Image credit: Don Carlo
Almost exactly six years ago today, I bought a leopard print boiler suit from a vintage shop just off Avenue de Champs-Elysees in Paris. Silk, with zip-up shoulder slits, poppers down the middle and drawstring-adjustable ankles (yes, I know I'm hardly selling it), its purchase coincided with the purchase of a vintage leather mini skirt from a vintage shop in Montmartre, some black leather tasseled over-the-knee mock-Gucci "stripper boots" I'd saved up for for months to buy from Dune, and a pair of bright red tights from Urban Outfitters. It was, and still is, the most fabulous item of clothing I've ever bought.
Its purchase also coincided with the early stages of an eating disorder. The trip to Paris was a treat for my good GCSE results- higher than expected mainly because I'd starved and pushed myself to the brink in pursuit of "perfection". I came out the other side of year 11 having gained eight A*s, and lost almost three stone.
Something that started as a simple decision to "lose a bit of weight" over the summer had spiralled drastically out of control, and my teenage love of fashion only added fuel to the fire. Pouring over the pages of Dazed and Confused, Vogue and i-D with my best friend Issie, it was no longer enough to lose "a bit" of weight. Why would I want to be a size 10, when I could be a size 6 and emulate Agyness Deyn in American Apparel's metallic latex leggings?
I began to avidly research the measurements of UK models who were 5"9, like me, on their agency websites as my own personal form of "thinspiration" and inevitably, like the one in one hundred women aged between 15 and 30 who battle eating disorders in the UK, my weight plummeted. After six months, my periods stopped, my hair started falling out, and my measurements dropped to 30-24-32. Not long after, I was invited to a modelling audition, and when I didn't make the cut, soon started to develop the symptoms of bulimia.
My previous ability to control my own carefully constructed identity disappeared, my weight began to fluctuate drastically, and the love of quirky, garish, eccentric clothes I'd had ever since my mother bought me a pair of red patent "bouncy shoes" when I was three (and that I refused to take off until I was at least five), vanished almost overnight. Aware that my body was continually changing as I alternated between cycles of starvation and binging, I wanted to attract as little attention as possible.
Agyness Deyn, Kate Moss and Lily Donaldson stopped being my style icons and the Royal Wedding coincided with a new-found love of Kate Middleton and all the sensible, classic-ness she represents. While Issie was out partying and continuing to trawl the charity shops of Bath for one-off finds (the creme de la creme being a patent leather topshop blazer that she somehow managed to get away with as her sixth-form suit) I dreaded the calories of alcohol, the prospect of socialising and the prospect of having to face the realities of my changing hip radius. When we left school, Issie went on to Central St Martins, still wearing batwing eyeliner and charity-shop finds, and I went on to Cambridge in black jeans, a white t-shirt, and a beige (yes, beige) cardigan. 16 months later, my disordered eating had worsened to the point that I was all but forced to take a year out to recover.
I was lucky, I received fantastic treatment and "recovered" almost exactly three years ago. I returned to university, I completed my degree, and with, admittedly, the occasional terrifying relapse, I moved to London without any major hiccups.
My "style" on the other hand, took longer to catch up as, even post-recovery, I still felt chained to an idea of conforming. Whereas, in my early teens standing out my big, curly hair, and loud, often ridiculous (a white, ruffled, 1950s meringue dress comes to mind), clothes had been a point of pride, I found myself careering round Cambridge and London with a glossy, well-maintained blow-dry and a predictable wardrobe of skinny jeans and grey jumpers.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with skinny jeans and grey jumpers. If you feel like the most "you" version of yourself in skinny jeans and grey jumpers, heck, wear nothing but skinny jeans and grey jumpers. Buy all the skinny jeans and grey jumpers you can find, create your own uniform and wear it with pride. But I didn't feel like a complete version of myself; I felt like I was trying to go with a flow I'd previously defined myself by swimming against.
My hair changed first. By some strange twist of fate, I found myself working as a blogger at a surf camp over the summer and living a lifestyle that meant I simply couldn't recreate a Middleton-esque blow-dry every morning. The sea gave my curls new definition, the sun streaked them with blonde until I began to embrace them as something unique and individual to me, rather than something that needed to be, almost literally, ironed out.
Then, it was my clothes. As well as a world in which a morning blow-dry was inconceivable, at the surf camp, quirks and kookiness were embraced and encouraged far more than conforming. And so it was that, on a day trip to San Sebastian, as a small act of rebellion, I bought a denim jacket. By the end of the summer, I was wearing a pirate hat around the campsite day-in day-out, an expression of my new-found hippy persona. A few weeks later, back in the UK, I rediscovered charity shops and vintage markets and now my wardrobe is a strange mix of the old tomboy-ish jeans and t-shirts (which I still adore) and wacky seventies sunglasses and vintage dresses. I came away from one shopping spree with a floral tea-dress and, on its first outing, a friend remarked that for the first time since they'd known me, I seemed happy being me, not someone, or in fact anyone, else.
My body was the last to get the message. After a summer of baguettes and beer, my still rigorously controlled figure had, naturally, changed a bit- mainly with the addition of some newly-developed shoulders after three months of paddling out to sea on a surfboard. I'll admit, I'd be lying if I said I didn't care, or that I hadn't noticed my new curves and felt a moment of panic, but I'd also be lying if I said that my attitude towards those changes hadn't changed too.
Six years ago, I'd have looked at myself in the mirror and seen only flaws distinguishing me from the other women around me, and I still look in the mirror and realise that I'm not the Duchess of Cambridge, or Kate Moss. But that's fine. I am me, and I also look in the mirror and recognise that my body is quite good at running. It's quite good at skiing and, after three months, it's almost passable at surfing. It's functional.
I am in love with my body for the power it has and for how I can use that power to do the things I love. Tomorrow, that will be wearing my new vintage plum leather and fur coat. It makes me look like a cross between a 1970s rockstar and a Scooby-Doo character, and that makes me really, really, really happy.