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Eating disorders and health: Fitness generation and the worst times of the year

Writing: Scott Beaton

Illustration: Josie Berry

CW: This article includes discussion of eating disorders and mental illness.

This article is not about my eating disorder story, nor is it about how it destroyed my health and still continues to do so. It’s not even an attack on those types of articles or narratives around anorexia, bulimia, BED, or all of the other evils that exist. It’s actually about our obsession with health and fitness, and how every time someone talks about the gym, their meal plans, or the run they missed this morning, I feel a little bit worse; why this culture of health is so harmful for people in recovery. The first day of January: a fresh start, a chance to improve, an opportunity to thrive. Everyone plans out some arbitrary list of resolutions, usually rooted in self-hatred and insecurity: “lose that weight”, “start running 5k every day”, “no processed foods”, etc. They buy their new running shoes, fancy water bottles and get a membership for the nearest gym, all in the name of becoming themselves but version 2.0: fitter, healthier, happier. For me, it marks the start of perhaps the worst month of the entire year. Dark and cold, the season of sharp restriction begins with a multi-flanked assault: the same annual tradition of 6am runs, a health-destroying sub-1000 calorie meal plan (or should I say an ana-approved restrictive fast?), and the odd detox fad for good measure.

It’s unavoidable, with everyone around talking about their plans for getting “back on track”, heading to the gym every morning and evening, starting one-meal-a-day diets, and worrying over the calories in a breath of fresh air. As someone who has been trying to silence the negative voice in my head for quite a while now, I cannot articulate how difficult it is to have that voice come out of everyone else’s mouth – friends, family, acquaintances. Trying to be my own kind of healthy, and put my recovery first, becomes harder and harder, until you break and join them. Honestly, if you love your runs and your kale and quinoa salads and your ceremonial morning weigh-ins, I’m not here to stop you. But by telling the whole world, even those who don’t want to know, it can become easy to forget that this is not just a diet plan or a fitness regime, but a past life for some of us – something we have been trying to forget. When someone mentions in passing the calories in their food, my mind becomes the calculator I’ve been working on breaking into little pieces. It rebuilds itself and starts working out the numbers: an apple, 92, black coffee, 2.

Whatever. It’s fine to have an interest in your health and to want to know what’s in your food, but when you promote that behaviour by acting as a mouthpiece, regardless of who’s around, you are contributing to the systematic neglect of eating disorder patients in long-term recovery. We can all celebrate the victims of this illness who worked their way out of the hole, but we have to realise that the hole is only one step backwards, only one week off track, only a handful of comments away. Every story needs to carry a warning: this recovery could be reversed; this period could just be an upswing; this person will forever be working on fighting their disposition to their past illness.

By normalising the doctrine of restriction, we simultaneously increase the likelihood of those around us suffering from an eating disorder in the future, while also preventing those already affected from successfully recovering and carrying on with their lives. Only in the past few weeks have I fully come back into myself and felt any semblance of normalcy for my mental health. That shouldn’t be the case. We shouldn’t allow people in recovery to spend months in the dark and then praise their heroism for keeping going despite it all. We should introduce real change that means that I don’t have to hold a grudge against January anymore. We need to stop talking about the gym, about our unrealistic fitness plans, about our weight, all from an unforgiving angle of restriction, necessity or self-hatred, because we don’t always know who’s in the room, or what power we’re giving to the voices in their heads.

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