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What My '10 Year Challenge' Photo Doesn't Show About My Eating Disorder

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

I joined the #10yearchallenge bandwagon the other way. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s basically people on the internet posting a picture of themselves from 2009 and a picture of themselves from 2019, commenting on how much they’ve changed (or not).

People have grown up, glowed up, got wrinkles, got less geeky, learned which glasses actually suit their face, changed their hair, sacked the sunbed off, lost their “puppy fat,” taught themselves how to contour, sorted out their brows… 10 years will do that. I’m seeing them crop up on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and while it’s easy to say, “I’m too cool to jump on that trend,” I was intrigued. I’ve totally changed my whole friendship group over the last five to 10 years, so actually quite enjoyed seeing what everyone used to look like. I’m less bothered about the celebrities, but Haim’s were pretty cool.

My memory is completely, utterly useless, so I couldn’t remember what I was doing or what I looked like in 2009 without scrolling back through Facebook albums to check. Turns out I was a fucking mess. The picture I chose as the clearest and most representative of me in 2009 was one of me taken when I was out at a pub in Stockport the day before I started my second shot at inpatient treatment for anorexia and bulimia. I didn’t think I looked that ill at the time, but that just goes to show how ill I actually was, in body and mind. I thought that “sunken eyes” were a clichéd description of anorexics, but apparently it’s true. I look like I’m just not there, trying to smile but failing miserably to convince anyone that I was OK. I was pale — not just not tanned pale, but deathly pale, almost greyish. Not interesting. My cheeks were puffed, glands swollen from purging. I look weak and tired. I look like someone who needed help, and I did.

The “now” is a selfie I took the other week while I was out for my fiancé’s birthday. I’m a bit bigger, but that’s not what stands out, or really even matters to me. There is color in my skin, my eyes are wide and there’s something alive behind them. My smile is genuine, my hair is long and thick, and as someone commented after I’d posted, I am “present.”

At first glance, side-by-side, the pictures look like a before and after that you might see on an Instagram anorexia recovery account, a Daily Mail article about eating disorders or an insert in another inspirational eating disorder memoir. It’s a beginning and an end, simple and easy to understand. Poorly before hospital, better after hospital. Sick, then recovered. That all sounds very nice, but I’m not going to share that and let people think that’s how it works, that it’s that easy, or that that is my truth — because it’s not.

I might look a million times better now than 10 years ago, and physically, I probably am. But who knows what’s going on behind that filter, that leftover tan and that toner? My body wasn’t the only part of me I abused and starved and punished for over a decade; my mind was too. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, only the symptoms are physical. It goes so far beyond the number on the scale or the measuring tape or the size on the dress.

What I’m saying, in quite a convoluted way, is that I am not recovered from my eating disorder. I’m nowhere near as bad as I was, but I am not, and I don’t want to pretend to be completely fine. I’m saying this because too many people, including those who make decisions about treatment for those with eating disorders, don’t seem to realize that weight is not the be all and end all. I still struggle, I still battle every day to eat certain things at certain times, certain amounts. It feels too much or not enough, if not for me, for someone else. It still fuels anxiety. I still panic when I have to make choices. I still slip into counting calories when I don’t need or want to. I still feel the temptation to skip meals and I sometimes miss that lightheadedness that comes with living on empty. I still wish I could weigh myself every day, just to know. I still feel bigger than I am. I still sometimes feel myself being pulled backwards. One more time. Just to prove it to myself. Could I go back one more time?

I fight against all that all the time and it’s tiring. I don’t know if full recovery is possible, but it’s not happening for me just yet, even 10 years on. I am happy for the most part, I do eat, I am healthy, I work hard and I live a pretty normal life — things could be a lot worse, but I felt I had to write this just to show that photographs don’t always tell the full story. Look deeper.

Originally published: February 27, 2019
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