When I went to pick up my pills for the first time, the woman at the pharmacy counter gave me a queer look. Frowning, she asked me to confirm my full name, address and date of birth. Once I’d nailed that test, she asked, “Are you picking up these tablets for someone else?”
“No,” I replied, wondering what her deal was.
“Are you sure this is the prescription your doctor meant to give you?”
“And…do you know what these pills are meant to be treating?” she asked, suspiciously.
“Because…you know, they’re usually given to really old ladies,” the woman continued, in her loudest and least tactful voice.
“Yes, I know I do have osteoporosis, thank you,” I barked, and snatched the bag out of her hand, then scurried out of the door accompanied by the stares of everybody else in the queue behind me.
I am 22, and I have osteoporosis in my spine and hips: a bone disease generally reserved for post-menopausal women. I haven’t menstruated in living memory and the hormones in my body come from taking the pill alone. I cry in longing, shameful fear at the thought of pastry or French fries or mayonnaise. And all this because I thought I would never end up being one of those girls that became anorexic, and then it snuck up behind me while I wasn’t looking.
I went to an all-girls’ school, which was a veritable pick-and-mix of eating disorders, from the bog-standard regulars to the diabulimics to the people who ate nothing all day except for a single whole baguette just because they were kooky like that. Our year group in particular was exceptionally thin. But I was one of the chubby few: the porky, food-loving girls who didn’t really care, knew weight worries were shallow and pointless, and were certain we would never let those kinds of thoughts get the better of us. We were feminists and knew that eating disorders were symptoms of a social ill which we were not going to allow to better us; we knew it was more important for us to study hard and become intelligent, interesting people. We also loved cake and chocolate digestives too much to care about any of it. And our parents loved us for being stocky, reliable, proper gals who weren’t going to be a problem and had nice, child-bearing hips for future grandkids.
But a bullet-proof jacket cannot withstand a bazooka. Within the final few years of school and the first few years of university, I was surrounded by girls and magazines and TV figures and friends and enemies who were all thinner than me and all freaking out about weight and diet. One of my first relationships literally featured the following exchange:
“I feel uncomfortable with people touching my hips. I’m too fat for it.”
“Yeah, well, you make up for it in personality!”
By the time I was cooking my own meals and living a semi-independent life, I had truly lost it, and decided that it was time to go for broke and lose all that weight the world wouldn’t let me forget I was lugging around. Almost every meal was an enormous bowl of iceberg lettuce, and I would allow myself a large carrot for an afternoon snack, although the guilt of it made me agonise for hours afterwards. I loathed myself and punished myself for every mouthful I consumed. I wept for all of my favourite things that I would never again eat. I began to isolate myself from my friends and pinch parts of myself every few seconds in astonished rage at the meat I still had on me. I lost about two and a half stone. I realised I hadn’t had my period for a year and a half. I went to the doctor. And that is where the actual pain of anorexia began.
After several botched blood tests and one final success (yaay, can I lie down now please), we determined that my glands were all working fine and that it was the dietary restriction that was causing the problem. My doctor referred me to an eating disorders clinic and booked me in for a high-tech bone scan, just to check that things were in order. At the clinic, I had a two-hour ‘assessment’ session that required me to tell the entire story of my problem in razor-sharp detail until I couldn’t breathe through my tears. They then informed me that I wasn’t yet ‘thin’ enough – 0.4 points over the threshold for BMI – to actually qualify for treatment, so I would have to be put on a lonnnnngggg waiting list. I went to see my university counsellor, a lovely mum-like lady who told me that a big salad with nothing but lemon juice for dressing was a completely acceptable meal, and not to worry about being fat because ‘lots of boys love a Ruben-esque figure’ (seriously). I carefully asked my mother if I could see a private person which involved another two-hour ‘assessment’ with the same process of reliving my agony, except with the added bonus of the psychiatrist telling me off for being a silly girl and damaging my own body and then charging me 95 precious quid for that pleasure. Finally, the results of the bone scan came through – and just before Christmas, my doctor called and told me that I had osteoporosis.
That was the real punch in the teeth. I was aghast at myself – how could I, an intelligent and independent and confident and not-particularly-vain girl, and, need I mention again, a feminist, have done this to myself? How could I, directly and purposefully, have messed up my skeleton to the point that I would end up with a hunchback in my fifties? What a fool I had been! If you look anywhere in the media, anorexics are troubled, vulnerable pubescent girls or hyper-vacuous celebrities who end up looking so spider-like that they get carried into hospital in a padded envelope. I just looked a bit ill, and was a bit more ill on the inside. I was over the BMI threshold, I was doing ok at university, and so I didn’t count. That’s probably why no-one reacted, and why my father and siblings simply made jokes about ‘fad diets’ and ‘fear of chips’ at dinnertime when I eventually plucked up the courage to tell them. My family encouraged me to keep this all a secret from everyone else to stop other people ‘talking’.
And in the end I gave up. I stopped having therapy and started just dealing with things on my own, in private and in secret. And I am still far from being better, because even wanting healthy bones isn’t enough to stop me clinging on to the thin dream. Every day, I am furious at myself for having given myself this cruddy skeleton by succumbing to something as ‘vacuous’ as an eating disorder. But this is also the point: the problem with eating disorders is that the people who develop them are not vain, or stupid, but simply crushed by the pressure around them to listen to the vanity and stupidity.
We are told 24/7 that even if we as women value ourselves based on our achievements and character, the rest of the world – especially those who might potentially have sex with us – will not. The rest of the world wants even astrophysicists to look like Mad Men secretaries. And that is why I don’t give a damn about my first-class degree and the fact that I graduated top of my subject. I will tell you I am proud, and I will put it on my CV, but really I would trade it in a second for a flat stomach and slim thighs. And truly, I would trade the degree, and the grade, and the stomach, and the thighs, for a skeleton and a uterus that work properly.
An eating disorder is not one person’s disorder; it is our society’s disorder. We need to stop telling girls to be thin and lithe and carb-free, and we need to prize our intellectual and powerful women like true heroes rather than curious little pseudo-Thatcherite oddities of history. We have to stop celebrating strong women while also mocking their bingo wings. We need everyone to rejoice in the love and friendship and balance that we experience every day when we eat food with others or alone, rather than treating it like woman’s worst enemy.
Because there’s no point in raising girls to be clever in modern western society, and then expecting them to be safe; pushed hard enough, the sad truth is that any girl with a brain will eventually put it towards calorie mathematics.