The Times Educational Supplement- 02/03/06
In Year 13 when the build up to mock A-levels was intensifying I decided to go on a diet. As an academically successful pupil, there was a self-imposed pressure to keep up my standards, and raised expectations from teachers and parents, ‘Of course you’ll do well – no question!’ But there was for me.
In my case, success did not breed confidence; it masked my lack of it. The super-succeeding pupil was terrified of leaving home and finding herself in a woman’s body that didn’t feel like it fit.
I was aware that I had grown. A teacher, commenting on a gap between two desks, said that I could squeeze through because I was ‘slim’. ‘Slim’ not ‘thin’, I noted, and was unhappy with the description. My fragile self-esteem wavered.
At the beginning of the diet I didn’t eat chocolate or fast food. Then I cut down more. Next, I avoided school dinners. The routine of school was broken by study leave, so I made up my own: I ate low calorie soup between strictly timed revision periods. Everything, I thought, was under my control. But an addiction had taken hold. The outside world – teachers, parents, friends – had become my opposition and food restriction my only ally.
I couldn’t and didn’t speak up. I didn’t know what an eating disorder was. And anyway, talking was embarrassing. The high-achiever in me wouldn’t admit anything was wrong.
When my parents realised that this obsession was not a phase, but an illness, I had achieved my A-levels (all A’s) and had my cases packed for university. But instead of taking me there, they took me to the doctor. She quickly diagnosed me with anorexia.
A pupil full of potential had withdrawn and fallen apart. My teachers heard the news. I was sent well wishes. All I could think was that I’d let them down. They asked me to get better. I said I would, but had no idea how.
Anorexia fractured my life. Age nineteen and 5 ½ stone, I was an outpatient at a psychiatric hospital and then at an eating disorders unit. In a ferocious bid to avoid further medical intervention, I recovered enough weight to make it to Cambridge University the next year where I battled with its aftermath. Issues turned from body-side to inside.
By the end of University I was more aware of my self-determination and realised that anorexia would never solve my anxieties. In my twenties, as I matured emotionally, I reflected on my goals before the eating disorder. I wanted to write. My writing turned into a book – a story of growing up, and of accepting that growth – A Shape of My Own (Viking, £14.99).
When I was very ill, nearly 10 years ago, pro-ana sites weren’t around, and I am glad that was the case. I don’t think I would have used them because I saw my eating disorder as my personal issue not as a shared experience. But exposure to such images and words in an online community would have supported my disordered behaviour, taking me even further away from the outside world and the possibility of a future without my eating disorder.
As a teenager today, in a society where slimming equals success, and obesity is a frightening word, finding a shape to fit is harder than ever, especially when images of thinness and perfection dominate the media. The pressure of perfection easily transfers from schoolwork to the body. Eating disorders need to be discussed before they take root instead of being closed up in shame and silence. Early awareness might help someone identify what they are feeling before it is too late.