I was chatting to a good friend of mine at the weekend. I have known this friend (let’s call her Anna), since high school, and meet up with her and my other school friends regularly. So we’ve been friends for over 25 years (wow!).
Myself and another friend in this group have talked about Anna occasionally, as we both know she watches her weight, and ensures she gets her 1.5 hour walk/run in every evening, and hated being pregnant due to the changes it brought about in her body – to the extent that we kind of had to pretend she wasn’t pregnant on her first child. So here I am, a psychotherapist specialising in eating disorders, with a friend who definitely has an unusual relationship with food and her body, which is never discussed. Ok.
Anna and I were catching up at the weekend, and I was telling her all about my new online, self-help program for eating disorders, launching in June. I was explaining that I had developed the online program for men and women with eating disorders who could not yet come forward and ask for help, so they could begin their journey towards recovery in a safe and confidential space, online. To date, I’ve had nothing but positive feedback about this project, so I was pretty floored when Anna said “what makes you think that someone with an eating disorder wants to give it up? Do you not think they enjoy the control?”
Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about clients with eating disorders in a different way, and I suppose what it comes down to is the idea of being on a spectrum. We are all on the spectrum if we are honest – we all crash diet in some shape or form at various times in our lives (i.e emergency diet for a big event or a holiday), we all comfort eat sometimes, we all feel guilty for not exercising and go through periods of religiously attending the gym or going for a walk every day… and so on. But maybe for me there were big gaps between different points on the spectrum, a clear difference between ”normal” and “disordered”.
What Anna highlighted for me is the group I hadn’t really focused on – women and men who are very strict with themselves, eating ‘properly’ all the time (we all know Anna’s not really into the restaurant nights out, she prefers the cinema and brings her own bottle of water), exercising religiously every day, (Anna’s never available between 6.30 and 8pm because she’s walking), never having to buy a bigger size because their size doesn’t change (actually, Anna looks a little gaunt these days, as you get older I personally think you need a little extra weight? Yes? No?), and so on.
On a personal level, never mind a professional one, to me this is rigid and restrictive, but for Anna, it’s ‘control’, and it’s a good thing. Not that she said that to me directly, but still – I got the message. And I wonder if there’s a discussion to be had around it. Because for me, this is not ‘fully living’ – but is that my personal bias? To be able to let your hair down, enjoy a delicious chocolate dessert if you want it, to choose to lie on the sofa and watch Celebrity Masterchef instead of going for a walk, to allow yourself to put on several pounds before consciously cutting back on red wine or chocolate intake… but actually, am I just lazy? Inconsistent? Undisciplined?
Is ‘Anna’ the gold standard we should all be aiming for, from either end of the spectrum around her? Or is Anna’s way really not fully living, and not quite ‘normal’? Is having Anna in my life the same as reading celeb magazines (I don’t), i.e. the cause of a vague feeling of guilt and slight squirmy embarrassment that I’m not up to the minute in fashion, not flat bellied, not pert and perky and don’t believe in botox? Which reminds me, my greys are in full flight and I still haven’t booked an appointment at the salon… I’m still mulling it over in both a personal and professional context, and I wonder what everyone else thinks? Feedback is welcome.