It starts out innocently enough: for the new year, 2020, you want to get fit. Most people give up on New Year’s resolutions, but not you. You’re going to do better than everyone else. You begin working out twice a week. You see progress. It’s exciting!
Then, the pandemic arrives. You move home to live with your father and brother. You decide to work out for ten minutes every morning before you sit down at your desk and start your workday. As time goes on, you add exercise to your evening. Soon, you’re doing workout videos for an hour a day. You don’t skip a day for five months. Your muscles are always tired, but you enjoy the burn – it means you're working hard.
You take over doing all the grocery shopping for the family, and cook healthy dinners. You start intermittent fasting, only eating between the hours of 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Your weight begins to drop. Your company sets up a remote team-building challenge: which team can walk the furthest in six weeks? You begin taking three walks every day. You can’t skip a day: you don’t want to look lazy. You walk during your 30-minute lunch break, then eat a small lunch at your desk. After work, you’re so hungry you’re nearly in tears, but you head out to walk before and after dinner. Any moment of daylight that you don’t need to spend working at your laptop should be spent walking. Your team comes in second place, and you feel like you let them down. You could have walked more.
After the challenge ends, you keep on walking. You need to get to 10,000 steps every day. If it’s raining, you cry and panic. You end up walking round and round the house, watching the number on your Fitbit until late in the evening. If you reach 10,000, you feel accomplished. If you don’t, you’re a failure. Your Fitbit keeps data. There’s literally proof that you’ve failed. You don’t want to fail.
You watch documentaries. 'I'm a Child Anorexic.' 'Dana: The 8 Year Old Anorexic.' You’ve seen them many times. You know lines by heart at this stage. Why are you so obsessed? You're not envious of desperately ill children… are you? ‘Naomi refuses to sit down, because standing burns an extra 40 calories an hour’, the narrator says. This is meant to be shocking. You take note of this useful fact. From then on, at weekends, you only sit down to eat. You do the cleaning and cooking, go for walks and work out. To relax, you watch Netflix standing up. Not sitting down was working for Naomi. For 13-year-old skeletal Naomi. If she can do it, so can you.
You count the calories in your breakfast, as it’s the same every day. 30g of oats mixed with water. One third of a banana. Two spoonfuls of low-fat yoghurt. Cinnamon. Seeds. Five to seven almonds. Never eight – eight is too many. You need the protein, but there are a lot of calories in almonds. It’s a balancing act: you want enough protein to build muscle, but an overall calorie deficit to lose fat. It’s exhausting to keep track of sometimes.
While your breakfast is in the microwave, you jog on the spot. Any moment where you’re standing still feels like a wasted opportunity to burn some calories. All day long, you look forward to dessert after dinner. Two pieces of dark chocolate, perhaps, with a small smear of peanut butter for protein. Ten Skittles, two of each colour. A biscuit, if you’re planning on a long workout in the evening. ‘You don’t have to earn your food with exercise’, nutrition bloggers tell you on Instagram. They make you so angry. What rubbish. Of course you have to earn it! Nothing in life comes free. If you want a mini muffin today, you’d better be ready to work for it.
You weigh yourself on Friday mornings. By then, you've had four consistent days of restricting your food intake, and you predict it's the point in the week when you'll weigh the least. You watch your weight slowly creep down until your BMI is within the underweight range. This feels like success. You don’t want to be in the ‘normal’ range: who wants to be ‘normal’? ‘Average’? You want to be extraordinary. You feel a little worried that you're losing the muscles that you're working so hard for, but proud of yourself for your self-control. It feels wrong to be proud, but also right; weight loss is your guilty pleasure.
You watch binging videos on YouTube. Not mukbangs – girls with eating disorders. 6,000 calories, 10,000, 12,000. Disembodied bony hands reach into the frame and unwrap chocolate, cookies and ice cream. Some of the girls give their ages: 19; 17, turning 18 soon. They're so young and they know all about calories. How are they so good at this? You seek out the videos with bulimia trigger warnings. You don't want to watch people gain weight. If they're not going to purge all the food afterwards, you feel uncomfortable watching them consume whole cakes, boxes of doughnuts, jars of peanut butter. You want to see the magic trick where they eat all that food, but still show up thinner in the next video. You are afraid of vomiting, but you sometimes wish you weren't. You wish you had the magic power that they have to make the food disappear.
You wonder sometimes about what’s motivating you. You want a flat stomach. You want abs. You want to be lighter. You want to be the tiny girl that people carry on their shoulders at festivals, the fit girl out jogging in a sports bra and leggings without an ounce of fat showing, the elegant girl showing off her delicate collar bones in an off-the-shoulder dress at a wedding. You want to be the girl everyone wants. You want other men to be jealous of your boyfriend for having you. You want to embody success. You want to be aspirational. You want attention.
Except, is this behaviour really attention-seeking? As soon as your boyfriend takes notice and mentions your eating habits, you shut the conversation down. ‘Calories are not the enemy’, he despairs. You call this bullshit. Calories are your enemy. Exercise is your friend. Exercise makes you feel invincible. Going to bed hungry every night makes you feel accomplished. You are in control. You are powerful. Nobody can take that away from you. Nobody is allowed to tell you what to do. You rule this body. You don’t know how this is going to end, but it will be on your terms.
You are in control.