Mirror mirror

I’ve had a couple of weeks where I’ve felt like I’ve got quite a lot to say, but none of it seems to want to come  out. It’s like there’s a traffic jam in my brain. I’m not particularly concerned about this because it happens on a regular basis for varying periods of time, but it is annoying to keep turning my computer on and staring at my blog, hoping that a post will write itself and say exactly what I want it to. But that’s unlikely to happen!

So instead I am going to write about Wednesday. On Wednesday I had nothing to do, so I caught the Metro into town to wander around some shops. I checked my bank balance a week or so ago and it was a lot better than I thought it would be (all the frugal living paid off!), so I had the vague idea that I might buy myself a new summery dress or a book. I got as far as trying on several pretty dresses in Dorothy Perkins (yes, I am an old lady), but then got into a strop over the changing room mirrors, so I gave up on that idea and went to Waterstones instead.

Later that evening I made the remark to Jonathan that changing rooms could make me feel a million times worse about my body than my eating disorder ever did. And it’s true. Despite the fact that my ED had nothing to do with body dysmorphia, that doesn’t mean I do and have always loved my body. I hated it when I was a teenager, although it was still very clear in my head that I was starving myself for the way starvation made me feel rather than to change my body, because as far as I was concerned I wouldn’t be happy with my body regardless of my weight. My hatred of it was just an extension of my hatred of myself.

By the time I got to York I didn’t hate my body or myself any more, I knew I looked more attractive when I was healthy, but I felt safer being androgynous. In fact, most of the time I didn’t equate losing weight to changing my body at all – I looked at the number on the scale every morning but I rarely looked in a mirror. I found myself locking my hands around my wrists, wrapping my arms around my body so I could bump my fingers down my ribs, fingering my collar bone – standard body checking, but it was more in the way that I might now mindlessly play with strands of hair that feel extra silky than making sure that the bones were still there. Those kind of compulsive behaviours appear in a lot of people who are malnourished, regardless of the psychological meaning they attach to those behaviours.

But changing rooms. I hate changing rooms. Honestly, given that shops want to sell people clothes you’d think they would fix the lighting so it doesn’t highlight every tiny lump. I am well aware that I am slim, and fully clothed I look just fine, but in changing room mirrors under changing room lights I look all wobbly and wrong. My internal logic is now pretty good, and my thought processes went a bit like this:
ARGH *headless chicken impression*
…but my BMI is only XX, which is still close to the bottom of the healthy end of the range…
…and just yesterday I was admiring Billie Piper in the first series of Doctor Who, and I was thinking that I would happily gain another 5-10lbs to look like her…
…so therefore it must be the lighting.
But I’m still getting out of this changing room ASAP,

In terms of recovery, my entirely healthy percentage of body fat is a very good thing. A lot of people with anorexia, once they accept they actually do have to gain the weight back, get obsessed with gaining back muscle rather than fat. I got a bit weird about this at the start, and I think it was just because my eating disorder wanted to cling on in any shape or form. It wanted SOMETHING to obsess over, God forbid that I actually surrendered control of my body to my genetics and intuition! But bodies need a certain amount of fat for hormones to function, to protect organs and so on. For women, essential body fat – the degree of body fat necessary for the continuation of life – is 8-12%, but anywhere up to a total of ~30% is fine and won’t cause long term health problems. Body fat percentages which are firmly in the healthy range (rather than trailing at the low end) have been associated with lower relapse rates in people with eating disorders.

So I don’t want to get rid of the stuff. It’s useful. And really, it looks a lot better on me than a changing room mirror would suggest. I do genuinely have curves – not big ones, but needing to wear a bra and having a waist that goes in and hips that go out are all very nice. I’m not going to come out with the cliché that “real women have curves”, because that’s horrible – honestly, do people with anorexia and naturally thin women not count as real? I wasn’t aware that a mental illness could turn me into an illusion. But personally I do go in and out a lot more than I used to, and I like it on me. Inhabiting my body feels daring to me, like wearing a something terribly revealing that is guaranteed to get people to look at me. I am no longer trying to be invisible.

Back to the changing room mirrors. When I started to recover I never set “learn to love my body” as a goal, because hating my body hadn’t caused my eating disorder. It’s kind of analogous to my relationship with food. When I was very underweight I was terrified of food, but that was a symptom of my eating disorder, not a cause. In recovery I was obsessed with food for a good few months, as my brain and body healed themselves, and now I just use it as fuel. I don’t hate or love it. It’s necessary, I enjoy the social aspect of it, and I like chocolate brownies quite a bit. But I wouldn’t put such strong words as love or hate on it, because that implies a preoccupation, an obsession. In a similar way, I have various feelings about my body. It terrified me when I was ill and I worried about ideas of perfection when I began to recover. Now I feel proud for having built it up from where it was a couple of years ago. I appreciate it for being so much stronger now, for carrying me about and giving me the energy and strength to enjoy my life. I resent it for being so sensitive. The fact that is it covered in scars is a whole other matter. But I don’t hate it, and I don’t love it, because I don’t spend that much time thinking about it.

I wake up, I shower, I put my clothes on, I leave the house. I don’t weigh or measure myself. My clothes always fit me the same, other than when I have epic PMS. Other than when I am in a changing room I have no reason to be aware of what my body looks like, either to me or other people. I like it that way. I don’t ever want to obsess about my exact weight or body fat percentage. I don’t want to worry about getting enough protein or overdoing the carbs. I don’t want to feel like I HAVE to exercise for however long every day to stay in shape. My shape is fine as it is. Some people find it attractive, and I’m fairly sure Anna Wintour would recoil in horror. But it’s mine, so none of that matters. I like inhabiting this body, and no changing room mirrors are going to change that.

They really could do with different lighting in there though. Or maybe giving out vouchers to everyone who comes out looking a bit traumatised. I would have been able to afford one of those dresses then.


14 responses to “Mirror mirror

  1. I hate changing rooms too- they always make my body look oddly-shaped (both at healthy and low weights), and my hair turns into some kind of huge mutant frizz-bush. Another thing I hate is when they have a super-stylish attendant outside who looks at everything you’ve picked out, counts it and then gives you a look that clearly says ‘You think that *you* can get away with wearing that?’ as she hands you a tag to go in. Waterstones is much more fun.

    Oh, and I love Billy Piper! I remember watching her in Dr. Who for the first time and thinking how gorgeous she was.

  2. You can be very proud of yourself for having reached this “state” of not thinking or obsessing about looks, weight, muscles, fat, food etc. It’s a huge achievement. I admire you for it. Many recovered anorexics will never be able to just let go of it. Of course, it’s debatable if they can count as “recovered” then. I have to include myself. I am being considered as “fully recovered” for 4 or 5 years now, but I am still very attentive to what I eat, how much I do exercise, what my body looks like, how much I weigh. I wish I could just be myself without that.
    Regarding changing rooms there is another thing that makes me feel very uncomfortable in them: Unfortunately my skin is a little bit problematic, and if that was not enough, the light in changing rooms highlights every unevenness, every tiny spot, blackhead and reddening. It’s horrible!

  3. It’s not unusual for the Dotty P in Happyville to have adverts for Special K diets in the changing rooms. It makes me feel quite sad.

  4. I have heard you mention that your ED had little to do with BDD — I am curious what you mean by that. It never started out even as a “diet?”
    How can you tell when you have BDD or not?
    My thereapist had bought it up but I don’t think I have it.
    Anyways, this is bedside the point — the lights are crazy in changing rooms.

    • Hi Missy 🙂

      No, my ED didn’t start out as a diet. This is true for many other people I know. I had a form of anorexia technically known as non-fat phobic anorexia, because the fear of being fat wasn’t driving my behaviour. I did have trouble seeing myself as badly underweight as I was when I was very ill (this is a symptom of the way that malnutrition changes your brain function), but that wasn’t why I continued to lose weight, and I don’t suffer from distorted body image at higher weights.

      My eating disorder started when I quite by accident discovered that not eating all day made me feel numb and kind of high, and distracted me from all the anxiety and depression I was suffering as a result of being bullied. The whole time I was anorexic it was driven by the thought that I would never cope without the biological effects of starvation damping my anxiety and emotions. I thought I would just go mad if I tried to live without the eating disorder. I knew when I was 13 that I didn’t need to lose weight and I knew when I was 24 and in York that I was very ill, but I was more scared of what I thought the psychological consequences of recovery would be than 0f dying from the anorexia.

      So that’s a short version of what I mean, I hope it makes sense – it’s quite a tricky idea for some people to understand, because they are so used to the media insisting that anorexics would not lose weight if they didn’t think they were fat. That’s a hugely simplistic version of events (as you would expect from the media!), even most people who DO have body dysmorphia usually have other ties to being underweight which are not related to thinking they are fat. I think the proportion of non-fat phobic anorexics is a lot higher than most people believe.

      • Oh, wow.
        I realate to this so much. I think my disease is more like this than I’d thought! I never ever heard of this thank you so much. wow.

  5. Oh this is such a comforting post to read. I too find changing rooms hideous places. Many times I’ve gone in and felt so distressed at what I saw in the mirror I just sat and cried. Now I try to avoid them at all costs. It’s just so nice to read that other people have had similar experiences and I’m not the only one who has such a bad experience with changing rooms. I’ll remember this the next time I have to go in one. A lot of people don’t like them, I’m not the only one, it’s the lighting, I’ve got to get healthy 🙂

  6. Ugh, changing room mirrors are my pet hate too: it’s not just figures they don’t flatter, but skin tone as well. I know I have a bad complexion but in those mirrors I look like a hormone-imbalanced teenage boy…or the sqeaky-voiced teen from The Simpsons. I have had my fair share of crying fits in changing rooms (ah, I may never set foot in Topshop in Newcastle or The Metro Centre again) so tend to just order clothes online now and try them on at home. I hate clothes shopping anyway…well, for me at least. I like accompanying others and marvelling at their lovely outfits 🙂 Like Briony, I also hate the attendants that give you ‘the look’ suggesting that somehow you have no right to be there.

    I am just avoiding mirrors altogether, aside from when I am forced to stare into one during Spin or Body Pump for an hour/hour and a half 😦


  7. I was skinny for all of my teens (size 6-8), and pretty slim in my early 20’s. Then all of a sudden when I was 26, I went up to a size 12 . I was like ‘hello, boobs!’ but I didn’t like the other parts of me that got bigger, and I was dismayed to realise I had my mum’s milk-bottle lower legs! However, once my weight had settled to a slightly lower figure between size 10-12, I got used to it and accept it now. A little bit of weight looks better the older you get (I’m 34 now) and I am working on the insecurity I feel about my tummy, so what if it isn’t a washboard? It was nice to read in May’s Cosmo the theme about being positive about your body.

    I have learned to ignore what I look like in changing room mirrors, as I know the lighting is very harsh, and I know I look basically OK, and just to concentrate on whether something fits and looks OK or not. One thing I’d add, try not to take what you look like in a mirror to heart. Other people are much more forgiving to you than you are to yourself, apart from the snotty attendants, feel sorry for them that they are underpaid and feel the need to take it out on others! I could order from catalogues, but it is hard to tell if something will look right on you from the picture and then when it comes and it doesn’t fit or whatever, you have to keep sending things back. I hate that more than I hate changing rooms, lol! I also hate shopping for too long, as it drains me (and I look like it!) and I’m always glad to go back home for a cuppa, but it’s worth the 1 1/2 or 2 hours, to get exactly what I want. Then I can show off my nice clothes and get compliments!

    • Hello Claire 🙂

      Changing bodies can be hard to adapt to, I’m glad you are okay with yours now! Mine changed radically two years ago, but that was deliberate on my part 😉 luckily I don’t have any body image problems (which most people think is weird for a former anorexic) except for in changing rooms! I’m just like you in respect to shopping, I don’t like doing it for too long – shopping till I drop only takes me a couple of hours, then I want to go and sit in Costa and drink tea!

  8. I especially like this post, because I think it’s ‘normal human behaviour’ to have concerns about physical appearance. I feel that the ‘body image’ construct has over-medicalised normal human concerns, especially with regard to EDs. Body image is 21st Century pop psychology. I also think it is normal to have fears of fatness and body image distortion if a person has problems with binge eating. The Laws of Thermodynamics predict that consuming large quantities of energy will lead to energy storage in the body.

    Katie, you write: “When I started to recover I never set “learn to love my body” as a goal, because hating my body hadn’t caused my eating disorder.” That is precisely how I felt. I think it is totally normal for anyone gaining weight after AN to be anxious about changes that occur to their body, especially when they have to gain 40 + pounds to attain a healthy weight. And it doesn’t help that initially the weight is often gained unevenly, with more on the belly, until it re-distributes over time. I deliberately didn’t look in the mirror when I was gaining weight because I don’t like change. I feel ‘safer’ in this world when things remain constant and predictable. Seeing a change in my body shape could have set me back.

    I agree that Waterstones is much better than clothes shops. I was distraught when Borders closed 😦 However, I actually purchased an awesome t-shirt with repeating patterns of beetles on it in Dorothy Perkins last week. I AM an old woman though 😀

    • I was devastated when Borders closed too! I used to be quite capable of spending all day lurking in the one in Bournemouth. And I was very tempted by a t shirt with repeating patterns of ladybird in DP a couple of months back 😛

      • I used to lurk all day in the local Borders too, which had a Starbucks 🙂 I now lurk in Waterstones! The t-shirt I bought with the beetles is totally awesome. I’ll upload it to Facebook.

  9. Thank you for commenting 🙂 I just felt like it wouldn’t be polite for me to let you comment on my blog and never say anything back to you! You always leave such in depth comments too, which I like. Obviously I agree with you on the women and curves thing, that’s one of my personal hobby horses. You can’t fight the cultural pressure to be thin by attempting to create a cultural pressure to be curvy! Not that cultural pressures had anything to do with my ED, but even I recognise the irony and potential danger of that approach. I am much more into body acceptance than conformity to anybodies ideal.

    I hope this doesn’t sound awful (it could do, and I am known for putting my foot in it sometimes!), but I think “awed” is the wrong word. I used to overexercise, so I don’t admire the motivation of people who exercise a lot – I have no idea what their motivation is on a person to person basis, it could be healthy or it could be disordered, and I would not want to admire anyone for disordered reasons (mine or their own!). I just meant that I feel like it’s a world I used to belong to and I now don’t, so it feels a little wrong for me to lurk in it. I wouldn’t want to get caught back up in compulsive exercise because I’m incapable of training both strenuously and healthily. I can be healthy by walking and I enjoy that, but that’s about my limit at the moment! I absolutely do not think that everyone who exercises a lot has an addiction or is overdoing it – I’ve not thought that about you, because I don’t know enough about you. I just baulked at the idea of myself as awed! I have a habit of writing essays about throwaway remarks, so apologies for that 😉 rest of comment = totally agree!

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