Six numbers. A goal, the “model standard” measurements. Placing my self-worth in some odd code, arbitrarily numerical, wishing to make sense of this fluid non-binary system that logged my every move. Three fours, two threes, and a two – linked together with dashes and much less than robotic feelings of self-disgust. My body was a machine, run by some code, and though my brain retained sentient disobedience my body would damn well do what I told it to do. I would starve until I hit those numbers, and then starve some more when I finally did. I would disappear, become ethereal, be someone else’s “thispiration” ideal. All collarbones and pale skin. I would be perfect. I would be in control.
That’s how I felt back around 2009. The days when numbers ruled my every waking moment, and often the dreaming ones too. Like so many I grew up with a warped sense of my own body, a feeling of detachment and shame nurtured at the barre in dance studios and the schoolyard by bullies. I was a chubby little kid, “husky” I think they called it back in the 90’s, a term seen as somehow kinder than any other though I will never understand why.
Despite being one of the most active kids amongst my peers, learning to dance the moment I could walk, somehow I just always carried a little extra around my tummy. Nothing obscene, just a little “puppy fat” to most, but I can still to this day vividly remember the anxiety caused by the thought of a ballet leotard and studio walls covered in mirrors, floor to ceiling. I could only have been about six or seven and I already hated my body and wanted to look like all the other girls in class. I crafted my own perfectly choreographed routine of “Miss Julie, I’m too cold to take my warm-up skirt off!” to maintain a little extra coverage on my body, not have to fully face my own skin in those mirrors for the next hour. I would rather be too warm than look at myself in that leotard, rather face the physical discomfort, perfectly mirroring that of what I felt in my own skin.
It really all goes way way back for me, and this is how in 2011 my shrink knew quite instantly what I was dealing with – EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) with a large serving of Body Dysmorphic Disorder on the side. I had been living with the latter since those leotard days, but the EDNOS was a more recent discovery. I also happen to fight severe chronic illness and disability and at that time was still only just a few years into my initial deterioration and diagnosis , so my body was something I had little to no control over at that time. So instead I sought control over it via food and numbers.
Fasting, restricting, laxative abuse, “detoxes”, and even somehow finding a way to still over-exercise even through my disability. My other health conditions left me with an inability to purge, a sore point at the time but a hidden blessing. I would’ve done anything to hit that GW (goal weight) marked in my pro-ana tumblr bio and those ever-present measurements in my head.
I had just three “safe foods” – Special K, grapes, and sweet corn. Between days of fasting I would restrict my intake to these three empty foods, soullessly measuring out a single cup of the bland cereal with a hasty dash of non-fat milk, toying at the bowl with a spoon, never emptying it all the way.
Counting out grapes one by one by one, and feeling endlessly proud when I’d leave a few behind of the exactly 20 single tiny green fruits I’d placed in my bowl. And when the craving for just a taste of warm food was too strong to bare any longer in the freezer I’d dive, measuring a single cup of sweet corn into a microwaveable bowl, waiting for the dish to warm up, saliva forming in mouth, ravenous. Then dousing the dish in so much pepper it would make me feel sick, so I’d stop eating it almost instantly. Again, a wave of pride would wash over me.
I was deeply sick.
I managed to mostly hide it from my parents amongst the chaos of my chronic illness, an easy trick to play at the time. I was sneaky. I wore baggy clothes and simply claimed my meds and illness-related Gastroparesis were the cause of my non-hunger during family meals. I led a double life, a miserable excuse for existence. Yet I could not stop.
I would often get heart palpitations, flutterings in my chest which according to my thinspo gurus and pro-ana advice groups online were a sign that I was shrinking, disappearing the way I wished so hard to, becoming delicate and dainty – all collarbones and jutting hips. These warnings brought me joy. Until one night I awoke, feeling like I was truly dying. This was it I thought, the end. I was finally going to disappear, my broken heart would finally just simply stop beating… but somehow sudden;y this didn’t excite me anymore. I feared for my life. I shouted for my mum and in the dead of that lonely night, after my heart regained its rhythm, I regained my will to live. The next day I saw the doctor and from there the true fight began.
I have now been in recovery for what will be six years in the new year and it has not been an easy ride for me. Every single day is a struggle to feel positively towards food and finish what’s on my plate. It doesn’t help that the over a year of time spent fasting and restricting have left irreparable damage to my gut, or that I also suffer from Dysautonomia and Gastroparesis anyway. But even without those factors I’d be struggling. The hardest thing is eating in front of people. I can be absolutely starving at a party filled with plates of delicious finger foods and the like and I’d still manage to swallow my hunger and breezily quote my routine phrase “No thanks, I ate before I came! No honestly I’m totally fine, oh yeah I’m full really couldn’t eat another bite!” My friends are constantly encouraging me to eat when we’re together, resorting to almost force-feeding me snacks and meals cooked much to my “no I’m fine’s!” and “honestly please don’t worry about me”, somehow even the new friends who don’t “know” seem to already know.
But for the most part I now eat every day, sometimes still forgetting and skipping a meal or two but always trying to make up for it. As long as nobody is watching then my current relationship with food though still imperfect is relatively stable. Though I fight every single day it has become almost possible to forget that I am actively in recovery from such a pernicious disorder.
However there is a reason I’ve been inspired to re-tell my story today and share my struggles with the world once more. The other day I had to take my measurements for a photo-shoot collaboration I have in the works with a lingerie brand (an act which in itself is meant to be a reclaiming of my body and grand gesture of body positivity) and I found myself feeling a certain way again which very much scared me and reminded me that I will always be fighting this… I will always be fighting my eating disorder.
I’ve recently lost quite a lot of weight once again, though this time due to severe flare ups and deterioration in the state of my chronic illness. I don’t own a body scale anymore, haven’t for years, and I never take my measurements unless absolutely necessary. I don’t even own a measuring tape for fear of relapse. So with trepidation I wrapped the string around my body, aligned the length with a ruler, and when the numbers I wrote down showed six digits all much smaller than I ever expected it all came flooding back to me…
I felt a sudden and overwhelmingly intense sense of pride. That dark, nebulous, indescribable feeling of accomplishment welled up inside me once more for just a moment, patting myself on the back, until very quickly I realized what was happening. I was slipping. I was falling immediately back on old habits, placing my self-worth in those damned arbitrary numbers yet again, treating my body like some robotic machine comprised of this pointless code. In that moment I was instantly 19 again, shooting bolt upright awake in my bed, clutching at my heart, unable to breathe and thinking it was all over… and with this one swift but vivid memory I knew quite clearly that this is not what I want anymore – I will not fall victim to this demon again.
I am more than these numbers. I am immeasurable. I am not made up of some silly code, weighing up my self-worth into inches and pounds. I am made of love and light, of my empathy for others and my great wish to help bring light to the world. I am made up of art and music and prose. Of books read, journeys traveled, and songs sung. I am made up of memories of my recently lost mother, and the unyielding strength of my father. I am my experiences and my struggles, my daily battles for survival against the odds and my drive to always be better than the day before. The support of my beautiful friends, the ones who always try to feed me and refuse to take “I’m full” for an answer. I am made of some days lost and others won. I am made up of more than this disordered thinking and I definitely do not want to disappear anymore.
34 – 24 – 34 is no longer the locker code to accessing my self-worth, these are just numbers to me now.