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Would you rather be thin, or happy?

After dieting and purging for years, Daisy Buchanan asks what really matters

Would you rather be thin or happy?

I used to believe that this question had a ‘right’ answer. Eat, drink and be merry! I was never going to be thin, so what was the point in torturing myself to be a little thinner? Besides, every Instagram feminist I followed was a poster girl for body positivity. Admitting, even to myself, that I’d like a slimmer body seemed worse than fly tipping,or leaving your dog in the car with the window up on a sunny day. When I was a teenager, the magazines I read told me that my body could be made loveable with a regime of leg lifts and cottage cheese. In my thirties, the same magazines were starting to say that my body should be loveable as it was, and my thoughts about it were all wrong.

Food was mostly my friend, a gorgeous, comforting hum of rhythms and rituals…

Secretly, I’d try strange diets.

Secretly, I’d try strange diets. Diets that pretended not to be diets, regimes that promised you could eat blocks of cheese like choc ices, as long as you never thought about potatoes. Diets that worked by instructing you to start by spending £800 on a small sack of matcha powder, ensuring that you couldn’t afford any other food for the rest of the month.

I thought I was balancing things

I believed myself to be healthy-ish, and happy-ish. Balanced. If my clothes got too tight I’d do something mad for a week or two. Otherwise, it was the normal, human mix of Monday courgetti, Friday Domino’s, boiled eggs and fresh fruit for breakfast, or an entire loaf of bread if hungover. Food was mostly my friend, a gorgeous, comforting hum of rhythms and rituals, from the occasional blow out lunch at Noble Rot to the soft, salty Pret Jambon Beurre for the journey home. If I started to feel the bodily consequences of the lovely lunches, I didn’t mind a brief period of abstinence. After all, I was brought up by a strict Catholic family, and I was familiar with bingeing and purging. If you’re denying yourself, there’s usually a feast to look forward to.

I believed myself to be healthy-ish, and happy-ish.

In the autumn of 2018, I was gearing up for another purge. Summer slid into late September, and because I live by the seaside, I’d spent months entertaining visitors, going out for fish and chips, beer and ice cream. In Margate, it’s dangerously easy to start eating like a holiday maker from the Easter weekend and keep going until Halloween. I felt more anxious than usual, and it made sense to take a month off alcohol. Then, a friend told me she was feeling similar, and going to try a Whole 30 – 30 days without alcohol, added sugar, flour, grains or dairy. “You already drink your coffee black, so you’ll probably find it easier than me!”  she added.

It sounded brutal and miserable. I was used to avoiding bread or pasta, for a diet’s sake, but I wasn’t sure that I remembered how to cook anything that didn’t have melted cheese on top. Yet my friend swore it worked, and that when she followed the plan she was happier, calmer and more energetic. My husband, the world’s worst sleeper, was seduced by the promise that doing the diet could lead to a solid eight hours. And I could make anything work for 30 days. It was shorter than Lent. Something had to be done. I’d just been searching Mumsnet and Reddit for threads to see if anyone else thought that the M&S size 16s were getting smaller. That was a wake-up call.

I adore the early stages of a diet. I have so much energy, and so much hope.

The first few days were fine. It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, but I adore the early stages of a diet. I have so much energy, and so much hope. I always go in believing that this just might be the way of doing it that finally makes sense, the point where everything tessellates into place. Maybe the matcha is more expensive than cocaine because it’s even more effective as an appetite suppressant. Perhaps the science of ketosis is activated once our bodies become 90 per cent cheese. Yet the Whole 30 seemed boringly sensible. The comforting, slightly bossy language of the programme advocates eating plenty, and eating often. I shouldn’t have needed to be reminded of basic message – home cooking, three times a day. If you know your way around a tin of coconut milk, you can work it out. I ate a lot of roast chicken, and a lot of baked potatoes.

In fact, I think it was the baked potato that changed everything for me. Baked potatoes and mayonnaise.

Hellman’s, with its added sugar and mysterious chemicals, is verboten, but the essential mayonnaise ingredients, eggs and oil, are permitted. After a few attempts with Kenwood stick blender, I’d learned how to practise a kind of condiment alchemy. In my early 20s, when I fell in love with cooking, it was heart-first into a pan of bechamel sauce. It seemed utterly impossible that a collection of wet, disparate beige lumps could ever come together in velvety unity. I might be the nominal chef, but I was witnessing something miraculous, greater than the sum of my powers. If bechamel seems unlikely, mayonnaise is a Hail Mary pass of a sauce. You got me feeling emulsions. My sister used to teach mayonnaise making to her Physics students. It’s the sort of science that makes me believe in God.

The mayonnaise making became a ritual. Every time the result was a little bit thicker, creamier, better. I felt absurdly proud of myself, dolloping it into a dedicated Kilner jar, savouring the way it tasted with tuna, chewing slowly, thinking of how far I’d carried myself with a little confidence and raw egg. It cracked me open.

I’d been attempting to numb, drown or starve any emotion I had.

I was starting to realise that my reset wasn’t just about taking a month off booze before the Christmas parties started. It wasn’t simply a firebreak. It was forcing me to think about food, feelings and the way I felt in my body. It was making me realise that I’d purposefully stopped taking care of myself some time ago, and I’d been attempting to numb, drown or starve any emotion I had.

The problems had started 18 months ago, when I moved to Kent after 10 years in London. Around the same time, my beloved grandmother died, two of my younger sisters had their first children, and my first book, a memoir of sorts, had been published.

How do we handle change? Now, when the world keeps catching fire, it seems laughable to think that I could have been so overwhelmed by the kind of life events that we no longer get to take for granted. But then, I was crushed by the weight of should. I should have felt proud of the book, excited about my new home, delighted to become an auntie. Instead, I felt scared. The book wasn’t selling. I wasn’t just an auntie, I was not-a-mother, and not good enough. Margate didn’t feel like home yet, and I didn’t know how to fit in amongst the cool, creative crowd.

I couldn’t even grieve Granny properly. She was 90, a firecracker and a force of nature until her final year, when she became visibly bored, exhausted and defeated. I knew it was her time. But I’d lost the only person who could see me, and her abundance of toasts, jokes and extravagant compliments. My generation had been shunted up a rung and I didn’t expect to feel so unmoored and rudderless. I didn’t feel like a successful writer. I didn’t feel confident, cool or glossy enough to go out into my new town and make new friends. So I muddled through and faked it. Reflexively, when the pain and confusion threatened to overwhelm me, I ate and drank.

…when the pain and confusion threatened to overwhelm me, I ate and drank.

I remember speaking at an exciting panel event in London, signing my books for enthusiastic readers, going out for drinks afterwards with authors I’d admired for years and feeling completely hollow. I couldn’t concentrate on where I was, or who I was with. My priority was making sure that I left the bar in time to get to KFC on the way back to my hotel. ‘I’m drunk, I’ve not had dinner,’ was my logical defence. I didn’t realise that I was just consumed by the urge to eat my feelings. A deep vein of shame was bubbling and threatening to erupt. I did not belong. I was not who I claimed to be. I never felt happy and relaxed, just itchy and awkward. I did not want to hold the not-belonging up to the light, because that would make it true. So I drugged myself, legally and cheaply. I was up and down, bingeing through the bad times, but managing, with a cocktail of work and food and alcohol and shopping. My addictions were balancing each other out. I appeared to be coping.

I didn’t realise that I was just consumed by the urge to eat my feelings. I had no idea what I needed, or how to ask for it, and I felt myself sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

I had a vague idea that I’d just get to the end of the week, the end of the month, and then sit myself down and do something about it. But what, exactly, was ‘it’? I had no idea what I needed, or how to ask for it, and I felt myself sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Even though I had a generous, supportive group of friends, I was scared that I had too many feelings, and that there might be a statute of limitation on my sadness, my fear. Again, outwardly my drinking probably didn’t appear to be a cause for concern, but I drank to hide. I could not show up anywhere sober and vulnerable.

Of course, I’d abused booze in the past. I’d spent my twenties putting myself in dangerous situations, believing it was a necessary rite of passage, and that any amount of physical and emotional vulnerability was worth enduring for a good story. I was surrounded by friends who were doing similar things. Eventually I got lucky, I fell in love, I grew up a bit and grew out of it. This time, things were different. It seemed less dangerous, because I wasn’t going off with strange men, and I could always remember how I got home. I just wanted to drink through dinner and eat a giant pizza. Occasional drunken pizza eating is not a cause for concern. But when it’s happening two, three, four times a week, when the hangovers feel mental as much as physical, and when I felt obliged to starve myself all day in order to atone for the excesses of the night before – something was going to break.

I longed to shift that constant, low level bassline of general anxiety, quiet unhappiness.

You have to remember your relationship to food

Unexpectedly, it was the mayonnaise making that brought me back to my senses. It forced me to remember that I had to have some kind of relationship with food, it could not be avoided. It helped that it was not conventional diet food, but something indulgent, rich and dense. Something I would always be proud to make, and excited to eat. Something that was good for me because I was making it for myself. The opposite of greasy, pappy pizza. I started to wake up. I realised that I’d become so physically and emotionally numb that hunger was a feeling I attempted to suffocate, along with pain, shame and insecurity.

Perhaps controversially, the Whole 30 is recommended as a way to boost general wellbeing. Some research links inflammation with depression. If you eliminate all of the foods that could be inflaming you, there’s a chance that you’ll feel more cheerful. Also, if the regime delivers on its promise to help you to sleep better, while reducing aches and pains (inflammation again) it stands to reason that you’ll be in a better mood. I wanted to feel better. I longed to shift that constant, low level bassline of general anxiety, quiet unhappiness. So I got into the habit of checking in, generally and gently interrogating myself. How was I feeling, really? Well, better and worse.

Sugarless days became sweeter

After the first 10 sugarless days, when I believed that death was coming soon, I started to notice improvements. Mornings were definitely more energetic and cheerful. I slept through the night and mostly woke up with the sun, rather than the beat of my pounding heart. But when I felt sad, mad or scared, I had to stay that way. Technically there was nothing to stop me from reacting to bad news by eating a banana, or a baked potato. It just seemed stupid. The banana wouldn’t fix things. And that meant a biscuit couldn’t do it either. All I could do was resume the interrogation. Why was I sad? What did any of this mean, in the grand scheme of things, really? Was I upset about a fact, or just a fear?

About a year after I started to do this, I discovered ‘The Work’ of the spiritual practitioner Byron Katie, who teaches her followers to gently interrogate themselves. She invites us to “drop into stillness and observe what arises in the mind’s eye”. When I was at my most confused and unhappy (and heaviest) I would have dismissed that as horrible hippy bollocks. When I stopped feeling drugged, numb and miserable, it started to make a lot of sense.

Mentally, something was starting to shift. I’d made enough mental space to really consider the food I loved, and the way I wanted to feel when I ate it.

Mentally, something was starting to shift. I thought about what would happen when the 30 days of the diet were up. I didn’t want to go back. I was starting to recognise the difference between hunger and unhappiness. I’d made enough mental space to really consider the food I loved, and the way I wanted to feel when I ate it. What did I crave? Not a whole bottle of wine, and an extra large pizza, but a very cold glass of dry champagne, in a hot bubble bath. I didn’t actually like biscuits that much. I liked the idea of them. I was never satisfied by a single biscuit, I simply wanted to spend an hour with a packet and the telly on, not thinking about things. I dreamed about French patisserie, millefeuille and religieuses. I would give up crappy train station croissants forever, as long as I could have an occasional millefeuille.

We need to really practice self-care

The idea of self-care is overused and misunderstood. Too many misguided, well-meaning people had told me that it meant eating whatever you fancied it, whenever you fancied it, and to hell with the body fascists who would stop you from having the third brownie. I’d used food to silence myself. I was hungry for so many big things – validation, connection, ambition, hope. My hunger was bigger and more exciting than anything a biscuit could deliver.

My hunger was bigger and more exciting than anything a biscuit could deliver.

My journey was bumpy, and imperfect.

In that first, difficult month, I lost a little over a stone, and felt utterly delighted with myself. My head felt a little shame about this – after all, rejoicing about weight loss in the 21st century seems like a bad feminist practise. My heart, however, felt differently. Soon I found myself burrowing inside various suitcases under the bed and sashaying around my flat in backless occasion-wear. (The suitcases themselves were an unexpected symptom of my past unhappiness, as I had supplemented my abuse of food and drink with an addiction to online shopping.) At first, it was thrilling to feel slinky and slim in the dresses I had bulged out of. But the more weight I lost, the more confused I felt. How badly had I wanted to escape my life, in order to amass these pointless piles of sequins? I’d been investing heavily in armour for an imaginary, fabulous future self. Now that I was showing up and living in the present, it was time to kill her off. It was terrifying, exhilarating, heart-breaking.

If I was feeling excitement, joy or happiness, any choice I made in that moment was valid..

Drinking had been part of my old identity, if only in my head. I wanted to seem fun, impulsive, and hedonistic, and at first I believed that setting rules around booze meant letting go of that. I decided that I would only drink alcohol on Fridays and Saturdays and spent too much time being smug and dull with soda water until I realised that being a martyr is miserable for everyone. I didn’t need alcohol to have fun, but I did need to have fun.

A rule around food and drink I could live with

My main rule was this – I could always eat and drink to celebrate. If I was feeling excitement, joy or happiness, any choice I made in that moment was valid. But if I was feeling sad, anxious, stressed, fed up, or waiting for a delayed train with wet feet – I just had to suck it up. If I wasn’t going to bother buying new, dry tights from the St Pancras M&S, I could hardly justify going in for a mini bottle of red and some Dairy Milk.

What I ate, and what I weighed didn’t really matter, compared with what I felt, and how I let myself feel it.

Lockdown was tough. Sometimes I struggled to re-establish new rules and rituals, where the old ones no longer worked. I ran, I bent and stretched and leapt about with Adriene and Joe Wicks, but I desperately missed the gym, and the way it allowed me to control and monitor the way my body functioned. It became a little harder to regulate the way I indulged. There were no big lunches or birthday parties to look forward to, and the crisps and biscuits sometimes sneaked back into the cupboards. Even so, it brought something important home to me. What I ate, and what I weighed didn’t really matter, compared with what I felt, and how I let myself feel it. I’m profoundly grateful that I accidentally stumbled upon a way of eating that forced an emotional reckoning. Unwittingly, I spent 2019 training for lockdown, boosting my emotional metabolism. I practised how to exist without reaching for the substances that numb me. I learned how to be raw, how to be still, and how to wait for a storm to pass. Giving up weekday booze does not make you a good or worthy person. But learning to delay your gratification and working out the difference between what you really want, and what you think you want in one moment, makes you a stronger one.

I’m not trying to be thin, I’m trying to stay happy.

At the moment, I’m revisiting the Whole 30, checking in and tuning up. This time I’m trying to stay curious, wondering what has changed, what feels easier and what feels harder. The feelings are still rumbling and roaring away, but I’ve become so much better at observing them. I’ve stopped trying to hold back the tide. For what it’s worth, I’ve stayed thin – well, thinner. (In the 18 months before lockdown, I lost over four stone. I gained about seven pounds over lockdown, but my dress size stayed the same.) But I’m not trying to be thin, I’m trying to stay happy. For me, being happy means making sure that I also have room to be sad, angry and scared. It means eating anything I want at any time that I want it, while being very honest about the difference between wanting and worrying that I don’t have the strength to cope. Every day is a work in progress. I have a Lindor ball fetish. I have thrown tantrums over toast. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that I’d still pick being happy over being slim. But the glorious side effect of dealing with my binge eating, my problematic relationship with food and my struggle to be at peace with my emotions is that I have a body that I feel free in. I don’t have to choose any more.

– Daisy Buchanan

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