My boyfriend and I have just come back from a night in London with friends, a couple like us. I've got on so splendidly well with them in the past, but this time everything felt subtly different, and food was mostly to blame, I think.
I felt a first twinge of discomfort when, as he set about preparing the lunch, she said to him that she didn't want anything - then, to me, that she'd had ‘quite a big breakfast' so wasn't hungry. In fact, as he laid out the spread of salads and cold meats and chicken curry, she decided either that she was hungry after all, or that she'd be polite and join in, and she took a couple of small helpings of salad. Neither of them had any of the bread and butter, bought specially for us, it seemed; he was for a long time overweight, and lost weight by a low-carb route. She likes running and netball and cares about fitness, and has to some extent adopted his food habits. I felt awkward about taking much of anything, as though they were watching and judging, or wanting my boyfriend and me to eat more than them; half of me wanted to rebel by eating what I wanted, half of me by refusing to enjoy or properly partake. But maybe I was imagining it all; I know I'm still over-sensitive, and maybe her breakfast really had been big, and maybe they don't really like bread anyway.
The afternoon was a sunny cold one, and it was nice to get out for a walk and a drink before returning to his flat for coffee. She offered round chocolates that she'd been given for Christmas but taken to his place so as not to be tempted by them into eating the whole box. She told me how if she let herself she could gorge on chocolate, so never bought it for herself unless she had a ‘craving', in which case she'd buy just enough for a chocolate ‘fix' and no more. It all sounded a bit bleak and desperate, but it didn't greatly bother me - not as it would have done a year or so ago, when it would have plunged me into a ritual of comparison and self-doubt (doubt, that is, in myself through my diet). But she ate a couple, and I had one and my boyfriend a few, and then they offered us sparkling wine and we played some charades and talked and waited for some Moroccan lamb to cook. Dinner was nice; he's a good cook, and had bought couscous for us. He called out to her whether she wanted any, and she said - as she said to everything - ‘just a little bit'.
I suppose I was getting tired by then: it's been a long if lovely holiday, we'd had only one night back in Oxford before setting off again, and lately there's been so much eating and drinking - drinking especially - that perhaps it wasn't the right time for an evening with them. In the past we've almost always got quite drunk together, gone out to restaurants or night clubs, and this quiet evening in was bound to be a little subdued by comparison. I suppose, too, that when the conversation turned to the diet he's planning to embark on in March, I was a little aggressive. My boyfriend had mentioned it to me before: they're both into weight-lifting, and it goes hand in hand with all the muscle-building tips they've shared over the years. For 28 days one consumes only protein shakes, with lots of fish oils and flax seed, and then there's a two-week ‘transition' period - after which one's appetites are supposedly ‘reset', meaning sweet things (or, presumably, whatever other ordinary food happens to be one's personal vice) no longer appeal. He wants to do it to get rid of some tenacious pockets of fat around his lower back. I haven't seen said ‘saddlebags' up close, but to me he looks lanky verging on skinny, and everything he said brought back awfully vivid memories of my recent past.
What he said perfectly conjured up the over-focussed obsessiveness of the anorexic's body image: caring about one tiny part of the body to the exclusion of all else - the rest of the body and the rest of life. It made me scream inside: where does it all stop? When, and if, this diet does what you want it to with those little portions of ‘excess' body fat, what next? Why not go for that pesky reserve around your upper thigh or your chest or your left earlobe? When he said that he didn't think it ‘extreme', I wanted to scream at him: what on earth could be more so? How can you think your attitudes to food and weight ‘balanced' if you're even considering doing this, especially given you're not overweight? His birthday is in March, and he's living in London for a year and determined to make the most of what it can offer. How sad to spoil both those things. He compared it to the normal way in which one locks oneself away to revise for an exam, but the glaring difference is that there's no obvious end-point to a process like this. Living off milkshakes for a month must surely change things irreversibly: his current daily carefulness to avoid foods most people think of as staples - bread, pasta, rice, and so on - will by those weeks be nurtured into an idealization of self-denial (I mustn't dream of softening any of my rules, or that fat might come back and all my hard work have been in vain). Either that or be flipped into an uncontrolled excess as one's body simply refuses to carry on this way, or one realizes one's alienating everyone one cares about.
Most of all, I looked at his girlfriend sitting next to him, her natural female anxieties about her body being constantly deepened by his: she said she might join him on the diet, or create something special of her own. She said she'd like to lose 6 kilos (12 pounds) or so, but she couldn't without losing her breasts and her natural feminine curves. She's right, of course, that most people in most Western societies would probably like to lose a little weight, but suddenly, watching the two of them there, him growing slightly defensive in response to my objections, she being to my mind more reasonable but not daring wholeheartedly to contradict him, I felt a great overwhelming surge of sadness.
I remembered the darkness of anorexia, in vague but horror-filled outlines: the cold, the solitude, the sadness masquerading as control. I realized that they're the first friends I have who never knew me ill, and that while in general I love the fact that I can be someone without a vivid back story of sickness, not needing to be tiptoed around, it can be awful too. It was awfully hard to cope with the flash of realization that they'd respect me more if I were still ill. Not, perhaps, in the last and most extreme years of my illness, but in the earlier days, when I'd have picked at some salad with her, and wanted to talk about dieting, and looked thin as they want to look - I'd have been more one of them back then. That really shocked me. Especially after a Christmas so full with people who care about a million other interesting things more than about body image and dieting, it felt like a brutal return to a ‘normal world' where people care about barely anything else above these. I wished for a while that I could spirit back my past self - maybe my 2008 most skeletal self -, to sit there with them and scare or shame them into sense. I wanted to crush all his silly arguments that surviving on powder mixed with water for a month would make him a happier or more beautiful person with the reincarnated presence of my hollowed-out eye sockets and concave tummy. I went to bed crumpled with sadness at the longing for my illness to have learned their lesson for them, for my starvation to mean that they and people like them needn't be so stupid - and with sadness at the knowledge that it doesn't work that way.
For some minutes, too, all that made me long to be thin and irreproachable, unreachable by worries like theirs. The sense of how all of modern society is pushing in a direction that, taken to its logical conclusion, ends in anorexia, made me briefly want to return to that safe haven where I was doing better than everyone else, even if no one else was ever around to see me do so. If they want to do their stupid milkshake diets, I'll show them how it's done; I'll show them how to lose thirty kilos (70 pounds) and still be alive, I'll beat them all to a pulp without turning a hair. I don't need all their pathetic expensive powders and pills; I don't need anything but my unflinching willpower. Anger was the underside of the sadness: at them, at ‘society' (adverts and magazines and all the forums that peddle these myths; the film of Atonement we'd started watching the other night with the camera's lingering shots of a starved stick-like Keira Knightley to make a whole new generation of girls feel fat), at myself, a little bit, for still being so susceptible to all this.
That part of the conversation ended with something of an uneasy silence, an inconclusive truce, and these things resurfaced only a few times: she said how they both drink too much (though only ever wine or spirits - nothing as fattening as beer any more); he came with us to the corner shop for some biscuits, and tried gently to persuade us to buy three packets, none of which he'd touch, just as I used to love encouraging other people to eat while I watched.
It all felt bitterly lacking in carefree variety, their life, or at least the glimpse of it we had last night. I felt bitterly impotent to do anything about their misplaced fears and desires - bitterly aware that even wanting to do anything about them simply isn't appropriate. The certainty I have now, in all but the most upset and fleeting of moments, that making one's happiness contingent upon how thin one is, or limiting one's life (however innocuously) for the sake of forbidden food groups, is a path to misery, is one of the few great gifts given me by those ten unrewarding years of hunger. I shouldn't expect anyone else to be able to grasp that certainty just by having read a few of my blog posts and having heard a few of my arguments. I wish I could do more, but this will have to be enough.