A Hunger Artist

Winning the battle against anorexia.

What weight-lifting can do for a former anorexic

Swapping starving for strength-training

I go to the gym three times a week - and I look forward to it!


It still amazes me sometimes, that I should have found not only a physical activity that doesn't fill me with boredom or dread (as all the ghastly team games at school used to), but one that involves going to a gym, one of the human inventions I used to despise more than most others. I despised a lot of things, and a lot of people, during my anorexic years, but gyms seemed to me the epitome of modern madness: that people could pay quite large amounts of money for the privilege of being able to expend energy completely pointlessly in the proximity of lots of other people either unfit or freakishly fit, with not even the benefits of daylight and fresh air to recommend it, and using their exertions on the treadmill or the resistance machines to earn their post-workout indulgence in food or drink. It still does sadden me a little to think of all the time and physical energy being thrown away in gyms all around the world, rather than its being used in some more creative, philanthropic, or in some sense productive way - and I admit to still despising those people who drive there in their 4X4s - and I still find the cardio machines an incomprehensible substitute for walking or cycling out in the real world, whilst laughing at the misery of joggers ruining their knees - but perhaps all that simply means I'm not quite better yet.

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Weight-lifter vs. gym bunnies


What I love in the gym doesn't feel as wholly negative as the endeavours of those who run or pedal on the spot for hours on end, purely to see the calories-burned indicator go up and up, purely to lose weight or grow slimmer. I lift weights - and this feels like something positive, because muscle and strength are being noticeably built, rather than fat or energy simply being lost. My boyfriend introduced me to what had for years been his own sport of choice, without little hope of my taking to it, I think. But somehow, from the outset, it seemed right. I found I could lift the bars and dumbbells in the ways that he showed me, and I found a beautiful sense of the cleanness of the movements involved, the pure arc of weights and limbs and muscles moving in highly co-ordinated synchrony, that satisfied something in me I hadn't known to exist previously. I've been aware that the metaphors that naturally come to me in characterising this pleasure are ones with an inglorious history for me and anyone who's known anorexia: purity, cleanliness, simplicity, and their conceptual connections with strength, self-control, and will-power are highly pernicious webs of association that need dismantling if recovery is to be complete, and which need defending against if health is to be safeguarded. But I do think the difference in context makes the resemblance only a superficial one. In the case of anorexia, it doesn't take much insight to see the illusory nature of the associations: there's nothing inherently clean, pure, or simple, about eating too little to support a healthy body, and there's nothing inherently strong, wilful, or self-controlled about not being able to stop starving oneself despite feeling the havoc doing so is wreaking with one's body, mind, and life in general. Purity, simplicity, and strength are the last attributes that can be properly applied to minute rules about numbers of grams of permitted foods, to feverish concern with bowel movements and the prominence of certain bones, to the freezing cold, the muscle wastage and organ shrinkage, the oedema and amenorrhoea and lanugo, that may come to define the anorexic's body.


With weight-lifting it's different. The clean lines of the squat or the shoulder press induce an aesthetic response to their beauty when properly executed; the sensation of certain muscle groups pushing against a certain amount of weight is simple and, when completed, delightful; the possibility for making continuous progress is mentally satisfying. I do worry, sometimes, about some other aspects of my liking for this sport - though much of that worry may be born of simple incredulity that I can enjoy a sport this much. Firstly, there's the danger of its becoming something compulsive rather than merely pleasurable. Many men and women who lift weights do so for aesthetic reasons, to gain muscle as an end in itself, rather than to gain muscle for strength; they tweak muscle growth in minute ways through exercises that have no real effect on strength, and reduce body-fat as much as possible to make the muscles maximally visible. (Just to clarify the terminology: they are body-building rather than weight-lifting (involving the Olympic lifts: the clean and jerk and the snatch) or power-lifting (back squat, deadlift, and bench press). We're following Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength programme), a mixture of Olympic and power-lifting, so what we're doing might best be called ‘strength-training'.) There are plenty of obsessive body-builders, and my boyfriend was, in the past, one of them: he tailored his diet to what the T-Nation gurus recommended, imported expensive protein powders, and believed it to be his means to achieving the nirvana of having a six-pack, and all the personal happiness to which that would inevitably lead. The start of our relationship put an end to that, since he understood how effectively such food-related obsessions would prevent my being happy with him and able to recover fully, and because he was so starved (in his careful, scientific way that nonetheless bore so many resemblances to my pathological way) that it took little for him to embark on a phase of eating too much - from which he then learned, along with me, the importance of finding a middle path. We've discussed the balance that needs to be struck between living such that the weight-lifting can be fulfilling (eating more at certain times, not drinking alcohol at certain times), and living such that the rest of life is fulfilling too - such that one can be spontaneous in social contexts, and enjoy food as more than a fuel for lifting. We've compromised: I've started drinking a protein shake most afternoons, in addition to my usual tea-time biscuits, and having egg in my porridge on work-out days, and he's practised not imposing the requirements of the strength-trainer on our lives much more than that. I struggled a bit initially to add a banana before we set off, but I've noticed how it helps, and now the reasons for doing so win out in the little internal argument that is initiated by the knowledge that it's not long since breakfast, and the feeling that I don't really need it.


It might be argued that starting strength training is a silly thing for an only recently recovered anorexic to do. Eating disorders often go hand in hand with exercise obsessions, and the only reason that for me the latter was never a great problem was that work mattered more to me than losing more weight - or at least, the proof of my power was the flawless balancing of the two - and that hours spent exercising should have been hours spent thinking, reading, and writing. Now that my need to work every waking hour has grown gentler, I might in theory be more susceptible to the feeling that I could compensate for food with more exercise. But I know that this isn't the case. I simply don't think that way any more, and have little fear that I might ever do so again. For another thing, the three work-outs a week don't offer much scope for a growing obsession: I can feel my muscles worn out by the time we've finished, and needing the two or three days till next time simply to recover.


There are also little worries about food and body image. Amongst them is not, however, the fear which prevents many women from taking up weight-lifting: the fear that it would inevitably lead to their becoming less feminine - for which read: overly muscled. Women, thanks to their lower testosterone levels, simply don't have the capacity to put on muscle mass as men do, and if anything I feel more ‘feminine' for the changes that have occurred in me. I also feel empowered: it's good not to be just a weak fragile girlie, but a strong but still curvy woman. (Stumptuous.com is a good blog on women and weight-lifting.) So, my worries aren't worries about having problems with food or body image things, but worries about having no problems at all really - which makes me wonder whether I've become dependent on the strength-training to make certain aspects of life easier. One issue is food: it takes a lot of energy to squat, for instance, one's body weight in bar and weight plates for three sets of five repetitions, and then go on to do the same number of repetitions of the bench press and power clean. This means that I can eat more without worrying about gaining fat, because the energy will go into muscle reparation and structural changes within my body instead. But does that mean that I am legitimising my food intake with reference to some abnormally high energy requirements, allowing myself to think that I'm relaxed about what I eat, when in fact I'm relaxed only if I know I'll be in the gym three times a week? Another facet of the same question is whether this is what now allows me not to mind comparisons with what and how much other people eat, because this aspect of my life serves to make my intake incomparable with theirs. Yet another angle is that of the effects, visible and tangible, on my body, and comparisons with the bodies of others: perhaps I feel calm about most women I see now being slimmer than me because where I used to focus feverishly on other women's tummies and upper arms, I can now focus on the more constructive but perhaps no less pernicious fact that most of them lack the muscles, and hence the strength, that I am so enjoying acquiring.


I've thought through all this quite a lot, and ultimately I think the key is as simple as that: enjoyment. It's really fun going and lifting heavy weights with my boyfriend before lunch. I like the lifting itself, and I like the effects it has on my body, my energy levels, my strength, and my mood. I think it's right for me to be cautious about all these phenomena, but that they are in fact the effects of simply being happy doing something. It is possible to make oneself anxious about something which could, if one just dared to stop worrying, be a wholly good thing, and I've no wish to risk doing that. And at least one aspect of it all is entirely beneficial as far as the former anorexic is concerned: it makes body weight mean more than the sliding scale from thin to fat. It makes gaining weight something to welcome rather than be apprehensive about, because what is being weighed is the muscle, bone, and cartilage as well as fat, and more of these means the possibility of more progress, more strength, more satisfaction. I don't weigh myself often - once a month or so - but when I do it's lovely not particularly to care what the numbers say: to do it out of curiosity mainly, and almost be pleased if I weigh more. This is the most positive freedom I can imagine from the anorexic tyranny of the numbers: that less - further progress towards emaciation and death - is always more - more proof of strength, will-power, and all the rest.


This brings me to a final issue about weight-lifting and anorexia, which I've never suffered from myself but which another blogger has made me think about more seriously. This is the difficulty with which the former anorexic may confront the need to eat more at the outset, to get anywhere with lifting, even if she appreciates the positive effects that lifting may have on her body-image, self-esteem, physical strength, and so on. A vicious circle may arise in which one does not dare to eat enough to be able to lift anything much, even whilst one knows that only by lifting can one dare to eat more because it'll be going towards building muscle instead of fat. However, the basis of such a paradox is the desire to put on ‘good weight' rather than ‘bad', whereas of course for the anorexic trying to recover all weight is good. Recovery will never be successful if in the weight-gain stage any restrictions are placed upon the way in which one is willing to gain weight, because a starved body responds to increased intake in ways that are unpredictable precisely because adequate nutrition has hitherto been absent. Organs and bones, teeth and skin and hair, all require the new nutrients to restore themselves, and fat deposits will be made unevenly, and in ways that may seem uneven because of a lack of underlying muscle. The tummy, for instance, may seem to get bigger more than anything else, but this is because the abdominal muscles are so wasted. In psychological terms, of course, if one expects weight gain to have effects that may be considered ‘positive' (e.g. muscle growth) but not those thought of as ‘negative' (e.g. gaining fat), one is being unrealistic and at the same time sustaining the mental entrapment that anorexia entails.


In my own case, something - a combination of desperation, determination, and a good deal of luck and help - allowed me to decide to eat and not stop doing so until I reached a healthy weight, or felt ‘well' again. I initially didn't believe the latter would ever happen, but by the time I reached a BMI of 20, I was sure that it would, but that it hadn't yet - so I continued to eat until my BMI was 26, and then my eternal hunger at last subsided: I felt for the first time in 12 years that I'd eaten enough, and I eased off the second helpings and the extra snacks, and my BMI gradually dropped back to 24 or so. I first tried weight-lifting somewhere towards the latter end of this process of instinctive weight gain, and thus I never had the problem of insufficient energy intake to make it work. I find myself feeling almost guilty sometimes, when I write about how I recovered, because for so many others I've talked and otherwise communicated with, that way is for whatever reason an impossibility. It may seem as though I'm ignoring the difficulties others may find insurmountable, or as though I was never really as ill as some of those others, or as though I'm implying there is some magic switch I managed to switch but so few do. None of these things is true, I think: sufficient things in my past and present came together to make that new way of eating, and keeping on eating, possible - and indeed the only possibility. And weight-lifting was one of those things.


Without it I would never have learnt what a delight physical exertion - and physical strength - can be. Without it I wouldn't have realised that body shape and composition could be defined by anything other than variations on the spectrum from thin to fat. I wouldn't have experienced the ironic thrill of bench-pressing what I used to weigh, and dead-lifting double that. I wouldn't have known the happiness of allowing my body to grow to be as strong a support to me as it can be. It's something that very few women in the UK would ever consider taking up - but with a good trainer to help one learn it properly there's no reason not to. It's a brilliant way of breaking the cardio conception of exercise as weight loss, and of finding one more way of coming to peace with one's own body after maltreating it so comprehensively.

Emily T. Troscianko, Ph.D., is a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Oxford, researching the connections between eating disorders and fiction.

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