on Beat’s website, I cried again:
“The NICE guidelines state that weight loss isn’t the intended goal of the therapies recommended to treat binge eating disorder. In fact, NICE recommends that therapy should involve advising against trying to lose weight during treatment through methods such as dieting, because this can make people feel the urge to binge eat. Treatment for any eating disorder should always address the underlying causes and the thoughts and feelings that cause issues around food and eating.”
All my life, losing weight has been the focus. Never what was happening underneath.
Nobody ever looked past my size to see the broken mental health that was causing my exterior. We are so focused on the physical. Fix it quick, it’s not appropriate. It’s not attractive. It’s disgusting. You don’t want to be disgusting do you?
No one will ever love you. You will never succeed. People won’t want to hire you. People don’t want to sit next to you on the bus. I hate you. You’re gross. This is gross. Everything about you is wrong.
These are all things I’ve been told, face to face, throughout my life. One dietician asked me, at the age of 17, if I knew what a carrot was. A professional.
Greedy, fat, lazy. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Once you’ve heard those things enough times, your defences are laid down. You’re broken, and you don’t have the energy to fight. Why should you care about yourself if no one truly believes in you? That you can have a full life? You turn numb, and the monster of depression takes over for you.
My perfectly normal childhood chubbiness turned into a hideous, self destructing, eating disorder. But instead of losing weight, I gained it. And because I was fat, I didn’t HAVE a problem. I WAS the problem.
No one stopped to think that the endless negative messages caused a rupture in my self esteem, and I needed help. Real, positive, help. Not with my body, but my MIND. It is so painful to know that your outside is more important than the endless expanse of your inside.
Now, things are different. I am still fighting to get professionals to see past my size, and to see the real problem. But I am armed with knowledge I never had. And I won’t be giving up as easily as I have in the past.
I joined an online support group for BED, and connecting with others who have had the same experiences as me has been overwhelming. I’ve never cried so much in my life as I did the first time I spoke to them. Hearing that I was not alone, that I had never been alone, in my experiences was both heart-breaking and affirming. The fact that others have been so easily dismissed because of their appearance has only fuelled my anger and frustration at the healthcare system and society.
If any professional reading this has done exactly the same thing to a patient of theirs, I am holding you accountable. I am calling you out. I am telling you to change your attitude. Change your behaviour. I am not begging you to help. I am telling you. People should not have to beg to be seen.
I am standing up for those who do not yet have the ability to do so for themselves.
After all, that is what I do for a living.
If you feel you need any support, or recognise that you may be experiencing any of the problems described here, then please do check out Beat Eating Disorders at https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/ they have lots of resources, information, and support available.