With a pinch of perspective, weight gain really isn’t the worst thing in the world. I know it’s portrayed as so; I know it’s said to be a greater risk to society than terrorism. But when compared to this terrorism, when compared to the atrocities that occur around the world, the diseases that wipe out entire villages, the millions of men and women and children who are killed through violence and abuse and neglect and the measures refugees go to in order to flee their corrupt and dangerous homes, weight gain is irrelevant, unimportant, immaterial.
But to somebody with an eating disorder – an illness diagnosable by an intense phobia of weight gain – it is daunting and terrifying and the fear is very, very real. So much so that it is often the inhibiting factor in recovery. But why? Why are we so afraid of gaining a little bit of extra flesh? It’s not even strictly fat – these extra pounds go to healing our vital organs, facilitating our bodily functions, returning our brains to a normal size so they can work at their optimum. Having been starved for so long our bodies are crying out for some nourishment, desperate to put some flesh on our bones and desperate for the energy to function. So why is this unspeakable concept of weight gain so frightening?
Honestly, I’m afraid for so many reasons.
I’m afraid of losing control. So much of anorexia is about the anxiety-reducing effects that controlling food intake and body shape brings. When everything else is complicated and confusing and cruel, I can seek comfort in the knowledge that I have only eaten x amount of calories today or that I have shed x number of pounds. The control we have over what we put into our bodies is unparalleled elsewhere in life, so I am afraid of what relinquishing that control will bring. I’m afraid of taking up to much space: it is easier to move through life unnoticed when you are small and I have never wanted attention. I’m afraid of feeling even more unbearably uncomfortable in my body than I already do.
Perhaps more than anything, I’m afraid of being physically healthy, because then I will have to pretend. When you are visibly unwell, people are empathetic and understanding and kind, but mental illness is notoriously misunderstood. People can be oblivious and ignorant and blasé, whimsically suggesting exercise as a cure for depression or deep breathing for anxiety. Although people may not ‘get’ anorexia, they can see the effects right before their eyes, and that physical aspect changes everything. I’m afraid of being physically well because I’m afraid they will assume I am mentally well too. I’m afraid that I will lose the support and the empathy and the kindness that I crave. I’m afraid that I will have to go back to suppressing all these emotions. I’m afraid that the inner pain and mental torment will eat me alive. I’m afraid of disappointing people if I don’t transform into a bundle of happiness once I’m weight restored. I’m afraid of my suffering becoming invisible again.
In truth, I shouldn’t be afraid of any of these things. The number of the scale doesn’t define the severity of my illness, and I absolutely do not have to be at my worst to be worthy of help. Nobody does. I may think I am in control right now, but I am not: anorexia is. The illness controls every aspect of life and recovery is actually about regaining that control. And finally, I deserve space in this world. I deserve as much space as my body and my soul requires. I don’t need to be small to be special and starving myself to avoid attention is kind of counter-initiative.
The scale can’t measure anything except our relationship with gravity. It can’t measure kindness or empathy or compassion or ambition or loyalty or love. Weight is just a number. And we are all so much more than a number.