I am in the midst of a national lockdown. I am walking along the Holloway Road in London. It’s a walk I do often. I like it and I am a creature of habit. I always have been.
I had just come back from my first book tour. I travelled to Australia and did events in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s latest book, My Body Keeps Your Secrets, addresses body image, sexual assault and trauma.
I don’t know if it’s the publicity or the constant talk about my own sense of unworthiness, but the tour brought my aesthetic self-hate back like I had never imagined, and my eating problems returned soon after. I started obsessing over how large I looked in pictures of myself at events and on television. I sat for hours poring over video footage of my TV appearance trying to catch myself at a different angle to prove I was slimmer than I looked, but it didn’t work. My body stayed the same at every angle. So I had to change it.
The government had allowed us only one trip outdoors each day to exercise. It is only supposed to be 60 minutes long, but every morning I wake up, drink a glass of sparkling water with a squeeze of lemon juice – if taken first thing, it speeds up the metabolism – and run for at least an hour and a half, meditating the whole time on how big my thighs look in my jogging pants and how much better I’ll feel when I am slim again. I count calories every day and keep a meticulous food diary. I exercise pathologically in my bedroom and I waste hours scrolling through photos of Instagram models I want to look like.
I am a high-risk patient for coronavirus – I have two chronic illnesses and I take immunosuppressants every day. If I contract this virus, I am among the most likely group of people to develop severe complications. I could die. And yet I am flouting government advice by staying outdoors longer than I am supposed to because I am so desperate to lose weight. I am risking contracting a disease that could kill me in order to feed another disease that could kill me. I am sick.
I only started to see my body, I mean really see it, through the eyes of others. At age 11, the boys used to pass around notes in class with the names of all the girls in the room and a column to rate their looks and personality out of 10. Once all the girls had been assessed and graded, the notes were passed to us so we could see how we’d done.
“I am risking contracting a disease that could kill me in order to feed another disease that could kill me. I am sick.”
This was a cruel exercise, of course. But I didn’t mind it because I poured all my energy into being the nicest of the nice girls, polite to a fault, saccharine sweet, soft and malleable and easy to be around.
I always got 10 out of 10 for personality, and that’s all I cared about. When I say that’s all I cared about, I am not trying to pretend I was being subversive. I was 12. It was genuinely the only thing I thought to be important.
But when we started year 8 they added a new column for “body”. I know this sounds ridiculous, the clinical nature of it all, the clean break between childhood and adolescence, but that is genuinely how it happened. Something changed that summer. It had been a long, dry season in Sydney, my school friends and I had started going to the beach together, and the boys had started commenting on our bikini choices.
I went to a mixed school with a much larger proportion of boys than girls, so we were around boys a lot. There was no time or space for us to discuss these issues without them watching. That summer they started watching.
As soon as they started asking questions of us, we started asking questions of ourselves. One of the boys taught me the word “cellulite”, which I had never heard before. We started repeating the comments they made to us in our locker rooms on sports days and at sleepovers and in the line at the school canteen. It seems strange to say this now, but it is not even a slight exaggeration to say that the very first words I learned to describe my body were the ones formed in the mouths of boys who were criticising it.
Not long after that, I started developing habits to obsessively control what I ate, what I weighed and what I looked like, and those habits have wandered in and out of my life ever since.
Feeling exposed from my book tour is one reason my eating disorder came back during lockdown. But it’s not the only reason – I know this because every single person I know who has ever struggled with disordered eating suffered a relapse during the COVID-19 crisis. I spoke to dozens of people who found that their old routines and rules – fasting, only eating at certain times of day, cutting out whole meals and food groups, purging – immediately clicked back into place when COVID-19 restrictions took hold.
“Every single person I know who has ever struggled with disordered eating suffered a relapse during the COVID-19 crisis.”
There are three reasons for this. One is that for reasons we don’t quite yet understand, anorexia and bulimia are conditions that the brain holds onto for years and years after the body has recovered. The neurological patterns of restriction are squirrelled away somewhere hard to reach but easily called on when needed. The second is that disordered eating is a mental illness that is inextricably linked to feelings of being out of control, and is a mechanism for regaining some degree of agency. COVID-19 lockdowns were not only a viral pandemic but a pandemic of lost control – so we naturally fall back on the habits we formed when we needed control the most.
The third is that widespread illness is very difficult to process because it is random and meaningless. We naturally feel desperate to find meaning in chaos. That means that amid lockdowns and restrictions, our first instinct is to try and make this time mean something. For some, that pressure felt like, “go write that novel!” or, “learn to bake bread!” – but for far more of us, that felt like, “go lose weight.”
Enforcing a body transformation feels like a way to make this time mean something. It feels like a positive thing – but of course, when you look deeper at the psychology, it isn’t. It’s our darkest habits taking over in order to give us the impression that we still have some control over our lives.
So here’s what I’ve learned, after 18 months of lockdown – many of those spent “shielding”, the term used in the UK for chronically ill and disabled people who were instructed for six months in 2020 to not leave the house or their room for any reason due to their extreme vulnerability to death from COVID-19 – and many months of obsessive dieting and disordered eating: the most productive way to use this time is to resist those urges. There is nothing more meaningful than leaning to kick your worst habits.
And in fact, here’s an even better idea. What if we use lockdown not to learn to better starve ourselves, to lift weights so we can show up at the beach come summer looking “our best” (read: mentally struggling and using body image as a balm), but use it instead to learn a new kind of skill: the ability to indulge in what we want, when we want, because the truth is we never know what could be around the corner. What if we used this time to quieten the voices in our heads that tell us to restrict, to punish, and instead learned to let ourselves just live?
The writer Imogen West-Knights wrote about exactly this in a beautiful cover story for the UK’s FT Weekend just this week. It was about how, after a certain amount of time in lockdown, her usually-strong impulse control gave way to “treat brain” – the part of us that wants and needs comfort and pleasure. She interviewed many, others who felt the same thing, and who are now struggling to get rid of treat brain now that lockdowns here in the UK have ended. But, she says, what if we don’t need to?
“In truth,” she writes, “I’m not sure I want treat brain to go away completely… The tomorrow I imagined in which I would ‘be good’ again has never come, and I don’t want it to. I want to enjoy myself.
“Now that lockdown is over, all I want to do is eat and drink with my friends… The truth is life was always like this: a series of good times and bad times, and I deserved to eat what I wanted in all of them.”
“I always describe this pandemic as a giant game of musical chairs: wherever you were when the music stopped, that’s the life you become stuck with for months or years.”
So what if the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity not to diminish ourselves, but to expand our ability to let pleasure into our lives?
I always describe this pandemic as a giant game of musical chairs: wherever you were when the music stopped, that’s the life you become stuck with for months or years. So the most meaningful thing that could come out of that is a reflection on how we actually want to live.
My Body Keeps Your Secrets (Allen & Unwin), out now.
Next time the music stops, who do I want to be? And I agree with Imogen: I want to be someone who enjoys my life. I want to be someone who understands that life is too short and too random to waste time starving yourself. To me, that’s a radical and beautiful proposition.
Support is available from the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 334 673.
Lucia Osborne Crowley is the author of My Body Keeps Your Secrets (Allen & Unwin), out now.
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