I joined the gym in my first week of my first year at university. The promise of perfection and happiness - that good health, a toned body and a clean menu could make everything "okay" - sucked me in with relative ease. And whilst, admittedly, as I stood in the shiny sports park, already very unwell, my aim was never as simple as self-improvement, I'd argue that I wasn't alone in searching for more than my abs. My story takes things to the extreme, but I've seen more girls, and guys, pummel themselves on treadmills, carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, than I'd care to admit. Yes, I was ill, and obsessed with achieving perfection via my own shrinking, but society wasn't drip-feeding me alone - we were all breathing the promises that hung in that sweaty air. Now, I'm not "anti-gym", far from it, but I think sometimes, between squats, it's important to question what we're actually doing. Rationally, it's very simple: there's a line between spending a couple of hours a week in the gym for health reasons, and spending more time climbing those stairs than breathing fresh air...that said, an obsessed brain blurs all rationale going.
In my final year of university, I didn't join the gym. Everywhere I looked there were fellow students in gym leggings. Many of my friends had signed up...they'd squat as we watched GBBO and use medicine balls as doorstops. We're the gym generation - it's the latest craze, and no one wants to be left behind. "Strong not skinny" is in. And on the surface, this "new year, new me" aim to gain, improve our health, and promote powerful bodies, is liberating. If nothing else, it's a move away from the impression that, whilst not exclusively, especially, girls, should be shrinking/blending into society's margins. We're teaching girls to embrace their bodies, stand their ground, and explore their strength: it's powerful stuff. And it's rife.
From news headlines to flaxseed fanatics, we are bombarded with claims as to what's best for our health, but this "one size fits all approach" is frankly turning my stomach. For me, personally, not joining the gym, and denying myself my "seal" of approval on the "healthy lifestyle scale" is the best decision I can make for my health. My health does not need me to pummel my body for 2 hours a day in the gym. My health does not need me to eat less carbs. My health does not need me to teatox, detox or cut out gluten. My health does not need 0% fat yoghurt. And the healthiest thing I can possibly do is ensure my health is not conditioned by what's "healthy".
I'm anorexic. I live a life controlled by numbers. Calories. Weights. Distances. Macros. Fat content. Times. Appointments. I could tell you the nutritional information of things you've probably never even thought of...and I hope you never do. Now, I want to make it very, very clear that I am not anorexic because of the gym. Nor am I anorexic because of a "diet gone wrong"...there was no clean eating, no new year's diet - I'm sorry, it's just not that neat. Anorexia is an illness, not a choice. We live in a culture where the notion of "ultimate health" is inescapable: it's plaguing our every move. They say time is a good healer...so long as you steer clear of where you lost so much time in the first place; for me, that's the gym and the nutritional information that smothers our food. This culture alone did not make me ill, but this culture is allowing me to stay underweight, severely malnourished and living a semi-existence.
For the first two years of my degree I pummeled myself on that cross trainer; it was punishingly cruel, undeniably self-destructive, and plain dangerous. It was obsessively focused: I was in a bubble no one could have penetrated. Once I was there, it was too late - and I watched that calories burned tracker like my life depended on it. Ironically, it did. I had dodgy ECG readings and a low BMI, but I wasn't that underweight, I wasn't that ill, was I? Well, I guess "yes" is the simple answer. It's a heavy weight to bare, a high price to pay, and something I've spent years refusing to admit, but the facts, the logic, and the rational evidence paint a picture of a very unwell patient. I really wasn't "fine". I really wasn't "healthy". What I'm now beginning to wonder is if all this focus on "being healthy" is sugar-coating the reality. Where does "healthy" become "obsessed", and where does "obsessed" become "ill"? It's taken me years, upon years, appointments after appointments, and, currently, a hospital admission to begin to admit/acknowledge just how unwell I really am.
In 2015, France made it illegal for models with an underweight BMI to walk runways. With that in mind, is it time our gyms tightened up on applicants? I wouldn't be allowed to walk a catwalk, therefore, should I really be allowed to run until I'm about to pass out, only to stumble to the mats and lie there until the world stops spinning? I might not be setting a dangerous example to impressionable teenage girls (*sigh* at how over-simplified this notion is...), but my self-destruction could, realistically, cost me my life - a life I'm not really able to make rational decisions over. The gym didn't make me anorexic, but anorexia made me go to the gym compulsively.
Maybe it's time we placed some constraints on how much those who are clearly at risk, both mentally and physically, can spend plugged into a running machine desperately hoping for life support? Honestly? I think rational me was actually fairly grateful to be told I wasn't allowed in the gym anymore. I surrender: I'd like to be exempt from this health craze. The line between healthy and obsessive is too fine; the tight rope of optimum health cannot hold me. I will fall too quickly...and illness, predisposition, and perfectionistic personality aside, I don't think I'm the only one seeking comfort in control, order and the pursuit of ultimate health.
The time I lost in the gym, much like the time I've lost to anorexia, is time I will never get back. Should there be a minimum BMI required for gym registration? How closely can staff monitor this? I, for one, am simply not a fan of this archaic and frankly meaningless idea of BMI - it says very little in a world already obsessed with numbers. Desperate people do desperate things. Desperate people caught up in denial do desperate things. Should there be a maximum amount of time you can spend in the gym? Should this only be exercised - pardon the pun - on those considered "most at risk"? And, can you ever see a mental health problem? Where does enjoyment become obsession? And where does obsession become illness? Because I'm living it, day in day out and I have absolutely no idea.
I'm not anti-healthy-lifestyle...I am, most definitely, anti-healthy-lifestyle-that-costs lives. And for that reason alone, I cannot align my health needs with those of society.