About three years ago, I decided to deal with some personal issues I was facing by going for counselling. After two sessions of me talking, the counsellor asked, "So did you ever receive treatment for your anorexia?"
I was confused. This woman had clearly not been listening. I was not anorexic. Anorexics, I believed at the time, were sneaky people who hid in bathrooms sticking their fingers down their throats to induce vomiting. They were selfish people who put their own vanity ahead of those people who worried about and loved them. I was both indignant and defensive. I left the session a while later, confused at the information and new insight I had just received.
Over the next two sessions we spoke about key people in my early life who had influenced my thoughts, belief systems, values and opinions. They included family members, teachers and generally just people I admired or regarded as role models and also others whose comments/actions may have profoundly impacted me. For the purposes of this post, I'll refer to them simply as the key people.
Being thin was one of the most admired qualities in the world from which I come. Growing up I'd hear certain key people expressing admiration for a person who was skinny, and pity for anyone who was not.
In my early teens I started gaining weight slightly. Outsiders would pass comments like, " You're filling out beautifully- you're no longer skin and bone." I did not give comments such as these a second thought until one night when I overheard a conversation by two of the key people. They were expressing concern at how I was 'letting myself go', and how my increasing weight was making me increasingly unattractive. They were determined to help me since, according to them, I lacked self-control. I was fifteen at the time, but the pain of that night remained vivid in my mind for years to come, no doubt influencing decisions I ended up making.
Positive comments and compliments were drowned out by those made by these concerned well-intentioned key people.
"Just start by losing a bit around the bum area. You can take it from there". Or the occasional joke intended to act as motivation, " You weigh almost as much as your mother does, and she's already had 3 kids, while you're only 16!" or
"Look at how lovely and thin So-and-So looks. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could look like that?"
Needless to say, these comments did not help at all. They just drove me further in the direction of the fridge.
Funnily enough, I don't think anyone from high school would remember me as 'the fat girl' or even 'the plump one'. However when I looked in the mirror, I saw a whale.
This was further exacerbated when I ran into a boisterous outspoken relative whom I had not seen for years. He was known for his mean jokes and seeing me weighing more than usual gave him all the ammunition he needed. "Oh my word, you look like an 'ou vet tannie' (old fat lady). It's amazing how some girls grow up to be gross old women with big tits, fat arses and elephant thighs". Although the 'big tits' comment definitely did not apply to me, I was deeply affected. Although this person was not someone whose opinion I necessarily valued, he had managed to hit an exposed nerve. I felt humiliated, and disgusted and ashamed that my 'feminine form' (hips, butt and thighs) were becoming increasingly prominent and disgusting.
Then came the life-changing event- the opening of a new community gym two blocks from my home. I became obsessed, going to work out or attend fitness classes at least thrice a day despite the matric exams looming. I started to lose weight rapidly over the next few months and started to stress about maintaining my weight loss.
Then I started to eat less, and less and less. I lost my appetite and eventually could not bring myself to eat much at all.
I enjoyed my hunger pangs. I enjoyed the fact that I didn't need to eat. It made me feel as if I was in control- I was not letting hunger/cravings control me. I loved the feeling of being empty, clean. It made me feel light. It made me happy.
I didn't give my constant tiredness and lethargy a second thought. It didn't bother me despite the fact that I had fallen asleep during every matric final exam paper and as a result had not managed to finish a single paper. My father (a history teacher) had been preparing me for the matric history finals all year long, so imagine his disappointment when I came home after the exam and told him that I had only finished just over a third of the paper, since I had fallen asleep.
When I started university the problem worsened- only I didnt see it as a problem. I had lost over 12 kg and was more outwardly confident than I had been in a while. I had more friends and a better social life than I had had before. I attributed this positive change to my weight loss. Now I realise it was because I exuded confidence, which I hadn't done before.
I ignored the extremely tight uncomfortable feeling at the base of my neck. I didn't think it a problem that I was constantly dizzy and became lightheaded each time I stood up too fast.
The key people in my life were full of praise. I looked so good in my little jeans, with my tiny little waist, they said. I was extremely pleased that I looked so boyish- gone were the grotesque womanly hips, butt and thighs.
I fainted behind the cash register of my uncle's pharmacy where I worked for the holidays. I managed to call my mother just in time to catch me, as I fainted again in the shower. My father, who had helped her to carry me down the passage to my room, then realised for the first time what I had been doing to myself. The sight of my ribs almost jutting through my skin was what scared him the most. He sent me to various doctors and specialists. None of them used the word anorexia. My family doctor tried to reason with me. "You're too intelligent to be so self-destructive". The problem was that I did not see myself as being self-destructive, since I was happier than I had been in ages.
It was only after I got married that I tried to purge for the first time by taking a laxative. The only effect it had was to give me the most gut-wrenching cramps I had ever experienced, which probably saved me from pursuing that route again.
It was at a routine doctor's appointment, when I had nonchalantly mentioned that I had not had a period for about a year, that I was sent to a gynaecologist. He informed me that I was no longer ovulating. I would not be able to have children unless I gained weight- and even then, only if the medication which I was to take to stimulate ovulation, was successful. Although it had never been my plan to have children before my 30s, I felt a sense of panic and urgency. The possibility of never being able to have children terrified me. I was willing to do whatever it took to ensure that I started ovulating again.
I was extremely lucky. Once my priorities and my mindset changed, I did not struggle to eat. I managed to get my weight up to 53kg which is when I fell pregnant.
I realise that I am one of the lucky ones. Some people cannot get past their revulsion for food and their fear of losing control.
Since then (but before the counsellor provided me with the label 'anorexic'), I had continued to have an unhealthy relationship with food. I over-ate when stressed and was capable of going without food for extended periods when happy (or perhaps I was happiest when I was capable of going without food for extended periods, I don't know which). But I've never starved myself to that extent again, and my weight has stayed above 53 kg ever since.
Learning that I had in fact been living the life of an anorexic, scared me into making further changes. I now try to focus on healthy living in a holistic sense. I weigh more than I ever had two years after giving birth (normally I'm back at my pre-pregnancy weight by the time the baby is 6 months old).
My big fear is that my children (especially my daughters) will walk the same path I did. I pray that they will be surrounded by positive people in their lives, but more importantly, that they are able to drown out other noises and listen only to the voices that will reaffirm their value as human beings- just by virtue of who they are and not based on external factors such as appearance. My hope is that my daughters embrace their femininity, and though they might carry themselves with modesty, they do so free from shame.