How my clean eating turned into orthorexia
People kept complimenting me for being skinny
In the UK, over 1.6 million people are struggling with eating disorders, and around 89 per cent of those diagnosed are female. When you think of eating disorders, you probably think of anorexia. Probably because it affects around 1 in every 100 women between the ages of 15 and 30, and gets the most coverage on TV (looking at you, Skins and Hollyoaks). This isn’t a surprise, considering the fact that ‘body-shaming’ has become a phenomenon so widespread that there are articles now being written on the subject on what feels like a daily basis, the fact it is revolutionary for fashion companies not to photoshop their models, and the fact that celebrities all over Instagram are drinking magical weight-loss teas and encouraging others to do the same. Popular women’s magazines also feed into this.
In this climate of weight-obsession, I assumed that getting an ED (eating disorder) diagnosis would be simple, but in order to be diagnosed with anorexia in the UK, there is a weight criteria; you have to be 15 per cent under the minimum healthy weight for your age, gender and height. The result is that there are thousands of girls (and a smaller percentage of guys) engaging in all of the defining behaviours of an anorexic and putting their health at risk, but who can not get a diagnosis because they are just ‘too heavy.’ I used to be one of these girls.
I was diagnosed anorexic at 12. Moving to an all-female school for secondary school from a mixed primary really shot my self-esteem; so many of the other girls had already grown a foot, got boobs and a bum overnight and lost their puppy fat, and I felt left out. I started skipping breakfast, throwing away my packed lunches and eating as little as I could at dinner time. Within months, I was so scrawny I had to shop in the kids section for eight-year-olds. I’d reached my original ‘goal weight’ but I didn’t feel skinny enough. I thought that I would feel beautiful and like I fitted in, but I felt more insecure about my body than ever. My mum refused to take any pictures of me because of how sick I looked.
Thankfully, my mum referred me to a doctor and counsellor and by 15 I was weight-restored and felt mentally recovered. I thought it would be forever. After all, the narrative of sickness is that you’re meant to ‘battle’ and ‘defeat’ your disorder and go on to live happily ever after, right?
My eating disorder caught up with me again just days after I moved into my halls for university. My brain reverted back to its old dark thoughts- that the skinnier I was, the more likeable I would be. That if I didn’t lose weight, I would be a failure at everything uni wise, and at meeting friends. Left to shop and cook for myself, I began cutting calories wherever I could and going to the gym at every opportunity. I thought I was obsessed with health, the same as so many people, but I had taken this obsession to the extreme. This is what defines orthorexia- an obsession with health to the point that you are actually ruining yours. I’m all for young women making their money selling fitness plans online, getting sponsored by fitness and diet companies, but the 2014-15 Instagram obsession with #fitspo only fueled my disorder.
Within two months, my family and boyfriend were extremely worried about my health. At my worst, I was heavily restricting my intake to the point that I was barely taking on any nutrition, exercising to the point of exhaustion and even purging after drinking anything containing calories. When my boyfriends mum made Christmas dinner, it was agony to bring myself to eat even a few bites despite the fact that I was ravenous.
Throughout the year I had trouble relaxing, trouble sleeping, horrible nightmares, and trouble waking up. And yet, no-one took me seriously because I was only 2lb under my minimum healthy weight. People who didn’t know me well complimented my slimmer figure, asking how I achieved it. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that the answer was barely eating, overexercising, checking my body for hours in the mirror and spending my weekends on the toilet taking laxatives. Through this whole time, I’d never even heard of orthorexia, or truly believed I was sick.
When I moved out of halls, my family encouraged me to see my childhood doctor as well as a therapist, and I reluctantly began recovering. I became weight-restored within eight months and now, 20 months on, I have graduated and am almost completely mentally recovered. I still have days when I doubt myself and wonder if the answer to all my problems would be just to starve or purge again, but I never actually do, no matter how much my thoughts scare me.
In the almost two years that have passed, I’ve seen more and more talk about eating disorders and their contributing factors like ‘thinspo’ posts, body-shaming, and a lack of diversity in media, which is very uplifting to see.
Perhaps most extraordinary is the growth of online body-positive communities. During my recovery, I joined a body-posi group called Pizza Sisters for Life, a community encouraging ‘all genders, races, sizes, ages and life experiences to come together to promote body positive life.’ It sounds cheesy, but women like popular blogger Megan Crabbe aka. Body Posi Panda really helped me feel supported and included and taught me that I didn’t need to be a certain shape or size to enjoy life.
However, venturing into the comments sections on articles still shows me that there’s a long way to go before the general public are truly educated about EDs of all kinds and respectful to those who are battling them.
On one article about orthorexia, multiple comments said that it ‘wasn’t an eating disorder’ because ‘everyone should try to be healthier’. Most disgusting of all were comments by a pair of much older men claiming that the girl was ‘much fitter now she was underweight’ and they ‘wouldn’t have wanted to shag her before’. I urge anyone who might have these thoughts about others to ask themselves if they’d be happy with their child, partner, daughter, mother or best friend thinking of a cup of tea with 10ml skimmed milk as a hearty snack, checking their body obsessively in the mirror to the point that they have bruises from pinching , or setting aside weekends to take laxatives. Even if it did make them look, in your narrow-minded opinion, slightly more attractive.