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Strong is the New Skinny

10th February 2020

Part 1

The bathroom weighing scales had the power to dictate my mood for years. They could make me so mad I’d rip out the batteries and throw the whole thing in the bin in triumph, vowing never to weigh myself again.

Soon after, I’d buy new bathroom scales. I couldn’t keep apart from them. Maybe I’d have a better relationship with these ones. Maybe they could live in the draw under my bed and only make an appearance when I said so. Maybe this time, I’d be in control of them.

That didn’t really happen. Despite living in the draw under the bed, the scales would be taken out every morning. ‘Well done Lou’, I’d say out loud, if the number was strikingly low. I’d throw on my loose trousers to disguise my anorexic legs and scuttle off to uni with my high-density, low-calorie breakfast.

There were two characters inside who fought with each other a lot. It was a battle every day to ask them to compromise. Character 1 was extremely sociable and loved dressing up, going out, chatting and drinking. Character 2 thought the isolation of staying indoors and keeping calories under control was priority.

If a few events were happening in one week, we had our work cut out to negotiate with each other. It was unlikely there would be enough calories in my weekly allowance for two events. Character 1 had to choose her favourite and stay at home with Character 2 on the other occasion. She felt happy that Character 2 was happy and there was absolutely no desire to upset this equilibrium.

I was in my 20s when I started dating a body builder who I met online. He was the gentlest soul but his arms were so huge it scared me and he would roar so loud, it was as if he was releasing the world’s testosterone, every time he had an orgasm.

I never will know if he used steroids. He had spots on his arm muscles, which they say is a sign of steroid use, though when I queried them he said the spots were because he’d eaten too much chocolate. Funny, the chocolate-induced spots never appeared on his actual face.

I was scared when he suggested going to the gym together. I bought myself baggy tracksuit bottoms the week before in preparation, refusing to take them off even when our workouts were so intense I was burning hot. I’d rather that than reveal my anorexic legs in the gym Lycra underneath.

Before our first gym session, I genuinely didn’t know that a squat involved sticking your bum out, as if you were sitting on a toilet. It went against everything I’d learnt in my years of ballet class, where the plié involved tucking your bum underneath you, as if it wasn’t there at all.

‘This is where food comes into it’, he said, as I struggled to move 11 kilo weights with my legs. ‘It’s not about how many reps you do, you need to have the power to do the movement’. I knew he was right. It just wouldn’t be an easy journey to change the habits that had become my identity.

Part 2

The beautiful Italian was the first boyfriend to attempt to deal with my eating disorder head on. He took me to the local chain restaurant in the week, after we returned from our universities and started our first proper jobs. We had been to school together. It was a romantic and wonderful story, which might have had a happy ending.

I would cry at the restaurant. I would cry in his BMW on the way home. I would cry the next week when he tried to cook me pasta. I would cry the week after that when his dad took us for dinner. I had to be drunk to have sex. I was so frail I had no energy or drive otherwise. I didn’t even want to kiss him. I wanted to dress nicely, do my make up, have blow dries and present myself as ‘normal’ to his lovely friends that I knew from school. I was now clinically insane. He still stood by me. We booked a holiday together.

I couldn’t deal with the anxiety of not having the bathroom scales for a week on holiday. I was struck with panic at the thought of no kitchen scales for a week to weigh my food. I didn’t know how I’d cope eating every meal out, without being able to check the packaging for calorie content.

I broke up with him. He went on our holiday with his dad. Character 1 knew how much she missed him. She begged for him back. He took her back. Character 2 pushed him away again and asked for the holiday money, as if he was being ignorant of her struggles and he owed it back to her. She was better off without him. ‘You still have time to be single Lou. You’re only 24.’ Character 1 missed him and was desperate for him to fight with her against Character 2. He took her back. Character 2 pushed him away for the third time. He took her back. The fourth time was final.

He didn’t look back.

Part 3

A year later and the perfectionist inside me got to a senior level at work and bought a flat. I tried to explain to my line managers at work that I had an eating disorder. One of them cried for me when she read the letter from the Eating Disorders Clinic, saying I now needed to be monitored weekly, as I was two pounds away from hospitalisation. Another asked no details and declared ‘you’ll still need to do my reporting, though.’

I presented well and don’t think colleagues believed the daily struggle I had now had for 10 years and the fight to stay alive, despite anorexia wanting to completely take hold. Close friends and family definitely understood but it was confusing having those people in my life say I was dying when others said ‘but you don’t seem like you have an eating disorder.’

I have learnt that mental health is not something you can see in someone. I was energetic at work but would fall asleep the second I rested when I got home. No one saw that and living alone, it was easy to do. No one saw the accuracy with which my lunches were made for the next day. I would weigh out every lettuce leaf and write down the grams going into my sandwich, which looked like it had been thrown together when it was revealed over the lunch table.

My colleagues congratulated me on never buying lunch. It was a good money saver. They just didn’t know the ultimate reason was because absolutely every bite had to be accounted for and it’s difficult to do that if you buy a hot meal at the canteen, or even salad at the salad bar, without weighing the content.

Every night was like a scientific experiment was taking place in my kitchen. The ingredients and apparatus were lined up, the measurements taken and the calculations completed, before I could write up the conclusion and settle on meals and snacks for the next day.

It became easy.

I had learnt from the body builder boyfriend that there might be something new I could play with when it came to food. That was, macros.

I didn’t know what they were before I met him. I don’t think I’d ever heard the word. But macros became an extremely important step in my recovery, looking at the content of what I was eating in a way that did not mean balancing calories. It would unlock a whole new game where the right fuel could actually lead to a stronger and healthier way of life.

Part 4

‘My fiancé has a Greek friend I think you’ll really like’, said Amy. She was my oldest friend. We’d barely spoken in years but we had so much history, having been to the same nursery, prep school and dance school. Amy did know the core of me well but I wasn’t too interested. I’d never dated someone Greek, like me, before (unless you count Kiri who Amy and I had been to prep school with. It was short-lived).

On the day of the double date, Amy and her fiancé were late to meet me at Liverpool Street station. ‘I’m gonna go home soon, mum. There’s too many drunk men around for me to be waiting outside Weatherpoons’, I said on the phone. ‘Yes just go soon but it was worth a shot,’ said mum. She was extremely supportive and encouraging of absolutely every choice I made. ‘Only you have to live with the consequences of your decisions’, she’d say.

Mum was an amazingly strong woman, as was my sister. The three of us were very different but the strongest unit you could ever find. Dad had moved to Canada about fifteen years before and we all had to work hard, save hard and get by with each other’s support.

My sister had met a wonderful Greek man called Chris and they had recently gotten married. My uncle Stellio had given my sister away. I didn’t feel much emotion on the wedding day, as with dad leaving combined with having an eating disorder, I’d become very thick skinned (metaphorically, not physically!) and had little energy for emotion.

Amy finally arrived and I didn’t have enough emotion to feel one way or the other about her being late, or about the date I was about to go on. We just got into a cab, I followed her into a food, drink and music venue in Shoreditch and got myself a vodka and Diet Coke.

I was happy to be with Amy and her fiancé. When their Greek friend turned up, I don’t remember feeling an overwhelming pull towards him. Apparently I said ‘You’re late’, as he was the last one to arrive. I don’t remember that at all but I trust now that he remembers the details!

I wasn’t particularly drunk. We introduced ourselves and chatted easily. He wrapped the whole of Eminem’s ‘Stan’ and I enjoyed listening to the old 90s tune. I got in a cab with Amy, stayed at my mum’s who lived right by her for ease and told mum I didn’t want to see Cos again. ‘Okay, best message Amy and say thanks anyway. How is she?’ Mum said, as supportive as ever about my decision.

I messaged Cos and Amy to say I wasn’t interested. As I sat in the cinema with the body builder guy I had been seeing, my phone vibrated. It was Cos ‘that’s a shame as I think we really hit it off’, he said.

I knew my views could be a bit warped and I wasn’t particularly in touch with my emotions. Maybe we did hit it off. ‘Maybe I jumped the gun’, I replied. My date had fallen asleep in the cinema next to me. I gave Cos another go.

Part 5

I’m celebrating my anniversary with Cos. My flat is sold and we are looking for a house to buy together. The kitchen is no longer a science lab. It’s somewhere we cherish each other’s company and cook beautiful, healthy meals. ‘Kitchen’s closed!’ We shout after we’ve finished a glass of wine and Cos has complimented my tofu and rice. I love cooking for him.

Recently, I weighed myself and realised I’d put on 5 pounds since we’d been together. I woke him up and he cuddled me as I cried. It is hard to deal with sometimes but I’m the luckiest person to have his support.

I still can’t ignore my calorie intake but don’t write it down at all anymore. Now that I finally exercise for an hour every day, I focus more on macros and the nutrients going into my body. I never thought I’d be strong enough to run a few 5Ks! I’m so proud to have completed them and to genuinely say I’m a fit person.

It’s in our plans now to have a baby and as I approach 30, I know this childish figure needs to change even more. I find myself googling the way to have a baby after Anorexia.

In short, the internet says I need to eat more.

It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

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Louise