Writing by Alice Masman // art by Kamilla Varga
Some of my earliest primary school memories are of yearning to be smaller. Thinner. Little. I went to a very small primary school where all the girls in my grade were small. “Pocket Rockets”, as my grade 3 teacher used to put it. Every time he would say that in the fond, playful way that he did, I would get a pang of jealousy. I wanted to be one of them. There was little diversity in the girls in my grade and class sizes were tiny. I did not know that preteen girls come in many shapes and sizes. I always felt uncomfortably big. Awkward. Out of place.
I was not an overweight child. I loved sport, riding bikes, being outdoors, and I loved food! I had access to wonderful plant-based food that my mum would cook. But it didn’t fit. The girls in my grade fit much more cleanly into the images of cool, preteen girl-gang ideals that were starting to form in my head. Dolly magazine (and later Cosmopolitan and Cleo , which I started reading when I was far too young to understand the implications of being bombarded with the idealist and sensationalist titles and images), Babysitters Club, The Saddle Club and pop culture on TV were all forming an ideal that I felt somehow excluded me. I was confused about why my clothes were bigger and why I did not fit into theirs. I remember cutting off any “Medium” sized tags and actively telling my friends that my T-shirts and pants were a size “small”. “I’m an extra small!”, they would say. My cheeks would flush from embarrassment and the uncomfortable feeling of knowingly lying. I didn’t like this.
Year 7, my first year at a new, big high school solidified this image discomfort. My brain was now able to articulate and label the emotions that were starting to form towards myself. Big. Gross. Yuck. High school was cut-throat with constantly changing popularity groups. Unless you were the select few top girls, you were never really sure if you were in or you were out and it could change in a second. I was a sensitive teen and placed a huge amount of value on what others thought of me.
Somewhere looming in the background during this time, I remember a constant unease of approaching summer or warm days. I would check the weather and get full-blown anxiety if T-shirt or skirt weather was coming up. Writing this now, as a 30 year old woman, it breaks my heart that I did not feel deserving to feel the warm sun on my bare skin. “Fat” was such a common insult thrown around to anyone on the out. I was terrified to have the same nasty words spat my way, so I would join in when they teased others in a desperate attempt to keep the aim off me. I am still dealing with the shame of this.
I became convinced that the cool girls and boys were calling me fat behind my back, that this was the adjective used when they talked about me. I would hold my breath when I walked past. I wanted to disappear. Over time, all the teen angst and harsh hierarchy lessons and issues of fitting in, boys, friends, my place in the world, all seemed to boil down to one thing – I was not small and skinny enough.
My illness was carving itself into deep belief systems that I was developing and my brain was neatly packing all of the anxiety that comes with such a time of change and unease into that one “problem”. My developing body and hormones made me crave highly palatable food but now I was starting to make the connection between how I felt about my body, and food. I would eat hardly anything at school and then get home and binge on cookies, barely stopping to take a breath. I’d then be hit with overwhelming guilt and shame and then swear off them for life. I remember purposefully finishing the packet to the point of feeling sick because if I finished it, I could “start fresh” tomorrow and have no more left to tempt me! The “bargaining” pattern with food stayed with me for a very, very long time in more extreme and harmful ways the more my Illness developed. I developed a deep distrust for my body and feelings of shame, anger and panic because I had no control over food. This was likely a deeper fear of having no control over being accepted by my peers.
I remember vividly the first time I went running in a proactive attempt to lose weight and equally clearly the first time I purged. They were on the same day. It was right after watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model. That sounds incredibly cliche but that’s how it went. I watched the show, while guiltily binging on cookies. To me, I had a moment of realising the stark contrast between the effortlessly cool and skinny models and me. They had control, I had none. I stood up, filled with adrenaline and nerves, went downstairs and stuck my fingers as far as I could down my throat, repeatedly. I spent 30 mins painfully purging up dry lumps of biscuit. I retched and it hurt but I kept going. Finally, eyes red and nasal passage burning, it was done. I had done it. I felt elated and chemically high in a way that I never had before. I used this rush of energy and went for my first run.
Much later that night, I binged on cookies again. My body was dehydrated and my blood sugar was low and I couldn’t control my body’s strong signals that it needed energy fast. But I had a way now. A secret. This is how the binge/purge cycle works.
I was sickest when I was around 17 and 18 years old. My body weight had gone from 70kgs to 48 kilos, at my lowest. I was chronically freezing cold, anemic, had zero control over my emotions and very sick. You could see every rib in my back. I had painful calluses all over my hands from purging. I have barely any specific memories of that time. It’s all a haze of a few years. Like a dream. It’s actually very common to not have many memories of periods when the body is extremely malnourished. There is no energy left to spend creating memories as all resources need to be allocated to attempting to keep the heart beating and vital functions working.
This is what I do remember:
I remember eating a teaspoon of peanut butter and then sobbing for an hour uncontrollably, knowing that it would mean an extra hour of running for me tomorrow, on top of my hour that I already had to do. Hours on top of hours of running with shin splints and a body that ached so much, all the time.
I remember routinely drinking a cup of table salt in a litre of water after a binge. My body would recognise that these are poison levels of sodium and cue sudden projectile vomiting.
I remember 3-7 day water fasts, the high of feeling so in control.
I remember realising that I could not stop and feeling scared.
I remember the looking in the mirror and knowing how unattractive I was at this weight, but it wasn’t about that anymore.
I remember my eating disorder feeling like my worst demon but also best friend and closest ally- no matter what happened to me, I had this thing, this coping mechanism that was MINE and nobody could take that from me. This disease manifests a “its me and you vs the world” narrative and you fucking believe it.
I remember the constant drive to exercise out of pure fear of lying in bed that night and the disease telling me that I had not done enough. There is no injury, weather phenomenon or any circumstance that is stronger than that fear. An anorexic will find a way. The drive feels primitive. It’s not a choice.
I remember looking longingly at others enjoying their food in social settings and wondering why I couldn’t be like that. I believed that I had a different set of rules to others. Others looked great at a normal weight. Others could be normal around food. I could not. I could not give an inch of that control. That was too painful to consider. I was the exception.
I remember feeling like a fraud, that I was too fat for counselling or recovery – this is actually really common with anorexia. It’s almost a competitive narrative within the Eating Disorder community that there are “true” and “good” anorexics (usually the ones in hospital with feeding tubes, close to death), and “fakers”.
I remember getting dressed to go to therapy and being unable to leave the house, sobbing to my mum that I felt like “mutton dressed as lamb”. I can still feel the pain in my heart as I recall that moment – I had tried to wear a “nice” top and felt so overwhelmingly fake and unworthy of attempting to wear something like that.
I remember the emotional pain. Snapping at loved ones, crying at the drop of a hat, withdrawing from so much emotional participation.
I remember not having a period for 9 months.
I remember getting my periods back, and feeling like the biggest failure. I think I did a 5 day water fast after that.
I remember the exhausting battle within myself from wanting to heal and not wanting to heal.
But somewhere along the line I did heal. I would love to be able to say that there was a pivotal moment in therapy or a defiant, strong, feminist moment that changed everything but there wasn’t. The reality is that painful patterns still present themselves, even to this day.
For years and years, even after I had physically “recovered”, I was still there, in my head, living the pain and the obsession and distraction and bargaining. It has looked physically different in various stages of my 20s but the inner pain and patterns were the same.
They presented themselves over and over again. The amount of “I cannot believe I’m back here” moments are too many to count. It’s like a fresh deep wound that you pick every time it starts to heal. Or you think it’s healed, you pat yourself on the back, and you cut it again and suddenly you’re bleeding and it’s just as deep as before. It’s like swimming in mud. This happens again. And again. And again. Over time, I’ve learned that every time this happens, you get an opportunity to love yourself a little more. You get an opportunity to practice patience, acceptance, compassion. You get a raw window into the “humanness” of all of us. You get a chance to be brave. You get a chance to gain some wisdom. You get a chance to rewire, very very slowly, a charge within yourself. You do not have to realise this in the moment, for this to slowly happen over time.
Healing was gradual. Soft. Slowly, I learned to breath. To pay attention to that 10 year old girl that feels awkward and needs some nurturing. To surround myself with people that celebrate strong females. To shift the narrative to curiosity and awe at my body: “What can my body do? What is it telling me right now? What does it need right now? Can I be that strong and powerful? How good does that feel? Pay attention to how good that feels”. To practice unbridled and unconditional love for myself. Hours and weeks and years spent rediscovering my “why”: What is my purpose? What makes me feel lit up at a soul level? To be brutally cutthroat with selecting the media I expose myself to: Does reading this make me feel good? Does seeing this persons opinions on Instagram make me feel good? Does this friendship lift each other and others up?
I rediscovered sport. I started to become far more interested in what I could do in weightlifting and Crossfit, than the number on the scale. Celebrating personal bests in Olympic lifting and Crossfit had nothing to do with what my body looked like. Diverse bodies are everywhere in these gyms. It’s so awesome. “Fitness” can visually manifest in so many different ways! Watching my skills evolve and my performance get better was deeply healing on a mental level. All of a sudden I found myself interested in maximising my performance through my nutrition. I started deliberately eating more and in a structured way to maximise performance. I had never considered food in this way, ever. I realised not long ago that I no longer want to be skinny. This hit me like a tonne of bricks. I felt so free. I think I cried.
I am in a healed state when I focus on what my body can do, not what it looks like.
After seeking out a lot of education on training and nutrition, they’re now a catalyst for joy. The random shivers of good energy from a happy body and happy mind. The careful attention to nutrition in a different way- in a way of abundance. What used to be “how little can I eat today?” is now “have I had enough protein and carbs to adequately recover in this meal?” or “am I eating enough to sustain this level of progress in my program?” or “how is my energy today?” or “do i need more colourful veggies in this to hit all my micronutrients?”
It’s not perfect and I still find myself back there with my teenage self at times. I respond with love as best as I can. Other times I call my mum and indulge in a few minutes of complete self pity before we either laugh together or I can slowly pick myself up, dust myself off and put my chin up like the proud strong woman that I am.
I do not blame anyone at all for the earlier parts of this story. My illness came from within. A complicated web of lessons to learn about how to be present in the world.
I’ve wanted to write this for years, and as I send it off, it feels like I can let all the shame around it go, which feels like one of the final steps, perhaps.
To all girls and women – take up space. It’s yours.