String Bean Jean 

CW: weight, food, disordered eating

A note first – I know that as a white young woman who is still smaller than many people my experiences are not universal or representative, even if when dealing with weight the media and even medical professionals can use bodies like mine as representative rather than other bodies. I am very aware of this and do not want to speak for anyone else – I can only speak for myself. The first time I remember consciously watching something that dealt with food and body image was Skins, and the character of Cassie. There may be other earlier examples but that’s the one that comes to mind straightaway. In many ways it seems like quite a stereotypical representation; a white, skinny teenage girl is what most people imagine when they think of people who struggle with food.

One of the symptoms that I experienced before being officially diagnosed was that I was basically unable to eat without being sick, getting to the point where if I so much as smelt food I would be sick. This proved to be very annoying when surrounded by such lovely food in Italy and being basically unable to eat! I didn’t weigh myself for most of July but I’d lost a worrying amount of weight. Quite a few people suspected anorexia or bulimia – though we all knew that something seriously wrong was going on, just not what!

Fortunately (?) the steroids have made me want to eat a lot more, and since the surgery to remove the hydrocephalus I haven’t been experiencing the same food issues as before. I’m now a ‘healthy’ weight despite having put on about three stone. At first when I was putting on weight it was a Good Thing. If anyone sees me who saw me in July, they’d definitely notice the difference, though not (I think) in a bad way. I had lost so much it was making me even weaker and I wasn’t even able to be on a usual dose of some of my meds because of my weight. So even though I’m not well, in some ways I’m ‘healthier’ than I was. It helps being at home and having nice, healthy meals cooked for me – and I’m even eating breakfast! Those who have known me at any point since I was about 11 will know how miraculous that is!

There is a difficult aspect to this though – because I’m not able to exercise, and I weigh more than I have for several years, it is mentally tough. Not being able to go for a long walk after a big meal (or even just not being able to be on my feet most of the day) means needing to readjust my ways of thinking about food. Most of this is probably positive – learning to enjoy food for food’s sake, learning to disassociate food from the concept of reward or punishment, knowing that weight is not worth, etc. It is very hard though, especially when I was on a higher dose of steroids and putting weight on faster. The feeling of having to size up in a new dress and still not being able to do the zip up is, silly as it might sound, really difficult, even if it is more because I have a weird body type that’s never really worked well with clothes!

I’m not sure if there’s much point to these ramblings other than just getting my thoughts out. I think appearance is something that can be overlooked regarding cancer diagnoses – I was lucky in that I had very short hair anyway, having shaved it when my mum had breast cancer and again when my friend gave me a (very, very bad!) haircut. I’ve been wearing wigs lately but that’s more for warmth and because they’re cool colours, and partially for other people’s comfort than for any comfort of my own. I thought gaining weight might have more of an impact on me and it certainly is the most difficult thing appearance wise – even if in terms of my actual beliefs I don’t think weight matters at all, I don’t believe food has a moral value to it and I don’t think you can tell someone’s health from their size, and that the fashion and food industry plays on (especially women’s) concerns about all these things in order to sell more clothes or special diets and products. I’m feeling quite torn between wanting to talk about how it’s hard, knowing that I have it easy compared to a lot of people and feeling like I’m being taken in by the companies which imply that value comes in being as small as you can be. This whole thing links to some other things I’ve spoken about here – the academic pressure to be ‘the best’, even gendered differences in diagnoses. I’d be very interested and grateful to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

Note: I have never been diagnosed with any type of eating disorder and I tend to use the phrase ‘prone to disordered eating’ instead. I don’t want people worrying unnecessarily and my eating habits are generally fine at the moment!

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