Health is about exercise and green veg. But if you’ve had an eating disorder, it’s not that easy

A desire to change your body could drag all of that history back.

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The fundamentals of health are simple. Move a lot, eat green, leafy vegetables, consume as few harmful chemicals as possible. It’s not difficult, nutritionists and stringy, gym-lean personal trainers tell us on television.

My doctor says it too, when he forces me to be weighed before he will renew my contraceptive pill. I’m not particularly overweight, he tells me, so why don’t I just follow the rules a little better? It wouldn’t take much. It wouldn’t take much for me to be in the green weight category rather than the orange. Just do what you have to do. I know that if I did those things I would be healthy, and I know that I should want to be healthy. But do I?

In my early twenties, living with my then boyfriend, I was slim – undeniably, medically, visibly. I would cry sometimes that I wanted to be thinner, still too proximate to my teenage eating disorder. Fed up with my aimless complaining and lack of action, my boyfriend eventually asked, why didn’t I just start running then? How could I explain. I wanted to be thinner but I knew that I shouldn’t. I knew that wanting it and pursuing it, since I was already slim, would be to go down a slippery slope, one I had clawed my way back up before. On losing weight, on becoming thinner, on getting fit, the boyfriend said once to me: “It’s not easy, but it is simple.” Only it’s not simple. It never has been, not for me.

When I was a teenager, I cloaked my self-hating, punishing disorder in the vocabulary of health. It was easy to do. The Atkins diet had enjoyed a resurgence. Magazines were full of cod-scientific instruction about the GI (Glycaemic Index) diet, and the 5:2 diet and others that advocated intermittent fasting. I read about them in Sunday style supplements and digested their legitimising, comfortingly authoritative language. Not for me the agonised starving of adolescent cliché – my starving was all sanctioned, unimpeachable, for the good of my health. I radiated smugness as I got smaller, the piety masking the pinched, mean reality of what was happening and how I felt.

When challenged by teachers or parents about my baggy uniform and dark eyes I would babble about refined sugar until they shut up and left me alone. Undoing those thought patterns took a long time – trying to divest food of its moral implication, to stop every meal becoming a pristine performance of discipline and healthfulness. To recover, I had to turn my back on all I had learned over the past years. I wanted to be free, and freedom necessitated a rejection – a total rejection – of everything that came before, even of health itself.

Now, though, I am an adult. On my next birthday I will turn 30: old enough to make being referred to as a “girl” feel vaguely grotesque. It’s also old enough that I have begun to think about my health – actually think about it rather than pretend to think about it, or use it as a way to conceal an eating disorder. It may not seem significant to the more naturally fit among you, but for the first time I have started to want to exercise, rather than thinking dimly that I really ought to at some point in the future.

It isn’t a given that one always desires health. In fact, there have been years of my life where the drinking and drug-taking and furious smoking have felt totally appropriate. Back then, I really didn’t care what happened to my body, and it felt only right to treat it like a rag. But miracles happen, and now I no longer feel that way.

Now, I am acutely aware that I want to live for a long, long time, I want every day I can have, and an instinct towards self-preservation is waking up in me.

This, though, is where I falter, where logic fails, where I am left red-faced and mute in the doctor’s office. I really do want to move my body, I really do want to breathe better, I really do want to make myself stronger for all that’s left to come in my life, and I know that the way to get those things is uncomplicated. But I am also afraid – afraid to turn back towards my body. In order to live, I had to sever it from myself. In order to learn how to enjoy food again, without constantly anticipating what each bite would do to me, I had to stop considering my body at all.

Doing that worked, to an extent. It allowed me to take pleasure in eating and not to feel covered in shame all the time, and to stop judging myself and other people on what they consume. I stopped looking at myself. I avoided mirrors unless fully clothed. Feeling nothing at all towards my body – feeling it to be essentially separate from me – was vastly preferable to what I had felt towards it in my youth.

This is what the doctors and the boyfriends and various other well-wishers and advice-givers seem not to understand: that something as simple and wholesome as going for a run is not always that simple. That being afraid of exercise, of health itself, is not simply laziness or not wanting to try. It can be, too, about fearing it will bring back the cruellest, hardest part of yourself; that accepting a desire to change your body will drag all of that history back; that this time you may not be able to bear that level of self-hatred, of scrutiny, and may well collapse beneath it.

Still, things are changing slowly inside me, I know. When I wake in the morning my body often wants to move instead of staying still and safe and away from the world. I walk around the streets of my neighbourhood on a quiet Sunday morning through the leaves and clear air, and sometimes gather speed until the muscles of my legs twinge, inclining to break out of their walking pace into something faster and more frightening, and sometimes now I am able to let them.

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 02 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries