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9 September 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:47am

The Ex-Anorexic’s Guide to Shopping

Even after an eating disorder is a thing of the past, an action as trivial as flipping through a rack of t-shirts can be difficult.

By Harriet Williamson

I love shopping, but it’s stressful. It’s particularly stressful because I’m an ex-anorexic and bulimic, and I can trace the pattern of my almost ten year struggle with food and weight in the clothing I’ve bought over that period.

I had a pair of denim shorts that were so small that they cut off the blood supply to my lower half, and I was determined to fit them comfortably. Fitting into the shorts became a symbol for all the stuff I thought would come when I was thin enough. I would be loved and beautiful and perfect. I would have THE body and THE career, friends and partner to go with it. I would finally feel alright.

However, there’s no such thing as “thin enough” to someone with anorexia, and the eating disorder left me with none of the prizes it promised me. Just a trail of broken relationships and a broken body of a much, much older woman than my 23 years. In case you’re wondering, I eventually cut the shorts up with kitchen scissors and put the pieces in the bin.

If the tone of this column seems excessively light-hearted, it’s because writing it was very painful. Even though I consider myself to be recovered, something as trivial as flipping through a rack of t-shirts is incredibly triggering. My eating disorder no longer takes up all my headspace, but sits in the corner of my vision, quietly sulking. Many recovered women share the perspective that it never fully leaves, particularly when faced with a potentially triggering situation, like clothes or food shopping, or a trip to the beach.

1. The nightmare of sizing

When I was very sick, I oscillated between buying two sizes of clothing. One was the very smallest the shop had to offer (usually a UK size 4) and the other was large, or as large as I could physically get away with, without the garments trailing on the floor or flapping behind me like a flag. I swung between flaunting my thinness in crops and tiny skirts that wouldn’t have fitted a ten year old, and swamping myself in baggy t-shirts, ill-fitting boyfriend jeans and shapeless jumpers.

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When I got into recovery and my body changed, I clung to the oversized clothing to conceal my newly-elephantine (or so I believed) shape. As time passed, I realised I had to get used to this new body shit, and accept that my size was a 6-8. (That is small, I hear you cry. Try telling that to an ex-anorexic who wants to wear kiddie-sized clothes.)

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I’ve found that the best way to deal with the sizing nightmare is just to pretend that the triggering, eating-disordered-me sizes don’t exist. And repeat the helpful mantra in your head that, despite all social messages to the contrary, the size of the jeans you’re buying does not define you as a human being. Head in the air, I now ignore the tiny sizes with the icy pride usually reserved for blanking an unpleasant ex-boyfriend in a bar. Sometimes I’m even tempted to hiss “you’re not for me” when I’m browsing the Topshop sale rail and see the odd, lonely size 4 playsuit, but I don’t because I don’t want the staff to think I’m completely insane.

2. The horror of the changing rooms

Once you’ve selected an item, it’s time to brave the changing rooms and try the damn thing on. Many women are suspicious of shop changing rooms at the best of times, even if their body issues don’t make them officially eating disordered. The harsh lighting (it’s always harsh, isn’t it?) and the abundance of unforgiving mirrors always show the body in the most unflattering relief. I don’t know whether this is a conspiracy on behalf of the retailer to make you look awful and more inclined to “improve” yourself by purchasing their wares, or simply the result of cheap lights and mirrors. Away from high street chains, independent clothes shops sometimes have a more “your bedroom at home” feel to their changing rooms, which is a little more comforting.

It’s essential to remember that shop lighting and shop mirrors rarely make anyone look good. They are evil, fun house mirrors, designed to distort your body. They can’t be trusted.

If you’re still experiencing a degree of body dysmorphia (where your body looks and feels very different to how it actually is), this effect may be more severe. Body dysmorphia can turn every reflective surface into a minefield, bearing a distorted image that does not correlate with reality. This side effect of anorexia, bulimia and EDNOS (a mixture of the two conditions) can be very frightening and disorientating because it means that you are unable to trust your own eyes.

In order to survive the changing room ordeal virtually unscathed, it might be helpful to expect the bare minimum from the fit of your clothes. This means that if the jeans go over your hips comfortably, buy them. If the top fits your boobs inside without gaping open, buy it. You can deal with the minutiae of whether or not an item makes you look a little bit more like Beyoncé when you get home, using familiar mirrors. This is why shops have return policies.

3. The models and mannequins

Clothing shops, by their very nature, are filled with seriously triggering, larger-than-life advertisement posters featuring really thin women. You can avoid fashion magazines all you like, but in clothing retailers you literally cannot get away from depictions of super-skinny models. The mannequins are just as bad. I don’t know who they were initially modelled on, but it wasn’t any human person I’ve ever seen in real life.

We all know that photoshopping and the manipulation of fashion images is something that happens, but it’s especially important to bear this in mind in clothes shops. The ads you’re subjected to in-store are the product of hours of hair, makeup, special lighting and computer retouching. This means that they aren’t technically “real” or organic. And no amount of relapsing is going to make you look like Cara Delevingne in the latest Topshop campaign. Wellness is too precious to be chucked away for something as mean and pernicious as the way fashion images might make you feel.

One of the best ways to combat the horror of shopping as an ex-anorexic is to take a sympathetic friend or family member along with you. I usually pick my sister, because she artfully highlights the ridiculousness of the situation, so that I come away laughing rather than in tears. If I start mooning over pictures of models in-store or the fact that ASOS now stocks a UK size 2 for adult women, she reminds me that I have brittle bones and my spine is technically crumbling, as a direct result of my eating disorder. And that she, and everyone else who matters in my life, will love me whatever size jeans I wear.