Inspired by the increasing chatter about weight and bodies during the Covid-19 lockdown, Ruth Naughton-Doe reflects on her experience of recovering from an eating disorder and how she has learnt to maintain a healthy mind whilst having amazing adventures. In a society where people are encouraged to move their body primarily to change its shape and size, Ruth has learnt to focus on what her body can do and not how it looks...
As I run up the Sheffield streets, planning my weekend activities, I reflect that I never run alone. I always run with the spectre of my eating disorder, perched uneasily on my shoulder, poised, excited and eager to pitch in with unwanted commentary or advice. And yet, I am one of the lucky ones - I recovered.
I enter the small wood lined with magnificent ancient oak trees and glistening white birches, mud squelching underfoot from the recent summer rains. I think back to travelling last year: three months of hiking in the Himalayas and six months of cycle touring. I recognise that privilege. In this restricted era of global pandemic, I got to spend all that time roaming free, visiting different countries and being active every day. I am reminded of a time in my life where I thought I wouldn’t be able to exercise again.
In one of many attempts at recovery, success finally came because I stopped. I realised that I had to completely stop all physical activity for a while to allow myself time to heal and reflect on my relationship with moving my body. In 2013, I challenged myself to six months of total stillness. At the time, it is no exaggeration to say that this felt world-ending. My entire identity had been constructed around the physical activities that I participated in. I was Ruth the runner, Ruth the climber, Ruth who practised yoga, went to the gym and spent holidays hiking or cycling in the mountains. As I sat staring at the array of active wear sprawled across my bedroom floor - rucksacks, trainers, climbing shoes - punctuated by make-up, work clothes and ornaments, I started to question how could I exist without these things.
My entire identity had been constructed around the physical activities that I participated in.
Resting my body, denying myself the privilege of movement, I felt torn and confused, both feelings that persist despite my recovery. I knew I used exercise as a weapon against my body, to shape or sculpt it into sizes and forms it didn’t want to be, but I also knew that moving my body was an effective tool for emotional release and a huge part of enjoying adventures in the wilderness. Physical activity was both my torturer and rescuer and this battle was being played out in my flesh. My body could not be a battleground. I was not a battleground. Exercise needed to be a tool to improve my well-being, not a weapon.
Talking to my partner about my eating disorder, I realise now that the vast majority of people have experienced disordered eating for at least some of their life. The sad reality is that most people hate their bodies, abuse their bodies, diet, undergo surgery and force themselves to exercise or feel guilty about their bodies. Perhaps this is a by-product of our culture and media, or maybe a competition to ‘look good’ is hard wired into our biology. The difference between disordered eating and someone with an eating disorder is that the person with an eating disorder decides they hate themself and not just their body. And, they hate themself enough to dedicate their entire daily life to changing it.
My eating disorder started with an adventure. No wonder I was finding this confusing.
The first few months of forced rest was the biggest adventure of my life, but not my usual type such as cycling across Iceland, kayaking in Wales, or long distance hiking in New Zealand. This adventure was played out entirely in my mind. My moods fluctuated wildly, sometimes hourly, on a journey that rocked me through self-discovery, exhilaration and panic.
I remember the freedom of waking up on a Saturday morning and realising I had nowhere to be; I could just lie in bed and not do anything. No dragging my exhausted legs out for a run, I could just turn over and go back to sleep. I felt sorry for people out for a run, when I saw then jogging past the window, wiping sweat from their brows with pained expressions. Thank God that was no longer me.
And then, the panic would come. I felt lost. For such a long time, people had complimented me for my motivation. Oh, how they wish they could always be running like me. Wasn’t it great that I was cycling everywhere? Now I was Ruth that sat in her pyjamas and watched Bake Off, crying whilst eating cake for the first time in years. I was Ruth that caught the bus rather than walked and I was Ruth that didn’t do yoga.
Now I was Ruth that sat in her pyjamas and watched Bake Off, crying whilst eating cake for the first time in years. I was Ruth that caught the bus rather than walked and I was Ruth that didn’t do yoga.
The stillness brought forward an eruption of past trauma, self-loathing, shame, guilt, unworthiness, loss, grief, sadness - all those feelings I had been savagely suppressing for ten years as I distracted myself in a relentless pursuit for an ideal body, in a world where my perception of my ideal body changed as consistently as British summer weather. In the stillness, I was forced to deal with myself.
Whilst I grappled with recovery, my relationship with moving my body was chaotic, confusing and toxic. My whole adult life had been marked with an eating disorder and I had to question everything. Did I actually like running, or was that my eating disorder wanting to burn calories? Did I like climbing, or was that just a way to have muscular arms? Did I enjoy long distance hiking, or was that just a really good excuse to go on an enforced exercise and diet plan for a week?
Whenever I moved, there were so many voices that turned up to the party. Reassuringly to my eating disorder, when I looked around me, everyone was doing the same, to a degree. “I run so I can eat what I like” or “The best thing about long distance walking is the weight drops off”. It can get very complicated when trying to navigate the delicate balance of a healthy relationship with exercise in a disordered society.
As I start losing my breath, slowly jogging up the incline in a Sheffield forest, I reflect on where this all started. On a misguided 300 mile walk from Hull to London with my friend Sam in 2003, along major roads, wearing only my school shoes. I was 17, overweight by BMI and unfit, but this was not a problem to me at the time, my motivation was solely for adventure and adventures we had!
However, the walk also marked the beginning of my eating disorder. It was a journey where I learnt that I could walk to lose weight. I didn’t complete the walk, but Sam did, and when I returned home, instead of taking the bus, I started walking five miles to school every day. Pleased with the effects, I started walking the five miles back, too. My eating disorder started with an adventure. No wonder I was finding this confusing.
About six months into recovery, after allowing myself total rest, I started to experiment with exercise. If I couldn’t develop a healthy relationship with movement, then I would have to accept limits on my adventures. I tested myself with gentle yoga, horse riding and walking twenty minutes to and from work. I devoted energy to reflecting on, thinking and repairing my relationship with exercise.
I developed ways to decipher my brain and disentangle eating disorder thoughts from Ruth thoughts. Before going to a yoga class, or getting on a horse, I asked myself: "am I doing this because I want to, or am I doing this because I want to change the shape of my body?" I learnt to take inventories of how I was feeling. Did I feel rested? Did I feel strong? I approached fuelling my body in a different way; if I exercised, I needed more food. These strategies have helped me avoid relapses and I am fortunate to have rebuilt a healthy body and mind that can have adventures again.
Eating disorders are sneaky though. Confident in my recovery by then, I hadn’t considered enough how a six month cycle tour in 2019 would mess with my head. Even though I always know I have to be careful, I just assumed my cycle tour would be manageable. I knew my eating disorder would be cheering about going on a long tour where I would be exercising each day. But then, I was confident I was not doing the tour to change my body, I was doing it because I love cycling, adventure and touring. The reality was that it was a difficult dance. On the tour, our whole day felt like it became structured around food. It is all we did: eat, exercise, eat, sleep, repeat. Food, cooking, talking about food obtaining food, became one of the major events each day. It allowed the space for eating disordered thoughts to breed.
I was confident I was not doing the tour to change my body, I was doing it because I love cycling, adventure and touring.
Another trigger point for eating disorder thoughts is feeling hungry - and ask any cycle tourer, feeling ravenously hungry is part of the territory. I know part of my eating disorder is being afraid of my hunger, ashamed of my hunger and like I should not honour it, but rather control and curtail it. And yet, that was just simply not going to happen on a cycle tour. There were days I was losing the battle, the voices in my head were screaming the worst kind of abuses at me. I was in hell, and questioning why I had done this to myself. Then, there were days where I forgot I had a body, I so utterly delighted by life and the joy that touring brings.
“Everyone thought I would lose weight on a cycle tour,” our slender, male, Italian host tells us over dinner. “But I found it fascinating, I have actually never been as big. I put on a stone, my friends were shocked!”
The truth is that cycle touring and long-distance hiking have always made me heavier. Whether that is through muscle gain, or fat gain due to eating so much, or a lingering defence mechanism my body has to cling onto every fat cell out of fear I am going to starve it again, I will never truly know and, importantly, I try not to want to know. I know some people lose weight whilst adventuring, but not me. And even though that voice in my head is always chirruping away telling me I should be thinner, I know that doing a tour won’t mean I come home thinner. So, I feel disappointed and I also feel safe.
The truth is that cycle touring and long-distance hiking have always made me heavier.
The truth is, I still have an eating disorder, I still want to lose weight most days and plan how to do it. I am just really bad at it now. I cycle 80km and despite my ‘best’ eating disorder intentions, I end up eating chips in the pub because I am too busy enjoying the evening to be thinking about how I can lose weight. Being unwell with an eating disorder involves focusing your entire being onto the one goal of changing your body. When you find your self-worth, that unhealthy obsession to change your body, so often praised by people who say with alarming frequency - "I wish I had anorexia" - is gone. It was after all, only born out of trauma, turmoil and pain.
I wish I could tell you that recovery means I am completely free, eating all the cakes without worrying, running marathons without also thinking about the fat I might burn. I wish I had that. But, really, does anyone? I think recovery to me is being normal. Unfortunately, in our society obsessed with weight, appearance and female thinness, 'normal' means that I have internalised the narrative that I should move my body partly to change its shape, and not just for the simple love of moving it.
I have found acceptance knowing that this spectre of an eating disorder will come with me on all my journeys, whether that be a 2 mile run in the park, like today, or a 2000 mile cycle trip, like last year. I have to question things. Should I run today? Is it healthy to go on a cycle tour? Why do I really want to lift weights? Is it okay to feel bad about eating too much yesterday and want to eat less today? Or is this the beginning of a slippery slope? Sometimes the spectre grows and takes over my mind. But, mostly, my eating disorder thoughts just chirrup away merrily on their own and I have learnt to occupy a space with it, rather than be occupied by it.
Adventure may have started my eating disorder, but it has also helped to cure it. When I cycled up a mountain pass to Chamonix on one of my first cycle tours, wearing shorts despite hating my legs, a mountain guide commented on my large calf muscles. They were sturdy legs, useful for ice climbing, he admired. Initially mortified, I learnt to see that it was a compliment on the utility of my legs. I learnt to appreciate my legs and to thank my body for the things that it does. I will never love my body, but I can just be grateful it works.
Adventure may have started my eating disorder, but it has also helped to cure it.
Loving my body is not an aim either. Whilst initially finding it helpful for encouraging diverse bodies in the media, I am beginning to feel uneasy about the body positive movement. I think it misses the point because it puts the focus back on how your body looks. I would rather focus on what my body can do, not how it looks in a bikini. Thin, fat, or in between, I try to live my life from the principle that it doesn’t matter how I look and I don’t need to wear a bikini in a picture on Instagram to be recovered. I just need to exist in the world and do the things that I love. I need to go climbing and go for a run, practice yoga and go on adventures, without thinking about how I look too much.
The adventure community can be full of women who look a certain way. It is no coincidence - the type of people who push themselves on adventures are also quite likely to be disordered themselves, perfectionists or professional athletes forced to thinking about their weight. You’ll find many women who adventure also straddling the eating disorder/disordered eating line. Fortunately, more people are speaking up and we are making headway talking about the pressure on athletes to look a certain way. Outdated narratives around diet, weight and health are slowly being replaced by a recognition that you do need to eat to fuel yourself, cake is okay, bodies are all different, it is normal for your body to change with age and it is totally normal - and indeed healthy - to have fat. Especially if you are female.
My advice from my long battle with recovery is to do what you love and forget about changing your body. Talk only of the amazing adventures that your body has taken you on and the incredible things that your body can do.
About the Author:
Ruth is an adventurer, blogger and lover of the wilderness. She works as a research associate at the University of Sheffield and spends her spare time doodling, writing and exploring the Peak District. You can hear more from Ruth on her website: ruthandliamgoplaces.com