By Harry Grenville
Eating disorders. What the hell are they? Bingeing and barfing? Skinny and starving? I’m no nutritionist but I do have my mental health and from first hand experience, I can tell you an eating disorder does not always tick all the boxes of some criteria telling you whether you’re sick or well.
However, it’s these grey areas of body confidence and eating disorders that make getting better so much harder. If you’re not ‘anorexic’ or ‘bulimic’, if you’re not at deaths door or an extreme risk to yourself, the help is harder to come by. This can leave you living an unhappy life for years, trapped in a vicious cycle of unhealthy eating habits and self-loathing – leaving your mind and body battered and bruised – even if it’s not visible to the outside world.
The best way to understand my experience with food and my body is to watch my spoken word piece, “Now I’ve Quit Sausage Rolls”. This follows my journey from insecure teenager, to now, the experiences I had and what I’ve learnt. Through this article, I’d like to delve deeper into some of the topics I only scratch the surface of in my poem.
The difficulty with my journey is that I never ticked a ‘criteria’. Yes, there were times I looked pretty skinny but never categorically what one would stereotypically describe as ‘anorexic’. I also never actually starved myself. I just had an incredibly low-fat diet and was severely under eating. However, there were also times where I looked perfectly fine and ate many high calorie treats.
I didn’t have the strength the make myself sick or starve myself but I constantly had a guilty conscience and it was EXHAUSTING. So, when I did go to the doctor and say I thought I had a problem, they basically told me I didn’t…Because I ate but my mind was a mess.
Supermarkets gave me anxiety attacks. I’d cry myself to sleep after meals out. I’d check my tummy in the mirror every single morning the second I woke up and my heart would sink as soon as I saw my reflection. I’d get blinding drunk and then binge on everything I could because I had zero respect for my body. I’d think to myself ‘surely that’s not healthy?’ ‘Surely that deserves help?’ I think what I needed was for someone to help me understand WHY I hated myself so deeply.
The start of my recovery was when I saw an amazing nutritionist who made me do a timeline of my life. We sat back and looked at this messy, messy timeline full of rejection and setbacks and she said “NO WONDER!” as in “No wonder you are the way you are”. Suddenly it wasn’t my fault anymore. Once I stopped blaming myself for the way my body was and I accepted that my problem made sense, I could start to move forward.
You might be thinking, why did I hate my body? Where do those thoughts come from? How does an eating disorder start? It’s something I think is worth exploring. If you struggle to accept your body, or you know someone who does, the hardest thing about helping yourself or someone else is not being able to understand why on earth they’re feeling that way in the first place.
Some people believe eating disorders can develop and manifest themselves in people because of unresolved trauma in their life. Others might say it all stems from a simple comment a person once made about them. For me, a 24-year-old girl who now feels like they know and understand themselves so much better, I find it fascinating to look back and see all the little seeds that planted themselves in my brain over time, which bloomed into that big bloody mess of insecurities. Had I seen it all sooner, perhaps I’d have learnt to accept myself a long time ago.
Boys…Boys was a massive one. I wasn’t like my friends. I was never fit. I’m not saying I was ugly and I’m not saying I was fat but I didn’t have sex appeal. It saddens me now to think back to that 14-year-old girl, who was bothered that she wasn’t sexy. I was basically a child for god’s sake. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in and that sexualisation of young girls is only getting worse.
Sure, I was friends with boys but they talked to me about my friends. I was that friend, who helps the boy they fancy get together with another girl. And because no one ever fancied me, that also meant I was slow to the party of ‘doing bits’. (Casual Love Island reference for any avid fans reading this). The thing about sex and other such ventures, is that it is in a sense a celebration of bodies and the more someone else makes you feel good in your body, in general, the better you feel about it.
However, when that’s still a taboo for you (and the older you get, the more you feel like you should be experienced, so the more scared you get of it) it means you become awkward about your body and the idea of it makes you feel uncomfortable.
This leads me on to control. I couldn’t control what I was born with. Curly hair, horrific acne, a round face, average size boobs and general lack of natural sexiness. I also couldn’t control the fact that my friends were richer than me, that they lived with two parents who loved them and I didn’t. My friends would always have the one up on me there but everyone can change their body if they put their mind to it. I think I was so desperate to be the ‘most’ something. So, if that had to be the smallest, the slightest, the skinniest, the lowest dress size, weight, body fat percentage, then so be it. At least I’d stand out for something rather than being middle of the range.
Even by the time I started attending drama school, I remember in group activities getting a boost from unanimously being named any time we needed to lift the lightest member of the group and when that wasn’t me anymore, that bothered me and was extremely hard to let go of.
So next time you see someone lose too much weight, think before you judge. The knee jerk reaction is often to call them stupid, obsessive, “they weren’t even fat in the first place, why diet?” Don’t get defensive and say “Well if they think they’re fat, what the hell do they think of me?” Because it usually always goes deeper than wanting to be skinny. It’s about wanting to be recognised, wanting to feel like you can do something better than everyone else.
If you want that, then that suggests you can’t see your own value, your self-worth or you might feel the need to be better at something than your peers. So rather than knocking them down – “you’re gross, you’re a stick, there’s nothing of you, have a burger”, perhaps it’s time we make these people who are suffering see their own qualities and teach them to embrace what makes them them.
“But how?” – I hear you ask. Well, if there was a simple answer we’d all be smashing it, having a lovely time, living our best lives full of self-love, which we’re not, sadly. However, what I can do is share with you what has helped me personally, say a very happy goodbye to my eating disorder and find some peace with myself.
Here’s some advice I can impart to you the reader. You don’t have to heed it but it’s certainly been beneficial to me in my life. Number one; GIRLS, GET OFF THE PILL. I stopped taking the pill in March this year and yes, it’s impractical from a sex point of view but it is TOTALLY worth it. I have never felt so happy in my life. It’s like a mist has cleared. I can see everything for what it is and everything I feel makes sense. Whereas before, I could feel so horrendous for no apparent reason. I’d wake up and just think, ‘No, I can’t do it today. I’m out.’ Whereas now, if I do feel low, I can rationally see the reason why and deal with that accordingly. I honestly think that this emotional rollercoaster the pill took me on really fuelled my irrational thoughts about my body and general appearance, so if I could encourage you to do one thing, it would be to try life without the pill and take back control of your body and mind.
Number two: you do you and don’t apologise for it. You are the only person you’re ever going to be (unless you believe in rebirth), so make the most of it! COMPARISON IS THE THIEF OF JOY.
Let me ask you something. Why would you want to be like someone else? Because you will actually never be them, so you’ll just be a lesser version, quite frankly. No one else will ever be as good at being you as you and that’s pretty awesome. So why not embrace who YOU are and be the best version of yourself you can be. Celebrate what sets you apart, rather than longing to morph into others.
Hand on heart, over the past few months, I’ve sat back, looked at who I am and realised I’m pretty great. I’m a fiercely loyal friend, a total nutter on a night out, I suck at relaxing, I can be scatty, I can also be a control freak, I’m funny and I’m me. I’ve stopped apologising for myself, because I’m only human. When you stop apologising for who you are, I promise it will be easier to accept yourself and ditch the negative thoughts. Being at peace with who you are as a person is SO, SO, LIBERATING. The world is your oyster once you’re ready to take it on as YOU and not as a wannabe someone else.
Number three: Goal setting. Now this is a slightly complicated one, because how do you stop becoming obsessive, if you have those addictive tendencies? If you do have negative thoughts regarding your body and struggle to accept it, set yourself a challenge which will allow you to be proud of the body you’ve built. It may not work for everyone so please be honest with yourself as to whether you’re ready mentally. I can only speak from my own experience and the head space I’m in now. I think so long as you can find a balance, there’s no harm in having a goal.
After a month of boozy, foodie birthday celebrations this year, I couldn’t bear the sight of myself. No, I wasn’t obese but I was puffy and bloated and it wasn’t the way I wanted to be and that’s fine. We shouldn’t be ashamed to take pride in how we look. That wasn’t regressing into anorexia, that was me recognising that I wasn’t caring for my body, and that it wasn’t making me happy.
So, if you’re not happy, find something that will give you fulfilment. I decided to do a 3-month training programme, so that I had a positive focus and something to feel proud of. Not because I hated myself or lacked self-worth but because I wanted to be the best me I could be. The stronger I got, the fitter I got and when a few of those birthday pounds dropped off, I found joy in wearing nice clothes again, because I was proud of my progress. And there’s no better feeling than loving the skin you’re in.
But my advice to anyone embarking on some form of fitness journey is it should always come second to your LIFE. Sustainability is key. If you give up everything, yes you’ll get quicker results, yes that Instagram post of your transformation might get a lot of likes but what’s the point in looking great if you can’t go out and enjoy how fab you are.
Over my 3-month programme, I drank rosé solidly for 4 days on holiday, I went out pretty much every weekend and I had many a meal out. I just made more conscious choices on the days when I could and that allowed me to enjoy letting my hair down guilt free and still make progress.
Although the progress was slow and subtle, I don’t have that fear of losing it all in a heartbeat, because I didn’t make any drastic sacrifices that would be unsustainable long term. Of course, each to their own and we all have different preferences when it comes to fitness and nutrition. However, speaking as someone who has experienced such obsessive habits with food, I don’t believe it would be safe for me or anyone like me, so take on a restrictive fitness and diet programme, because then it becomes so much harder to draw a line and know when enough is enough.
I could honestly go on for days about the various little things that have helped me move forward with my life and help me shrink that little fucker who tells me I’m not good enough but I hope that for now, there may be something in this article that strikes a chord and leads you towards a happier, healthier you.
Don’t get me wrong, my little fucker will probably always be there. Yes, I feel guilt sometimes but there are also plenty of times that I don’t. There are days I wish I looked what I consider to be ‘better’ than how I look but I also have learnt enough about myself to rationalise those thoughts. We only get one life, so let’s live it. Don’t wish your days away thinking “I’ll be happy when…”. Be happy now! Celebrate what you already have rather than always striving for more. I’m a personal trainer and I want to be the strongest and fittest I can be and I’ll keep working for that but I’m also incredibly happy right now in this moment and proud of where I’m at already.
Finally, perhaps my most important piece of advice would be to talk. Don’t bottle it up, because often the minute we vocalise these thoughts to another human being and we hear ourselves out loud we realise how ridiculous our brain is being. If I’m having a dark thought about my body, I tell someone I trust and just by releasing that thought, I instantly feel better. It’s not festering inside me anymore. It’s been expressed and it’s done. Move on. So, don’t be afraid to speak out, because like farts, it’s better out than in.
Harry Grenville is an actor, personal trainer and spoken word artist.