Malign obsessions: On health as a whole organism phenomena


“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.

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.

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.

The morphing face of perception

As I have described before, I find my own visage reminiscent of something squiddish. Or at least I did. Some peculiar change has taken place recently in the face that lives in the ocean at the bottom of the mirror that cannot entirely be explained by my all too tardy discovery of eyebrow pencils. No, there is something inexplicably different and almost, human about the overall mask. It’s uncannily like I am simply Homo sapiens like you and not a demon-spawed sea-creature abomination. Could it be that I’ve transformed through some cephalopodic adolescence into my mature form? A flood of aquatic hormones that has flushed out the adolescent obsession with facial paranoia? A transition where dysmorphia is displaced by clarity.

It’s funny how a slight change in perspective can alter perception so vastly. The monster under the bed retreats into its former scarf and slippers form with the flick of a switch but I’m left wondering which switch got flicked this time, and how do I keep the light on?

“I think I should be

a little more confident,

in my self,

in my skin” ~Daughter, Home

Call me Princess Squidfeatures

Still haunted by fantastic dreams and allusions I find myself faced by the undeniable reality that my face on Skype via front facing camera is something horrific. I really look like some kind of bizarre sea creature / goblin hybrid yet my nephew immediately recognises me. How dreadful. I’d like to be able to blame this on dysmorphia but I actually do genuinely think there is something of the squiddish hobgoblin in my features.
Perhaps the problem is that someone I barely know told me that I looked beautiful a few days ago, which was overgenerous of them, and although nice, it made me realise how seldom I get such comments on this, most monstrous visage. I see only a collection of imperfections. A quite extensive collection at that.

Sorry folks it’s one of those many days where neither mirror nor camera is my ally. I have been taking my meds so I’m not quite sure what the deal is this time, but not being able to exercise for a week and wearing no makeup for 3 days may have something to do with it, in conjunction with extensive boredom and time for wallowing in silent self-discourse, or maybe it’s because I’m reading Wuthering Heights. I only hope that this bout of bodily and facial dissatisfaction make way for more important and constructive things. For the record, that’s pretty much EVERYTHING else.

Go tell someone that you love how beautiful they are.

“and in the doorway they stay
and laugh as violins fill with water
screams from the bluebells
can’t make them go away”

locking horns with the irrational monster who lives in my belly

Today I was told the following

-that I look really healthy and am obviously not underweight


my interpretation of that was

-that I look really chubby and am obviously not slim.

or worse

-that I look really fat and am obviously not skinny.

This pisses me off something chronic.

Seriously – I’m not annoyed about the comment – it was genuinely not meant negatively – it was a reflection of my current good health and lack of brink-of-deathness.

I’m pissed off that my interpretation is STILL so backwards! I frickin HATE that, I KNOW I look healthy and well and normal and all those words I so feared becoming.

Ok while I’m on this topic I had another disturbing experience at the weekend – it was mentioned to me that some girls we were meeting were very skinny and something to the effect of ‘about as thin as me at my thinnest’. What annoyed me again wasn’t the comment, nor the perceived fact – that’s fine- its nice to have warning if people are going to be worryingly thin… but my triggered reaction – some horrid creature inside my belly was offended at this comment, tapped on my brain and said – go-on say how much you weighed at your lowest, and how little you ate…but thankfully I wrangled it back down and tried to be vague and not look like Id just been affronted. THAT is ridiculous! how can ANY part of me still be in ANY way PROUD or DEFENSIVE of what I did to my body?! FFS!!! PLUS how can I expect people to know how bad things were before they knew me when I was until recently TOTALLY incapable of admitting any real problem let alone talking about it (hence blog posts smeared all over with recovery and body image stuffs now I feel able to express myself). Gah! So annoyed with myself, so very annoyed.

Sorry belly monster but this is how things are now – you are gonna have to stop trying to strangle me and control my thoughts because I’m much stronger now, and I certainly don’t want to feel like I’m in a competition with every other woman in the world, being ranked by BMI  and sliding down the scale from what society perceives as beautiful and desirable and down into the murk of what is seen as bland and unexceptional. Well fuck that. I just need to remind myself that it is EXCEPTIONAL that after so many years in the  of strangle hold of various spectrums of an eating disorder that I have FINALLY got myself healthy – for ME, not for anyone else. I have been told repeatedly by professionals that people like me never fully recover, that they will always be on the spectrum of disordered eating – so now all I have to do is prove them wrong…if only I could silence the monster in my belly and believe in myself a bit then we are all set :).

oh here’s a fun game – go to put in your height then without looking a the weights or BMIs consider based on how the 3D model looks what you think you look like to other people. Look at what value you settled on then compare to reality – I think I look like BMI 21.4 even though unclothed Im more like 19.2 – obviously this is not an exact science!! studies have shown that women of normal weights often perceive themselves to be bigger than they are.

I think I look 6 kilos heavier than I am- no wonder I am paranoid about looking much chubbier than I used to be!! also this one is fun but I get the same answer!!

anyway that just number and perception procrastination – i find it fascinating that even women without disordered eating or body dysmorphia still think they look bigger than they actually do…have you seen that program ‘how to look good naked’? have you noticed that when women put themselves in a lineup where they think they fit size-wize they almost always think they are bigger than they are? well they do! ok enough rambling i have students to supervise and foundation to slap on my gloriously clear facial skin 🙂

Why are we beating ourselves over the head girls? for goodness sake – beauty, happiness and success are not measured in pounds ladies, so do me a favour and just appreciate the health you were blessed with. Unfortunately on my cycle ride to work I suffered a flashback to measuring my waist at my most sick and quite honestly I don’t understand how I could be so tiny and not think there was nothing wrong….<shudders> yuck. If I ever need or desire a tiny waist in the future I’ll keep on munching and wear a damned corset 😉

Some boring ranting about trousers and sizes

For an academic researcher like me, clarification of dress code is sometimes necessary. Take interview clothing- I’m told to wear trousers that dont have holes in the but not go over the top. So thats my two normal types of outfit out normal lab clothes=too scruffy, evening dress=too glamorous / alternative.
Oh my lord! I have an interview on Thursday and woke up with no smart trousers that fit me. Two pairs that were fine 6 months ago are now not suitable for sitting down motions 😦
I’m sure this shouldn’t bother me that much but it does.
I’m upset.
One pair was a gift from my lovely sister in law…they were too bog when she gave them to me…
The only other option is pinstripe which SO dislikes and when asked if they look that bad said ‘i don’t know’ yup way to express your opinion dickface. Like- does my foundation look really bad ‘i dont know’ is not am acceptable answer!!!!!
Having said that he immediately offered to take me to buy some new ones. 25 mins out of the car, trousers found, tried and bought. Amazing.
What is really weird is that they are the same size as the non sitting compatible ones I had already.
Clothing size makes me crazy sometimes. I’m ashamed that I let it get to me, but I’m this case it’s more about the loss of garments I like than about size per say.

So minor drama avoided, thankfully I tried the old ones on in time to realise I needed new…

Well £ 20 for some polyester / viscose bootcut trousers…yeah I can handle that- it’s better than sitting in the interview being unable to think about answers because circulation to my lower body has been restricted…
Not the most elegant / stylish / durable option but will serve a purpose.
Obviously SOs opinion in the shop was ‘ it’s up to you’
Um. Thanks. I spent what, an hour answering whether I thought this or this or that or this had a difficult guitar part before I broke down and said I didn’t care anymore, I was trying to read a book!!

Seriously, Can you imagine…hi boss, we are going to have to conduct the interview standing up…slight thigh miscalculation, but I’m really good at planning anf attention to detail..honest!!!

Haha! NOW I can laugh, earlier I was borderline crying. Stupid hormonal body consciousness…