In the summer, I lost weight due to stress. I felt on edge and sick all the time and lacked motivation to look after myself, so I wasn't eating nearly enough. I am not rendered skinny, not by a long chalk, but I shrunk enough for others to notice.
I can't claim to be unhappy about the aesthetic effect - I was slightly overweight for ages and I'm not any more*. But my relative slimness is a physical indicator of what I have been through, and as such, I have been confused that all but one person who has noticed has congratulated me on this. Even when people know exactly what has happened, even when I've told them that the weight loss is a direct result of a horrible time and an appalling diet, I am told, “Well, that can't be a bad thing.”
Only it was. I guess folk don't realise how little I have to eat in order to lose weight, given my lack of mobility. I was really quite lucky not to have suffered any more serious ill effects than I did. As it was, my diet compounded my physical and mental ill health; I was tired and dizzy, physically frailer, my sleep was all over the place, and I was functioning on adrenalin. I was not experiencing an eating disorder, but it was hard to break the cycle into which I had fallen. Decision-making was even tougher than usual, so it was easier not to have to think about food. I had even less energy than normal and excessive sleep was disrupting my day, so it was easier not to have to get up and prepare something to eat.
And then there was the psychological element. I had been bullied about my weight, so it felt liberating to be able to simply not eat. Having been congratulated so much on the weight-loss, I was half-afraid of putting it back on again. Last month I read an article about eating-disorders in older women which focussed on the risks following divorce or other personal crises;
"The person can lose their job, suffer a bereavement, have a child or see their relationship break down. As a result, their mood deteriorates and they develop a depressive illness. They lose their appetite and then lose weight," said [psychiatrist Sylvia] Dahabra. "They then notice that they feel better when they don't eat, that they look 'better' and might even get compliments, and this then distracts them from what really bothers them and gives them a new focus."
There's no might about it; women who lose weight quickly receive compliments, regardless of circumstances – I have known women who have lost weight through cancer being congratulated on their shrinkage. The belief is that weight-loss is always desired and always healthy.
The healthy thing is a particular mystery, because as well as the decidedly unhealthy way in which I lost weight, I know I have just a little bit more disability privilege out of being slimmer. Not much, because I wasn't very big and haven't shrunk that much. But the slimmer you are, the more legitimately sick you are seen as being. When you are fat and disabled, even though weight-gain is an obvious side-effect of reduced mobility and a less obvious effect of many illnesses and therapies, you are considered lazy and your impairments are seen as less legitimate.
So for disabled women smaller equals both healthier and properly sick at the same time.
I was quite literally tempted back to eating properly with extremely good food. My young man is a true culinary genius - none of this feeding pigs humbugs to make the sausages taste minty. Stephen is an unabashed skinflint, has physical limitations similar to my own and the worst collection of allergies and intolerances I've ever encountered in one person and yet in his company I have the best and most varied diet I have ever had. The man should write cook books and probably will do one day.
Food is such a tremendous source of pleasure and we are so lucky in the West with the choice and quality of produce available to us. This is why emotional or medical conditions which spoil one's appetite are so miserable, and why a culture which loads food and fat with so much emotional baggage impoverishes itself in doing so. And it doesn't make people healthier or even slimmer - most women you speak to are unhappy about their weight and feel guilty about eating, but the average woman is still heavier than our culture says she should be.
Because of the way weight is spoken about and because of the way my own weight has been spoken about, I do feel some pressure not to put on weight once more. It's not happened yet, despite eating until I'm full at every meal and being on new drugs which could encourage weight gain. However, deep down I know it doesn't matter if I do. And that's something I always did know. Only these days, I actually feel it.
* Since I started writing this, Cara posted on the dubious concept of "normal" weight.