By Emma Stirland
‘Emma, can I talk to you in my office for a minute?’
I remember this moment vividly. I was walking into school, like I did every weekday morning, minding my own business with my headphones turned up to full volume. What followed was a teacher, who did not teach me, and I only faintly recognised from assemblies, asking me if I was ‘eating’. This ambush, as I viewed it at the time, was a defining moment in my school years. I was beginning to feel the pressure of my GCSEs on the horizon, and suddenly I found out that my teachers, who I assumed thought I was fine especially after achieving top marks in my mock exams, were worried about my health. This was also the first time someone, directly to my face, called me skinny.
Previously, I had been aware that I was thin. I’d had a late growth spurt during puberty and had noticeably got thinner. Girls in the PE changing rooms would make comments about my noticeable shoulder blades, and I could prop myself up in the bath by resting on my hip bones. This was not the result of any conscious effort on my part. I ate ‘well’ if eating well means not particularly thinking about food, eating what I enjoyed and maintaining a relatively healthy lifestyle through walking and swimming for exercise.
Looking back, I believe people, from the outside, were worried that I had an eating disorder. It was as if my body type mirrored an illness; as if I could be simply identified as ill because of the way I looked. I realise that my school had good intentions and were carrying out their safeguarding responsibility – however, this confrontation with my own body and how it was interpreted by those around me did trigger a chain of toxic thoughts and habits. I became more aware of how I looked and what others would think. I felt like I had to eat a lot more than I used to, while simultaneously tracking the calories I consumed each day and categorising food into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. I began to have a new monitored awareness of what and how I ate, and these eating behaviours could have been the onset of an eating disorder that some people assumed I already had.
Then my periods stopped, for nearly a year, and I was not on the contraceptive pill at the time, I did not have a single period. After a few months, I saw my GP, and they put it down to my weight and low levels of oestrogen. They encouraged tracking my food intake and weight weekly. I soon started to become obsessive over the little bits of paper that were printed out of the scales in my local pharmacy; hoarding them in a box under my bed. I began to view myself, and consequently, my self-worth, through these numbers and BMI calculations, that ultimately told me each week that I was severely underweight. I was consumed by ideas that others had put in my head relating to arbitrary statistics, calories and the number under my feet on the scales. Despite my best efforts to eat larger portions, calorie-dense foods and more protein, nothing seemed to be changing.
This was the picture for most of my teenage years. A cycle of people supposing I had an eating disorder, which in itself triggered disordered thoughts about my weight and body image. Fast forward five years and I don’t weigh myself and cannot remember the last time I did. Since being at university, cooking for myself and doing (some) weight-based exercises, I’ve gained weight, and I’m starting to like who I see back in the mirror and the positive effects on my mental health. The word ‘skinny’, however, still sits in the back of the mind. Personally, 'skinny' has negative connotations, despite it often being used as a compliment. I connect the word to a weaker and smaller version of myself, a girl who took up little space and was trying her utmost to put on weight when many people around me were striving to do the opposite. I was regularly faced with comments like ‘I wish I could eat whatever I wanted like you.’ This left me screaming inside. People appeared to be idealising my body, while I was eating more to the point where I felt sick, frequenting the doctors for weight check-ups and was concerned whether my periods would ever come back. I still struggle with off-hand comments about my body image. Whether it’s my own self-destructive thoughts about going to the gym and people wondering why I’m there or remarks from others about potential weight loss being related to an eating disorder.
You should not have to prove whether or not you are ill, and these assumptions of illness can have equally damaging consequences. I will probably always have a smaller frame and struggle to put on weight due to my high metabolism and genetics, and how my body is viewed by the eyes of others continues to cast a shadow over me. I never identified as having an eating disorder; however, the worry of those around me that I did for many years certainly pushed me in that direction. There needs to be more funding and research into eating disorders, their long-term effects and better ways of discussing them that aren’t based on misjudged preconceptions. Remembering that a certain body type doesn’t qualify someone for having an eating disorder and that you don’t have to be ‘skinny’ in order to be malnourished is a good way forward.