I watched a BBC TV programme called Cherry's Body Dilemmas the other night. The presenter, aged 30, was sick of her neuroses about body image and calorie-counting, and resolved to meet some other women who might teach her something about how to live more comfortably in her own skin, and/or how widespread this sort of anxiety is amongst women in Britain - or, more simply, as the blurb puts it 'to find out what makes a body beautiful'. She does the rounds of a teenage beauty pageant, a body-building mother, a nudist and an obese woman, a post-pregnancy gym bunny, and a girl who was happy with everything except her bum, which she longed to enhance with implants.

The presenter realised that she was being made unhappy by constant dieting, and what she seemed most frustrated about in her relationship with food and her body was the sheer waste of time that was all the checking behaviours, weighing, calorie-counting and -memorising, and above all the persistent negative self-judgements. I remember this from my anorexic days, and especially the years that preceded the complete rigidity of my final diet and isolated lifestyle. When there were still days when I'd be under pressure to eat with other people, with all the unpredictability and decision-making that entailed, I (like too many women) could spend minutes at a time, many minutes of the hour, distracted from whatever I was doing, rehearsing what I'd eaten yesterday, what I might eat today, how I might compensate for anything 'extra' I found myself having to consume. Aged sixteen, when it all began and rapidly spiralled into anorexia, I couldn't believe how much of my mind it stole from me, as my diary attests: 'It's ridiculous how much time I spend thinking, worrying, about my weight, how many better things I could use my brain power for.  If anyone had told me, when this thing started, how it would have developed in six months, I would have laughed' (29.08.98).  

The most addictive thing about the mental habits of calorie-counting is that they create the very itch which they scratch: because it serves no purpose, the need to know all one's daily intake doesn't receive confirmation unless one tries to remember it, and trying to remember makes it necessary to know. Like obsessive-compulsive habits that are strengthened every time they're succumbed to, the thoughts induced by an eating disorder (low-level or extreme) are less distressing when they're sustained than when they're challenged, either by a change in habit (eating more or differently than permitted) or by a change in thinking (aborting the recitation, questioning its purpose). On the other hand, once you stop doing it, you no longer need to.

While you're still trapped in the ritual, though, devoting more time to it is almost as uncomfortable as trying to waste less time on it, because attentiveness can clarify the pointlessness. This is one of the reasons why eating-disorder treatment generally begins with a food diary. I remember when I had therapy before my final exams at university, resenting the idea of keeping such a diary, because it seemed so superfluous (such a 'waste of time') given I knew my intake so precisely. But the implication of what the therapist said was that it might contribute to my general exasperation with the waste of time and energy the illness already entailed, and so become a motivating factor for change. Although, as I wrote in my diary one evening, 'she's treading dangerously there, for the very act of going to see her is stealing time, too, and any exasperations might lead me to give up her rather than "it"' (10.02.04). The effect of any increase in attention paid to the illness was uneasiness: 'It's horrible how keeping this diary makes me more obsessed, makes me feel like a sick person - perhaps that's good for me, but it just seems to steal my appetite and my equanimity' (11.02.04). But being made to feel like the invalid I was worked in the sense that it prompted me to add a little lunchtime snack, just enough to keep going through the days of sitting two three-hour exams. And the mere idea of adding that little bit of food made me feel, in brief moments, less like an invalid than like a strong, healthy person: 'I recognised for a moment its inherent ease, felt powerful, capable - and then the old thoughts came crowding back in; but at least it happened.  I shall try - a biscuit or something in the early afternoon perhaps' (17.02.04).

 woollen tights and jumper

Weak, cold, hungry, worried about wasting time

One of anorexia's many paradoxes is that whilst in the beginning it wasted time, increasingly it made wasting time the most impossible thing in the world: other people might enjoy time together, eating, drinking, chatting, dancing, or whatever, whilst I would sit (in the midst of a dear friend's wedding) and think 'of the wasted hours and my hunger and tiredness' (15.07.04) - and know myself inadequate and ill for doing so. Any accident that stole time away from work would make me panic, would ruin even the fragile enjoyment I took in my long-deferred drinks and food, 'spoiling the chocolate drink and breakfast bar that were meant to be consumed in those minutes, and filling me with a frantic sense of waste and inefficiency that still hasn't quite faded - though I tell myself forty minutes really is nothing in even the slightly grander scheme of things that is the day's work, or the work's completion, the utter futility of the time is hard to accept' (13.08.04). The therapy that finally helped me get better was the most enormous 'waste of time' to my anorexic model of time and its value - yet somehow I never resented the twice-weekly bike rides up the hill to the hospital, or the hours spent with my therapist. Perhaps from the very beginning I was able to let the excitement of being there, along with the fear, annul that automatic time-calculation, because I knew - without believing it at all - that this was going to change everything.

I've recently learnt something about my mother - or rather, had confirmed in a starker form something I knew before: that for most of her adult life the only way of validating every minute was by the amount achieved during it, feeling it legitimate to go to bed only if the day has been demonstrably filled with productivity - or she was simply too exhausted to do more. The fall-back position was the fear of not having done enough. Because of this single criterion by which she's till very recently lived her life, everything apart from academic work (and to some extent motherhood) became disagreeable because so compressed by the pressure of not spending more time than absolutely necessary on it: shopping, cooking, eating out, doing more or less anything sociable. In 1995 she had to spend a year in bed with chronic fatigue, but even whilst in bed she wrote a (later very successful) book in her head, and then she took up the life that had exhausted her more or less as before, with two crucial differences. Firstly, she resolved never to go without as much sleep as she needed, and secondly, she decided that since she preferred working to socialising, and there wasn't time for both, she would more or less give up the latter. Only very recently did everything change: her parents died, she moved to a beautiful place in the country, and she realised she was unhappy. She realised that it wasn't the circumstances that made her unhappy, but herself. And now she's begun to address the underlying problem: that concept of time as something to be filled with productivity.

Thinking of time as the vessel for productivity both turns the human into the achievement-machine and negates the meaning of that achievement, since it exists only as a way of proving to oneself that the time was indeed well 'spent'. Whatever it was one did in that minute becomes less important than the fact that something was done. Certainly for me when ill, academic work was never a pleasure; it rarely brought a real sense of achievement, even with external accolades, because it was done compulsively, as a way of earning not just rest, but the food that I was allowed after all those hours worked through without any. Trying to be consistently productive empties out the concept of production from the inside, turning it into a cipher that means only itself: it means that something was 'produced', but what is unimportant: 'I must resist this turning of everything into work - even if that's the only way I have of legitimising pleasure' (04.06.04).

I wasn't even sure, in the end, whether food was the reality or starvation, whether work was more real or simply time passing and being filled. I rarely counted the hours I worked, because they were what filled all the gaps, the continuum to which everything else was an interruption, the reality beside which all else was unreal. The simple physical aim of weight loss (yes, that was how it all began) was swallowed by that of academic devotion to conceal the failure of the first goal to bring anything like real happiness: eliminating unpredictability in food, hence in my social life, hence in all of life, eliminated it also in work, so there were never really any interruptions, and life was reduced to as much like clockwork as it ever can be. Thus the obsession with food created the obsession with work, and fed off the latter's greater legitimacy, so that the academic and the bodily jostled for primacy in the most grotesque of juxtapositions. Time passed slowly while I starved, and quickly while I ate; it slipped by while I worried or dreamed about food, and crawled when I tried not to. I suppose time lost its meaning, more or less, since every day was the same: a day in which the anorexia meant I had to get through all the hours, playing at working, until I could eat enough to keep me going through the next.

Thus I seem to have contradicted the simple observation that an eating disorder is a mental waste of time, since it seems questionable whether that judgement means anything anyway, because thinking of time as something that should be filled, and therefore can be wasted, seems flawed in the first place. I suppose in the end it comes down to happiness, and to what we might call choice: if an activity, mental or otherwise, both makes one unhappy and feels compulsive rather than deliberate, it might meaningfully be called a waste. If something is dull or depressing but one has reasons for doing it, or if one didn't quite mean to do something but it makes us feel good, it's hard to use the terminology of waste - but the cyclical mantras of the eating disorder are an excellent example of the waste that is both unhappy and unchosen. (Of course the question here arises of whether it means anything to say 'I' choose, rather than cognition, physiology, mood, and environment coming together in such a way as to make me feel that I 'chose' - but that's something for another time.)

The calorie-counting and the achievement-counting are so hard to wean oneself off for another reason too, something else that resonated throughout the programme I watched: the issue of extremes, the fact that extremes are easier than moderate middle ways. It's easier to explore the extremes of body-image than it is contemplate the possibility of a place somewhere in the middle, and to work out where that place might be. The presenter talks at one point about 'rejecting skinny and embracing fat' - but that surely only begs the question of what happened to the middle ground where health lies. Similarly, it's easier to exclude all chance encounters with food than to cope with a few of them; it's easier to devote oneself to a certain sort of academic work than to ask what else might matter, or might be beautiful, or make one happy; it's easier to pour one's dissatisfaction with oneself into the simple dichotomy of thin-is-good and fat-is-bad (or muscly-is-good and fat-is-bad; or even fat-is-good and thin-is-bad) than to ask what else might be wrong, even if one were as thin (or muscly, or fat) as one wanted to be, or whether one could ever even achieve that ambition. Thus in this programme the mother of an autistic child retreats to the gym to make her biceps hard as rock and reduces her body-fat to a muscle-rippling minimum for body-building contests, and the new mother spends hours in the gym so as to glimpse the 'light at the end of the tunnel': being able to restore her body to its pre-pregnancy size, and squeeze into a size-8 (US size 6) dress. These immediate, measurable, and extreme goals elide the more difficult questions of how to deal with a life bound to that of a child with a neural disorder, or a body now partially defined by its history in pregnancy and childbirth - just as anorexia does away with a great many questions about life by reducing it to little more than food and the lack of it.

Indoor gloves against the anorexic cold

Some of the paraphernalia of anorexia

Pushing away the bigger questions is, though, of course not a solution at all. Anorexia was simple in that I was always cold and always tired and always hungry: those were the days of 'the simplicity of huddling as close to the heater as possible...' (14.05.04). But when the summer came I'd be afraid of burning too few calories keeping warm, and long for the dark winters of being simply cold. The extreme of apparent simplicity itself is easily split into its constituent extremes of irrationality and confusion: early on in my illness I wrote how 'it's ridiculous - I'm dreading summer because I'm too thin to wear a swimsuit, even a T-shirt, and yet I feel my stomach and I feel I'm too fat, grossly bloated.  What happened to my rationality?' (15.03.99). And of course there's no such thing as complete abstinence when it comes to food, unless one doesn't mind dying; judging how much is enough, how much is too much, is difficult if one just wants minimally to survive but also takes pleasure only from food - such immense, all-consuming pleasure that nothing else matters, but so immense only because there is so little food... Yet somehow, because of the seeming simplicity of the extreme, I thought that all this kept me happier than I would be without it to keep everything else out.

I guess the only conclusion that can be drawn is that no single thing will really make life simple - except perhaps embracing all of it. Anything that elevates food, or work, or slimness, or whatever else, above all the rest might seem to work for a while - to make one happier, more productive, slimmer, etc. - but I think usually it ends up in a mess. None of these things matters more than anything else, and eventually it becomes necessary to assess the devotion to it. That necessity will come more quickly the narrower the blinkered vision has become - which is, I suppose, why I'm able to watch a programme like Cherry's Body Issues and feel pity for all those women who are mildly crippled by their borderline eating (and exercising) disorders, and some gratitude that I was so disabled by mine that I ultimately couldn't pretend otherwise. Some people do manage to find their way out of those habits without such deterioration - they fall in love, or find more interesting things to fill their thoughts and days, and the obsessiveness simply fades away. For those of us for whom that didn't, or doesn't, quite work, the only option is the harder one: unpicking the concepts of time-wasting, thinness, or whichever other one is paramount, and stopping minding how addressing them only seems, for a while, to exacerbate their power and underline one's fear.

Clock image by Chris Willis (tibchris)

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