I don’t believe I meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, but I have “eating issues”. They first became apparent when I was at university, and was very interested in animal rights and environmental politics. I’d already become a vegetarian before leaving home, but in my first year at uni I decided that the only logical course of action was to become vegan. I quickly learned a lot of tricks and tips to become a pretty good vegan cook of vegetables and soya products. I took calcium and iron supplements, but continued to eat a lot junk food (chips, crisps, vegan chocolate and Coca-cola being particular favourites), because wasn’t the healthiness of food which obsessed me, it was the correctness. And I was obsessed; if I went to a restaurant and suspected something I’d asked to be prepared without eggs or dairy had become adulterated, my throat closed up and I could not swallow it. I carried a copy of the Vegan Society’s Animal Free Shopper everywhere with me; food shopping took a long time, because I needed to scrutinise every label to ensure that the product contained no unexpected animal byproducts. It must have been clear to those close to me, however, that however morally pure, physically the diet was not doing me any good. I weighed just under 7 and a half stones for a height of 5 foot 4 inches, giving me a BMI of under 17.5 (healthy range being 18.5 – 24). I’d always been thin, no matter what I ate – my nick-name in middle school was “Stick Insect” – but this was a new level of bone-revealing thinness. My periods came very infrequently, about every 6 months (a clear sign of being undernourished) and I suffered from terrible acne which was treated with topical antibiotics without very great success. Occasionally, people would ask me if I suffered from anorexia, which would always make me incredibly angry. I was angry firstly because they were commenting on my body shape, and secondly because they had failed to grasp that my diet – and therefore my body shape – was all about the animals, not about me.
Except a couple of years later, when I read a Women’s Press handbook (I was also a very uncompromising feminist at this age, anything by TWP was a must-read) called The Anorexic Experience, I began to see a number of parallels between my feelings about food, and the feelings of the women in the book. I began to feel uncomfortable noting how my reading of labels and my fixation with completing one full hour’s yoga every day mirrored the women’s obsessions with calories and exercise. Some described a sense of moral superiority at being able to rigidly control what they ate, so that they equated others’ fatness with a lack of moral continence. I squirmed a little, thinking of the times I had sat self-righteously over my tofu, shaking my head inwardly as my less-evolved dining companions tucked into cheese and meat. That was about 15 years ago; only in the last year have I come across the term orthorexia, identified by Dr Steven Bratman in the late 1990s. From the Greek “ortho” (right or correct – like orthodox beliefs), the term refers to a condition whereby people become obsessed with eating a “correct” diet in terms of being healthy or “righteous”. It’s not a medically recognised term, but I certainly recognise that my veganism could fall under this heading. Bratman’s two screening questions: “Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it? Does your diet socially isolate you?” would have received a definite yes, thinking of the times I sat eating a plain salad while my family enjoyed a pub roast or a curry.
I stopped being a vegan in 1998, when I weaned my first child. I had decided that while vegan pregnancy and breastfeeding might be one thing, a life where I was constantly worrying about my child’s protein and B vitamin intake was just too complicated. Right now, I’m not even a vegetarian; I tucked into turkey and pigs in blankets this Christmas. Yet every now and then, I determine that I simply must become vegetarian again, or better yet vegan. I begin to feel sick inside at the mismatch between my ethical position on killing animals and my thoughtlesseating habits. For a few weeks, the kitchen becomes filled with soy cheese (ick) and egg replacer before I, inevitably, crack – first to eating cheese that actually tastes like cheese, then fish, then chicken, then by this point everything is irrevocably broken and I might as well have a bacon sandwich. So I do. Like many people with mental health problems, I am a very black and white thinker.
Following the birth of my babies in my mid-twenties, I began to find that I could no longer eat whatever I liked as still remain a Stick Insect. Weight began to creep on, starting with my bottom, hips and breasts, and then suddenly everywhere else. By the time my daughter was 4 years old I weighed 12 stones, as much as I had when 40 weeks pregnant with her, and I decided that This Must Stop. I didn’t want to go to WeightWatchers meetings, or pay for online membership, but I had heard good things about their system so I bought someone else’s starter pack on eBay and set myself up a points tracking spreadsheet. I immediately found that I loved the counting; and I was back to label reading, only this time I was translating the fat and calories into points. I was constantly working out in my head how many points I main gain by walking instead of taking the bus, or by swimming instead of yoga, and what I might be allowed to eat with extra points. Except I knew I would never eat them all up – having set myself a limit of 18 points/day (the minimum recommended), I derived immense pleasure from living of 16 or, better yet, 14. I did lose weight – almost four stones of it, and fairly quickly – but I have found myself completely unable to keep the weight off. Over the past 8 years it has crept back on, but not at steady rate, because I have sporadically fought back with yet another diet. These days the brief ethical panics definitely play second fiddle to the obsession with losing weight. Whether it’s low carb, low calorie, zero sugar or low GI, for a period of days, weeks, or months I am happily ensconced within the rigid boundaries of my diet. I like knowing what the parameters are, and I feel safe when I am eating the “right” things. The diets never come alone, though; they are always accompanied by a rigid exercise programme which requires that I exercise every day for the “right” amount.
The diets never last long, because they are ultimately unsustainable in a family eating all manner of other things. For a while I can ignore the fact that my partner has brought Kettle Chips or biscuits into the house. I smile tolerantly and shake my head when my teenage son offers me a sip of his Coke or my daughter waves a square of chocolate in my direction. Then, one day, I crack – and once I crack, it’s all over. One square of chocolate has spoiled it, so I may as well eat the whole bar. And now there’s no point going for a run (even though I am completely aware that running is beneficial for its own sake, and it would be better to cancel out the calories from the chocolate with some exercise). For the whole of December, I have binged. Mince pies, port, chocolate oranges, chocolate fingers, Christmas cake, crisps, breadsticks, jelly, trifle, and litres and litres of Coke. Not in moderation, but as a continual grazing in addition to my three meals. I was already well on the way to growing out of many of my clothes, but this has clinched it. So here I am, just like every January, embarking on a change diet. This time I’m really trying to get out of the rigidity and ditch the counting. I’m allowing myself to eat whatever I like, as long as it’s real food, food with some nutritional value. That list of festive foods is a list of crap, high sugar and high caffeine, and can only be as unhelpful for my bipolar moods as it is for thighs. Yet I know I’ve been down this “January shopping trolley full of fruit” route before, and part of me knows it’s only a matter of time before I ditch it and reach for the tiramisu. Then it will all be over…