‘So, are you recovered?’
I’m sitting in a darkened studio at BBC Broadcasting House. Of all the questions I am asked, this is the hardest to answer.
Let me explain: at the age of 19 I developed the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. (The reasons were complex and varied, including a catastrophically broken heart.) For the next decade I was functioning fine on little more than an apple a day. During my illness I lost nearly half my body weight: when I started at Oxford University I weighed around 130 pounds; by the time I graduated aged 21, I weighed around 70 pounds. It took me more than 10 years to see that I wasn’t “fine” at all.
So, last year, I set myself the biggest challenge of my life: I decided that I would overcome anorexia. I would stop living on fruit and yogurt, and start eating normal food, like a normal person, in a normal way. I would give up starving myself. I would start to shop and cook and eat with the rest of the world. I would find something more addictive and compelling than hunger.
Here are a few of the reasons I decided that enough was enough:
Number 1: I wasted my entire 20s not recovering from anorexia. I would not waste my thirties.
Number 2: All the therapy and drugs in the world won’t cure you of anorexia. I had tried everything: psychoanalysis, medication, homeopathy, acupuncture. I had made countless promises to myself and the people I loved, and each time I had failed. There is no magic bullet. To beat anorexia you have to eat.
Number 3: It simply didn’t make sense. It was never about appearance. I had never flaunted my body, aspired to look like a model, or been obsessed with fashion magazines. I don’t think the skeletal look is remotely attractive. Anorexia made me feel weak and scrawny, not beautiful.
And there was something else too, something very simple: I was bored of anorexia. It’s exhausting to fight yourself every minute of every day. I was tired of waging this one-woman battle against myself. At the age of 30, I fell in love, and I wanted to move on with my life. I wanted to have a baby—I still do—and that wasn’t possible until I gained weight.
In my memoir An Apple a Day I wrote about my illness and recovery, and how it feels finally to be healthy. Like many “confessional” writers, I’ve been accused of narcissism. I have been called “too thin” and “too fat,” a fraud and a bore ... I actually, liberatingly, no longer care! Because this is not just about me and my battle—it’s about us. As Doris Lessing wrote in The Golden Notebook, “writing about oneself, one is writing about others.”
The truth is, I’m not the only woman who has starved herself skinny, or tried to; many of us feel guilty, worthless, or out of control around food. I’m not the only one who has calculated each day what they will and will not eat; or wondered “if I eat whenever I’m hungry, will I ever be able to stop?” No matter how feisty or feminist you think you are, I bet there’s a part of you that would like to be slimmer.
Mostly this desire is so automatic that we barely register it; you know, that voice telling us that thinner is better, prettier, happier, sexier. I’m not saying no one should lose weight or exercise for health reasons. But the modern obsession with thin is way out of control. As Western levels of obesity soar, profoundly disordered eating and body dysmorphia also proliferate. Look at the constant “fat talk,” the rueful, God, I hate my thighs bonding in changing rooms, at school gates, over the buffet table. Self-denigration is a shortcut to female friendship (and woe betide any woman who loves her body). Our daily narrative: “You look amazing! Have you lost weight?”; “OMG those jeans are so slimming!”; “If you see me going near a carb today, shoot me!”
For me, our attitudes to our weight and bodies are fascinating and confusing in equal measure. I find myself simultaneously involved and alienated, both a participant and an outsider. Of course I understand what women mean when they refer to being good (dieting), or being bad (greedy), or treating themselves (cake). I get it when women talk about disliking specific parts of their bodies: upper arms, stomach, thighs. But it’s hard, too, emerging from a decade of severe food restriction, to look around me for examples of how to eat normally, and how to love and live with and accept myself, only to find that the majority of women are struggling with these issues too.
Back to that radio interview, and the tricky question I still can’t answer ... Recovery from anorexia is probably never completely “over.” I’m back to a healthy weight—I’ve gained 20 pounds in the past year. (And when’s the last time you heard a woman say that with a smile on her face?!) But anorexia is a mental illness, and physical recovery is only one aspect. Over and over again, at times of intense emotion in my life—happiness or grief, excitement or stress—I have found myself unable to eat. The cause is anxiety or emotional turmoil, not the desire to be thin.
Do I still find it hard? Yes. Am I ever going back? No. Anorexia nearly killed me and there is nothing about being underweight I miss. I don’t miss the desperate shopping trips, trying on size zero jeans and finding them too baggy. I don’t miss the constant cold, or bruising, or insomnia. I don’t miss the medical appointments, the isolation, and the anxiety about every shared meal. I don’t miss getting out of bed and feeling that I’m about to black out. I don’t miss the terror in my parents’ eyes.
When I was ill, people often talked to me about “willpower” as if starving myself was somehow strong. This is wrong. It is eating sanely that takes real strength. In the 21st century we need to learn to ignore the magazines, TV, and celebrity nonsense, the body-bullshit, the cosmetic surgery and dangerous diets. Anorexia weakened me, but recovery has made me made me strong.
Now I’m putting the sad stuff behind me—and after a decade in the wilderness I reckon I've got a lot of catching up to do! In this new column I'll be covering current affairs, culture, gossip, and events in the U.K. ranging from plays to concerts to marches to poetry readings, feminist salons and literary death matches, new bar and restaurant openings. I’ll be ranting about things that get my goat—from the Nigella furor to the royal bump to the British obsession with the weather to why skyscrapers are taking over London. I'll be out and about, drinking cocktails at the top of the Shard, and taking the temperature of the capital. Join me every fortnight, right here, for the view from London ...
Emma Woolf is a journalist, TV presenter, and the author of An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia. Her new book The Ministry of Thin came out in June 2013. Emma lives in London. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf.