More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
In good shape
Tuesday October 16, 2007
by Grace Bowman, The Guardian

Although Grace Bowman had beaten anorexia, she was haunted by fears of it returning. But since becoming pregnant, she's learned to relish having a body that feels happily beyond her control

When I was 18 I went on a diet. My body had changed from a girl's to a woman's - I had hips and curves - and although I wasn't overweight I felt uncomfortable with this new shape, which seemed to symbolise responsibility and change. If I controlled what I ate, it felt as if I could control the rest of my life - the prospect of leaving home for university, exam stress, friends and boyfriend issues - which seemed overwhelming. The more I didn't eat, the more my emotions clouded over. I concentrated on calorie-counting and exercising instead. Within six months I was addicted to starving myself. I lived on a diet of Weight Watchers' soup, tomatoes and apples. I wasn't in control at all. I had developed anorexia nervosa.

It was a long and hard battle to recover from the 5st 8lbs (37kg) to which I had plummeted. My periods stopped, my hair fell out and I was freezing cold the whole time. I couldn't go to university. Instead, I lay on the sofa while my family tried everything they could to help me. In the end, I started eating more to try to get better for them. After a year, I'd put on enough weight to escape.

The physical symptoms of anorexia disappeared. I looked like a normal girl - just thin. People I met didn't know what I had suffered. But anorexia is not mended when the body conforms to a certain body mass index; it is a mental battle. I was haunted by a voice in my head, which plagued me throughout university. I exercised intensely; I sometimes made myself sick, and I kept it all a secret. Because anorexia's most dramatic representation is on the body, it is this which people use to measure its impact. However, the way someone looks is not necessarily a barometer of mental health. In fact, the healthier I looked on the outside, the more turbulent my mind became.

Letting go of control was the biggest challenge in recovery. After graduating I decided to dump my scales and stop counting calories and dieting. I settled at a size 10. I was conscious of maintaining a balance, so I exercised and tried to eat healthily. Eventually I learned not to berate myself if I ate chocolate and chips or missed a session at the gym. The voice of anorexia quietened down. Then it just got lost altogether. I fell in love, I started writing and found other more important things to live for.

Still, I was haunted by the fear that the anorexia would return.

And then, last year, I got married. My husband and I both wanted to start a family. We knew it would transform our lives, and I was aware that it would also transform my body. Anorexia preys on times of change, and pregnancy is one such major event. With reports of more older women being diagnosed, it can't be written off as a teenage illness. Ten years since diagnosis, I felt that because I had beaten it so thoroughly I would be able to deal with the changes, but I had no idea how it would feel when it happened.

I got pregnant quickly. At 12 weeks, when we announced it to our families, my stomach was distinctly curved. After years of trying to prove that I was really better, even documenting that recovery in a book about my experiences, I felt this physical sign might be the one that everyone else needed.

By five months, I was thrilled to be buying maternity wear; it made it feel real. I stood in changing rooms alongside other women with bumps at various stages and actually felt jealous that mine wasn't bigger. Anorexia had once programmed me to look at women and envy their thinness because the distorted perception I had of my own body meant that everyone appeared smaller than I was. Now pregnancy was teaching me to look with new eyes.

Today, nearly eight months pregnant, my shape has shifted even further and I've got those same womanly curves I once tried so hard to remove. My body today is nothing like I have known before. It has certainly made me realise that I am much more than the shape I'm in. Pregnancy has been a release into a body that feels happily beyond my control. I've watched it grow and transform. I've looked at it in the mirror and been fascinated by it. I'm much more interested in nourishing my baby than caring about what dress size I am.

I didn't know how my body would change in pregnancy. I knew my stomach would grow, but I wasn't sure how other weight changes might be distributed. It was the advent of hips and curvy thighs that made me dislike my body so much as a teenager, and I have definitely seen them grow over the past few months. This time, though, I have let go of the perfectionist feelings that hit me after puberty. I know that everything is transitory. Once the baby is born maybe I will want to tone up, but for the moment, it's not a priority. I have been attending antenatal yoga classes, walking and generally trying to keep moving, not because of an obsession with body fat, but because I want to stretch my aching muscles and be fit and healthy for labour and being a mother. I've realised how far I am from those feelings of self-absorption and repression that the eating disorder imposed.

For a long time people were nervous about asking me about my body and my eating habits. Anorexia made me hostile and defensive and I didn't make it easy. Once you have revealed that you once suffered from an eating disorder, people look at you differently, watch what you eat and wonder if you are really being honest (this is understandable - anorexia strips you of honesty). Things are certainly different now. People comment on my body in ways they would never have done before. Whereas once I would have felt reluctant to talk about it, the pregnancy has freed me of the sense of secrecy I have had about my body for many years.

Anorexia was self-destructive: the long road to recovery taught me that. I have learned to listen to myself; to ask why I was replacing "feeling" with "fat"; to try to work things out in ways other than starting yet another fad diet. Today, I am excited about the prospect of protecting and caring for my baby. I am in wonder at this bump of mine, not in fear of it. I am embracing the changes. Amazing, after so many years of body-hatred.

Thin by Grace Bowman is published by Penguin.
Replying is not possible. This forum is only available as an archive.