Eating disorders and the female body

TW: eating disorders, bulimia, sexual abuse

We spoke to the lovely Zoya Ahmed about her experience of dealing with eating disorders and how she deals with them. This is just one person’s experience and not intended as a definitive guide.

  • What mental illness/eating disorder do you struggle with? How long has it been a part of your life?

Bulimia has been in my life for nearly three years now. With it interplays depression, (social) anxiety and suicidal thoughts when at its peak. It came on when I was 18 in the run-up to prom, when losing weight to look good was a priority amongst my peers. In the long-term run-up, my relatives had always joked about me being fat growing up, and whenever an emotional issue was out of my control in the household environment, because I was too young and not encouraged to have a say, I would resort to food to numb the emotions. Sexual abuse as a child was the beginning of my poor relationship with my body. The short-term trigger for the onset of bulimia was being mistreated by a boy at 18 and taking the hurt out on myself. I think I had eaten some pizza and had felt gross afterwards, I wished that I could have un-done the action, so googled if that was a thing, and it came up with something about how to make yourself throw up the food you’d just eaten. That may be TMI, but that’s the truth for how this horrible thing had planted roots into my life. Isolation and feeling alienated by excessive drinking culture and freshers’ pressures at university created a breeding ground for it to spiral.

  • What is the most difficult thing about dealing with eating disorders?

Aside from the mental and physical drainage and damage, a difficult aspect of bulimia is trying to lead a double life. Feeling like my life had the cloud of a demon over it or something, making me act against my true will, brainwashing me to do what it wants and having to hide this side of my life from the people around me. My ‘normal’ everyday brain told me different things to the compulsions I would felt in the frenzy of binging and purging. Hiding my eating disorder from my friends and family left me feeling isolated, guilty and like a victim. I didn’t understand how it had happened to me, and I had never thought anything like this could have ever affected me and spiralled out of control the way it did. My life became a slave to the disorder and I had to fix up to act completely normal after an episode in communication with people around me, when inside I’d be feeling anxious to the point of shaking and wanting to cry after every episode. Food was in abundance as my first year at university was catered. Food was inescapable. So many things in everyday life and speech were triggering. Three damn meals a day meant three times to lose control, to be a loser. Food is also culturally significant to South Asians. Whenever someone in my family has a gathering, there is an abundance of food. When a relative sees you they’re quick to make a remark about your weight, the way you’re dressed and what you’re doing with your life. There is also very little awareness of mental health issues or of the idea that you might not be comfortable eating what they’ve put in front of you. So they will remark about you being too skinny or too fat and embarrass and insist on you eating their (usually greasy) food. Speaking up against problematic people in a family environment would come off as rude or disrespectful, and so confronting food in these situations could become awkward.

  • What methods do you find most helpful in managing it? What advice would you give to anyone struggling with an eating disorder?

When you are feeling the depth of emotions, try to record them in some way. Writing, scribbling, drawing something, anything. Although the emotions are ugly, they are still yours, and as such you should own them. This is difficult. I know after most my episodes I felt so drained and empty that I wouldn’t want to make anything. But try to encourage yourself at some point to create. At the peak of emotions, I once made a painting of myself after a purge to try to capture those raw emotions. I didn’t want to look at it and was almost fearful of what I’d made and that representation of myself, but now I find it intriguing to look back at, although hurtful. I wanted to hide it away from everyone so it’s a big deal right now to share it, but if someone can relate to these emotions then maybe it’s worth making myself vulnerable.

Art by Zoya Ahmed

Also, seek help from a specialist! The waiting time is difficult to cope with, especially when you desperately need help, but try and be persistent and call a helpline or speak to a counsellor for advice in the meantime. I waited a year and a half to see a specialist and believe me it’s worth it when you finally get there! Just remember: you have to knock down one domino at a time. Getting therapy from a specialist who understood my specific condition and its pain broke down the cycle of stimulus, emotional response, behavioural response for me, and clearly broke down the fact that bulimia didn’t and could never resolve any of the triggering problems that started off the cycle. So, to get anywhere, the binging and purging response needed to change. She helped me realise that these impulses don’t just come from the ether; every feeling has a root, and understanding this helped me to understand the disorder, and myself better, and helped me to unpick problematic thoughts and distance myself from compulsions, creating a gap before doing something to question, “Is this what I really want, and how will I feel about this tomorrow?” Another extremely important thing: regular meals and regular sleep are the remedy! If you eat three meals which include proteins and carbohydrates in them, and snacks in between, you will be maintaining your blood sugar levels. If you do so, you naturally won’t want to stuff anything else in your body. I made a shopping list, thinking about the foods I’d be happy to eat and included them in my diet. I also made a food plan for each meal of the week, to plan, and brainstorm food ideas in advance. This was a simple way of being happy with what I’m putting into my body in the first place and knowing that it’s giving me the nutrients I need, so why the heck would I want to get rid of them! Another thing was not having my own bathroom; living in a shared space made me respect the other people and I had felt so ashamed and embarrassed at the notion of them seeing how weak I was. So, I pretended not to be bulimic until it actually didn’t have as much of hold on me anymore. I also put some quotes up by my bed, in a place where I could see them every morning and every night, like little notes to myself to remind myself to be a better person. I’ll share one of them here:

“Focus on the positivity and blessings you have in life. Cause you have fucktonnes. Show people how much they mean to you. Make effort for others. Respect yourself. Eat nourishing food and move your body. Sweat. Smile. Each breath is precious.”

  • What are the most common misconceptions that exist about eating disorders that you’ve found when talking to others about them?

That it’s all to do with being skinny or fat. Although the self-hate from the physical aspect and body dysmorphia play a huge role. I felt claustrophobic in my body and can remember wanting to cut open the fattest parts and weird stuff like that. However, not everything about it is superficial or on the surface and the mental drainage is just as hard hitting, if not worse than the physical. I think it has a lot more to do with self-value and inability to deal with emotions. Also, a lot to do with alienating yourself from everyone around you and feeling a slave to a compulsion. Another misconception that people with bulimia have is that it only affects them in the short term. I thankfully wouldn’t call myself bulimic anymore after the war I fought with it and myself, but post-recovery would get chest pains because of acid reflux having damaged my body and stress and anxiety triggering the pain to be worse, aside from the damage that the pH1 (!!!) HCl can cause to areas of the mouth. I’m still trying to shake off the depression and anxiety; it is a process, but I have my goal in mind and I will get there. What’s more, digestion begins as soon as you put food in your mouth. It’s quicker than we think, and we cannot completely reverse the effects of putting something into our body. The damage came to a point for me where regardless of what I ate, it would be a lot worse for me to purge. So I held it out and had to brave the horrible feeling post-binge. That was part of the recovery process I think; it’s important to be kind to yourself and remember that nothing can heal overnight… Nature likes to take her sweet time to do things properly and putting on weight is better than cruelly damaging your body’s balance through repeated vomiting.

  • Eating disorders have been discussed widely in feminist theory. Why has this previously been seen as a uniquely female problem? Do you think this is still the case?

I think there’s a lot of pressure, especially on young women to look thin or curvy, wear make up a certain way or act a certain way to feel accepted and valuable, rather than being their authentic selves. I don’t think it’s a uniquely female problem, I think this disorder knows no gender, social, cultural and political boundaries but would say it’s more likely to occur in places where there’s more access to or an abundance of food resources and for people who are not encouraged to voice and express themselves honestly. There are also genetic factors involved. We also look at ourselves in a weird way. Imagine some flowers blossoming in a field: you would not say that one is better because of ‘xyz’; every flower has its own beauty, each blossoms in its own way, adds fragrance, colour, plays a role. I think people are like that too, and that our differences add vibrancy and excitement. We don’t ‘need’ to be a certain way, we should come as we are, and we should try to look after ourselves and do the things that make us feel most alive and happy. I think we should learn to treat ourselves the way we treat others around us, with respect and appreciation. It’s very difficult to be authentically good to the world around you when you are not whole inside. For anyone still in the depths of bulimia, remember, you and your body are a miracle, you’re completely and utterly beautiful and you have power over your thoughts. You can and will make it through.

Zoya Ahmed


Featured image by Jess Brown

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