Malign obsessions: On health as a whole organism phenomena

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“she goes to the gym seven times a week, doesn’t drink and watches what she eats. She is so healthy!”

How many times am I going to hear this or its ilk and still manage to keep my volatile opinions to myself. The surface is fraying, I’m losing my composure over this.

The media would have us believe that to be healthy, you must subscribe to a set of rules: you must go to the gym multiple times a week, you must control your weight and diet, cutting out ‘bad’ foods and drinks, and you must drink enough water to detoxify the bad stuff out of yourself.

Exercise, water and a good diet are nothing new as far as ideas go, but what is new, anthropologically speaking, is the attitude that some have towards health.

It’s no secret that a lot of people suffer from mental health problems. It’s all over the news, raising awareness largely of depression, but what there is still a general lack of recognition for less well publicised phenomenon like orthorexia, obsessions, paranoia, dysmorphia and anxiety, and I really think they are creeping up on people without them or their loved ones knowing. What is worse is that others look up to those with such problems as role models.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to live a healthier life and keep your body strong, but there is a line at which the compromise to ones mental state no longer justifies such control over ones thoughts and actions.

Take sarah, she’s in her mid-twenties and to an unenlightened onlooker, she appears to live a healthy lifestyle. She has a normal BMI, goes to the gym seven times a week, she plays squash, she drinks only water eats a healthy diet and gets plenty of sleep. Physically she is in good shape, so all good right? A paragon on virtue. Don’t you wish you could be like Sarah?

Well let me tell you a little more. Sarah gets up at exactly your same time every day and weighs herself, she has each minute scheduled in her daily calendar so that she can eat, sleep and exercise at the times of day that she read are the most beneficial.  All her meals are weighed and measured out and every calorie and gram of fat tabulated. Sarah won’t go out in the sun and only drinks water from a glass bottle because she knows that plasticides in plastic cups are bad for you. Every label is scrutinised for nasty additives and preservatives. She eats alone because she thinks that a late lunch is better for the metabolism, and she eats the same thing every day because she read that they are the healthiest foods. Sarah spends a lot of time reading about new health news about what extra things to avoid, and refuses to take medication that she thinks is bad for her. She has never had caffeine, alcoholic drinks or smoked a cigarette in her life because she considers them too dangerous. Sarah is constantly checking her feelings and measuring her words so that she can stay in control of her mind as well as her body. Occasionally the control is lost and Sarah binges on treats and then compensates by making herself do a commensurate amount of additional gym work.

Do you still aspire to be like Sarah ? Or do you feel sorry for the way she needs to obsessively control her body to feel in control of her life?

Let’s take a step back.

Exercise:
Someone told me the other day that I didn’t exercise because I didn’t go to the gym. Where did this idea come from? Why the hell do I need to go to a small petri-dish of a box room with a bunch of sweaty people to be considered to be exercising. The 1 hour of medium impact cycling that I do each day counts for nothing? What about the fact that I have gym equipment at home should I feel the need, and a half a ton horse that I wrangle at the weekends? Well you can discuss your concerns with my body fat percentage because I’m not buying such a blinkered view, and yes, of course I can lift that 10 litre water butt for you because you aren’t strong enough…. Exercise can be walking, cycling, shopping, cleaning, gardening, dancing or having sex. You don’t need to be in that mirrored box with onlookers to make the exertion count, nor do the calories burnt need to be emblazoned on an lcd for them to be real. Personally I think that if you can get a decent quota of exercise without resorting to the gym, then you’ve proven self-sufficient in your ability to keep yourself active. Hurrah! If you happen to like going to the gym then good for you, but I don’t see the point. Bottom line, moving your body and using your muscles are good things, obsessing over reps, times, steps, times etc, not so much.

Diet:
There are huge debates over dietary recommendations. Each week there is another article telling you to eat this but not that, and scaremongering about how terrible some foods are for you, for the story to be reversed months or years later. Keeping up with those articles is not only exhausting but also damaging if you start cutting out food groups willy-nilly. The keys to a healthy relationship with food involve a balanced and varied diet that includes snacks and treats, and not ignoring the social aspects of meal times; cooking for a loved one, or sharing and enjoying food and drink together. I really feel like enjoyment and savouring what you nourish your body with is important, as is including a variety of foods, and including fruit, veg and fibre in with your fats carbs and protein. If you only imbibe things that you dislike and deny yourself the things you enjoy then you might get a certain ascetic kick out of being so controlled, but really, what are you doing? You are strictly denying things that you enjoy, to what end? So that the numbers add up right? so you get to feel virtuous? So you get other people’s approval? Think about what you are doing and why.

The other stuff:
As I have described above with respect to meal times, social interactions are important and isolation can be very damaging to someone in the throes of monomania; with noone to argue against their floored logic, it becomes cemented as truth and then paranoia slips in that others are trying to make them unhealthy or fat by sabotaging their strict regime. It’s a very delicate insular experience to be so absorbed in one aspect of your life that you obsess over it, and it has all manner of costs to you. It may feel like you are controlling your world from the calorie control room, but all you are doing is feeding the anxiety fire with more fuel so that everything outside of your safe boundaries becomes some kind of threat. Can you imagine pulling up the drawbridge like that?

I can. The reason why I have such a strong opinion and feel that I have a right to thrust this tirade internetwards is that I have had a serious eating disorder and a fixation with my health for most of my adult life. When I was sick I got so many compliments about how disciplined I was and how they wished they could be like me, how lucky I was to be thin etc. This kind of attitude was very unhelpful because it reinforced the idea that the way I was living my life was good and something to be admired. It fucking wasn’t, I was constantly exhausted, medicated up to my eyeballs, and every single thing in my life revolved around making sure I could eat ‘safe’ foods. I missed out on so many experiences in those years because I was too busy sat at home weighing and reweighing myself and my food and trying desperately to make the calories balance out. That is not a way to live, it’s barely an existence and if you genuinely admire those who live like that then maybe you aught to try some meds too. It has taken very many years but now I can exercise and eat without a thought for numbers of the energetic kind, and I can finally concentrate on the things that matter in life and every day is another day to try and maintain a healthy weight. I enjoy food and drink, and try new unknown dishes sometimes. For this gargantuan effort I receive the opinion that other people think I am not as fit or healthy any more. Health is not as superficial and the glossy magazines would have us believe. It encompasses the physical and the psychological, and people should not underestimate the physical impacts of a psychological problem. Unsatisfied as you may be with aspects of your physical form, if you had the opportunity to swap with Sarah to have a fitter, more muscular body and also take on her insecurities and necroticisms, would you do it? No, neither would I.

By the way “Sarah” in real life could just as easily be a man.

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9 thoughts on “Malign obsessions: On health as a whole organism phenomena

  1. Everything in moderation and all that jazz.

  2. AMEN! Thank you for this post. Maybe soon they will finally recognize orthorexia as a real eating disorder.

    • Indeed. It can’t be difficult for a professional to recognise the mental anguish of someone with disordered eating and distorted body image even in the absence of an extreme weight or purging. Brushing it under the carpet is only going to drive it further into the mainstream so that people think it really is healthy to live like that. It’s so sad.

  3. revengestar says:

    Awsome and accurate post!

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