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  • Writer's pictureSarah Foley

TSS - 023 ~ disordered eating, travelling + pleasure

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

content warning: intricate discussion of eating disorders, mention of sexual trauma

The glossy amber coffee mug next to me feels warm against my skin as I write this. I've been avoiding writing, really writing, for a couple of months now. I thought confidently that three months in Europe would reignite my writing, using language to express the constant whirlwind inside my brain. Instead, I propelled myself into life, paradoxically retreating into distraction, fullness, and submission – an experience that can only be described as a renewal. I feel deeply renewed, renewed.

This year has been cracked open with grief and joy, the first months cyclonic and heartbreaking, the next playful and introspective in a way that feels abundant with growth. Hopelessness fading into curiosity and experience.

I am writing this on my second last day in Europe, perhaps still too close to the subject matter to offer you a complete perspective, but I want to share this experience while the words are still clinging to my body. This experience of writing accompanied by the embodiment of discomfort completely relevant to all that I need to write about. I will come back to these thoughts in a few months, but I feel it necessary to write now, while all these discoveries and pains are still coursing through my bloodstream.

While I've previously woven in my history of eating disorders through my posts, this one is a concrete discussion of those disordered thoughts, recovery, and embodiment. It's up to you if you'd like to read on – if you're in the midst of feeling sensitively around those topics, be warned that I am not going to hold back. I will never discuss measurements, exact methods, or actual weights, I do intricately discuss food. Keep yourself safe however you might need to. I'll pop some resources at the bottom of this page, and you can also reach out to me if you want to talk more about the things I am speaking about.

The most important place to start is that I have considered myself 'recovered' from various eating disorders for the last few years. Bulimia always had the tightest grip on me, but I am acquainted with most ways to control and restrict food. My interest in disordered eating – like my interest in sex – stems from multiple sources, from the rigorous intellectualism of academia to my teenage years spent trawling through internet forums and blogs. I have always read voraciously about these two topics, both when I was actively engaging in harmful behaviours and after. I spent my honours year of my undergraduate degree writing a thesis about eating disorders, so confident that I could separate my lived experience from my studies. I weave my passion into my life and my work, and have done so confident that I am on the other side of the seductive pull of what was so intoxicating.

However, in the last few years, I have slowly crafted a way of eating that, without me quite realising, is actually extremely restrictive. I no longer binge, purge and withhold food in obvious ways, but what I actually allow myself to eat is massively limited, albeit societally justifiable. I am health conscious, that's all. Conscious of my environmental footprint, my consumption, my budget. My growing excuses to obsess over food despite being 'recovered' only got worse when I came off the contraceptive pill in 2019 and starting experiencing the symptoms of endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome. I was desperate for a cure and found myself down a web of blogs and Instagram accounts that celebrated food as medicine. It is important to note that all of the beautiful things I learnt about food, hormones and health are still true. I was, however, unable to incorporate these new ideas into my life in a balanced way because I do not have a balanced relationship with food and eating. In an effort to improve my health – specifically my hormonal health – I slowly removed more and more from my diet, justifying that all of this restriction was making my body happier and healthier. But in turn, I had developed a new avenue for my obsession with food to manifest in my daily life. I didn't feel like I was restricting because I still ate a lot, but if it didn’t fit into my warped idea of 'healthy', I panicked. All the foods I used to love eating, I found ways to remove, or 'make healthy'. White sugar became organic honey and monk fruit. White flour became spelt and buckwheat. Wellness buzzwords like 'organic' and 'healing' offered me a sense of internal calm that should have been a warning flag. I paid significant attention to nutritional content and wouldn't touch anything with a certain amount of sugar, and if there wasn't enough protein, felt it was a waste of my time. None of what I was doing is uncommon, especially in health-obsessed Melbourne, with all its green juices and sprouted breads. But I couldn't maintain an interest in health without a punishing obsession creeping in. Over time, my weight began to drop, which, in the midst of my breakup, became a familiar little spark of subversive delight. I was increasingly scared, as I had felt in the past, that I would only ever be attractive to men if my body stayed small, manageable, disciplined. In amongst all these emotions, I was comfortably able to believe I was not engaging in disordered eating behaviours - I wasn't obsessing about my weight, I was obsessing over food quality, nutritional value, impact on my hormones, energy, glucose levels etc.  This was healthy, this was getting better.

My obsession with food cannot be spoken about without its inextricable relationship with exercise. I've always loved exercise, and I know that it is very true that exercise positively impacts my mental health. Believe me, I've read all the studies, I've heard all the podcasts, I've seen all the sweatshirts. However, if I missed a day of exercise, I became overwhelmingly anxious. When I injured my hip in the summer of 2021, I was suddenly unable to run. This spurred a total identity crisis. Exercise needed to be grueling, challenging, or else what was the point? It wasn’t about movement, or feeling pleasure in all that my body could do – it was about soothing my intrusive anxieties with calories burned, kilometres logged, macros and targets and reps. If I didn’t push myself, my body wouldn't stay small – and thus, my world would implode. The worst part was that all of these thoughts were completely subconscious. I didn’t even register they were there.

I should say here that so many of my thought processes around my own weight and body are imbued with shameful fatphobic panic. No matter how hard I work to untangle misogynistic fatphobia from my internal thought process, I cannot see myself the same way I see the people around me; the people who I see as more than their bodies, but whose bodies are also literal perfection in their joyful existence. My fatphobia extends only to me, but that alone adds to the self-hatred I possess, the constant disparity between my values and passions, and what I allow myself to feel. This cognitive dissonance allows imposter syndrome to dominate my sense of self. I cannot call myself a feminist, an ally, if I let myself believe fatphobic things enough to impact my behaviour to the point of panicking about existing in a fat body. The reality is that I exist in a white, cisgendered female body that has not been targeted or stigmatised because of weight, and that privilege alone adds to a disordered guilt around the idea that I have no right to my disordered thoughts.

The point of all this is to say, I had been masking my increasingly rigid fears around exercise and control and food for years. Things were bound to explode when I could no longer adhere to the disciplined routine of food and exercise that made up my life in Melbourne. Disaster was inevitable.

Where the start of the trip felt freeing and blissfully un-impacted by the total destruction of my routines, by the third week of eating whatever I wanted, my body ached and felt constantly bloated. I could feel weight gain in every inch of my body. Increasingly after every meal I envisioned a disgusting expansion of my stomach, hips, thighs, and was overcome with panic and guilt. Where was my self-control, where was my restraint? I berated myself for continuing to want to eat, eat, eat, but was also driven by an almost animalistic desire to eat, eat, eat. It felt like a door has been opened to all the foods that I would never have allowed myself to eat in Melbourne, and once I started, I couldn't stop. Last year when I was in Europe, it was only for four weeks, so I knew that I could let myself enjoy all that there was without it feeling like an actual change in routine. This time, I knew I had three months in Europe: the home of all my favourite foods, and the birthplace of my eating disorder eleven years ago.

Travelling has often been a time where I have propelled myself towards bingeing behaviour. Travelling represents hedonism in a way that I only dip my toe into at home. Europe is especially fraught, both with pleasure and with guilt, containing so many of my favourite and indulgent things. When I leave Australia, something switches in my body, and that stringent control falls away in favour of an innate need to surrender to my body and all it desires. Travel can't be controlled, it just can't, and I find an immense sense of freedom in that. But there's also a sense of anxiety and guilt that the freedom I am finding will have horrific and real consequences. I am not able to have any balance, I think constantly about food, and also constantly about the impact of said food. The first time this happened was when I was on exchange for six months in regional southern Italy in 2012. I was fifteen years old and terrified out of my brain at what I had signed up for. I ate to soothe myself, to find comfort in the terrifying newness. I ate double servings of all my meals, and hoarded more food in my room to gorge on in the evenings. I thought about food constantly and was never satisfied, I always needed more. I filled my body with all that I could find, my solitude petrifying, food soothing. I completely stopped exercising, and ate as much as I could possibly get my hands on. I have so much love for that version of me now, she was struggling so much, doing her absolute best to survive. My well-intentioned host family decided that we should all go on a diet so I didn’t feel alone in their suggestion to cut back. One day my host father told me that he didn't think anyone would recognise me when I returned to Australia, the weight gain so massive. Every day that I was in Italy, I counted down the days, hours, minutes, seconds until I was home. I was barely getting through each day, and the only way I was getting through was by eating. I was not unaware of the weight gain, but was choosing to ignore it because eating felt like the only way to survive. The root of the eating disorder itself is far more complicated than I'm sharing here, combinations of chronically low self-esteem, massive amounts of sensitivity and emotionality, perfectionism, childhood sexual abuse and honestly, misogyny. All of these merged together to form one potent survival technique.

Of course, when I returned to Australia after Italy, a different kind of panic ensued. I felt huge, already awkward and all of a sudden paralysingly conscious of my body. In reality, the dysmorphic lens I had of my body was totally inaccurate. I couldn't stop bingeing, addicted deeply to the practice, the secrecy, the comfort, and the shame that recreated my already heinous opinions of my worth. But I needed a way to maintain my cosy habit while somehow losing the weight I had gained, and, preferably, shrinking altogether. Bulimia felt logical, effortless. I felt holy and pure. I was victorious, riding the high of my secret life. I could have it all. Until I wasn't losing enough weight and stopping eating altogether was the only logical step. My eating disorder story is messy and long and not really the scope of this post – but sum of it is that ten years later, I was confident calling myself fully recovered.

The last three months have brought to light all the ways I am definitely not recovered.

For the last three months in Europe, I've eaten in a way that was dominated by practicality, money, and desire. I've been trying to spend as little money as possible, constantly moving around, and without access to my 'safe' foods. So instead of making bougee vegetable packed salads for lunch, I have eaten more ham and cheese sandwiches than I thought possible. Sarah six months ago would never. I've eaten all the incredible sweet food I could get my hands on: cakes, pastries, cinnamon buns, Portuguese tarts, ice creams, cookies, all of it, every day. I've cooked the same lentil, tomato pasta for weeks on end. Sarah of six months ago would never eat white pasta, let alone a bottled pasta sauce (gasp). I wouldn't cook a meal with less than four vegetables because there was no point, I wouldn't eat a meal without enough protein in it, and I wouldn't snack unless I was genuinely desperate, and it'd be as healthy as possible. And so, in totally changing the way I've eaten, purely out of practicality, I was forced to realise that I won't die if I don't have hemp, maca, chia, flax, protein, collagen, nut butters, raw organic kefir, and organic blueberry smoothies every day. I haven't died. Tiny as that seems, it has rocked my whole fucking world. While my body has changed, I haven't died. I have gained weight, and I haven't died. My body is not crumbling, I haven't broken out in a hormonal disaster, my life has not ended.

As I began to let myself eat whatever I so desired, I increasingly felt possessed by a ravenous, uncontrollable drive for food that can only be described as feeling like every meal might be my last. If I didn't eat it all now, I would never let myself do it again. Melbourne Sarah would never. So, I ate as much as I could get my hands on, and didn't feel like I could stop. Every new place I travelled to, I'd reflect on my changing body, the stress of it all, but that voice was never stronger than the fervent, urgent one telling me to eat, eat, eat. I was reacquainted with foods that served no purpose but deliciousness, for the way the first bite feels in my mouth, for the hedonism of eating all that is joyful without any consideration for weight and nutritional value. I felt alive, fearful, freefalling into a zone of no control far from the realm of food I felt safe in. I was worried about gaining weight, yes, but not enough to silence this reawakened love for food. I had rebirthed a stranger. I am familiar with the Sarah who controls things. I know a version of me that considers every meal of the day in intricate detail, who needs a certain amount of sleep, a certain amount of exercise. She won't drink more than a certain amount of alcohol, she won't spend more than a certain amount of money. I have been consumed by this need for control. I have, over the years, transitioned my eating disorder into other covert ways of silencing and controlling my access to pleasure. It is not a new theory that people with eating disorders struggle with controlling other things (sex, money etc) and I knew I was not immune to this, but not to the extent that this trip has shown me. As someone recovering from restrictive eating knows, when you begin eating again, something so deeply primal erupts that tells you must eat now like your life depends on it. It's deeply uncomfortable, but makes total sense. When you haven't had enough of something, you've got to overeat to prepare for the inevitability that you'll at some point restrict again. And so, I've been priming myself to return to bingeing for years. My body leapt at the chance to eat all the things I don't ordinarily allow myself, in a way that felt beyond me to possibly manage. I could only surrender to the need for food freedom. I had to eat, eat, eat.

In none of my anxious worrying about how gaining weight would lead to rejection, hatred, judgement, abandonment, did I consider that I could love a body that grows. After a particularly challenging body week in Albania, I realised that I was edging towards a point of no return, a point where love for myself was unheard of. I wanted to purge more than I had in years and years, purging seeming to be the only way to manage the lustful drive towards food that I felt was consuming me. I stared at the toilet door with a complete knowing that I was about to go one way or the other. My body felt so disgusting, so disconnected from the one I knew. It felt impossible to manage the sensory overload of embodiment. I couldn't stop eating, and so I knew I had to purge. But I didn't. And I am both so proud of myself for holding on and sitting in the discomfort, and know that I would have been proud of me if I had purged, because I love all the versions of me no matter how erroneous I might see her decisions. I know that if I had purged at points in this trip, I would have gotten through and been able to return to a life where I don't do that. I'm glad that I didn't, but I was close enough to surrendering to that that I cannot separate myself from the desires that put me there. I am choosing to consider the possibility that I could love a body that grows and changes.

Writing this now, both still deeply feeling into my weight gain fears and a renewed sense that I have more work to do to love all that I am, I am extraordinarily aware of the power I have gained in facing reality. I can see now that the way I was eating and living was dominated by a fear of letting myself truly and fearlessly give in to pleasure. The eating disorder has been quietly guiding me this whole time. But who isn't in some ways nervous of abandoning themselves to desire? Women are taught from childhood that we must always hold back for fear of taking up any space, and that invariably impacts how we view our capacity for pleasure. I have forever been holding myself back from pleasure in a way that makes me sad for past versions of me, for the women around me who I see doing the same thing. For where I teach myself to hold back from pleasurable food, I teach myself generally that pleasure is to be measured, contained, restricted, for fear of experiencing unrestricted embodiment and all that that might offer me. Where I've seen fearless embodiment as terrifying (I could gain weight), I've missed a whole different way of seeing embodiment: joyful, freeing, grounding, strengthening, fun! I am prone to addiction: food, sex, and love, the places I most allow myself to obsess. But perhaps if I let myself have these things all the time, I might just be able to enjoy them without a complete all or nothing mentality. The work is yet to come, it's been happening for years, sped up in these last few months, creating space for the months that will follow my return to Melbourne. Perhaps I could just love this body and all that it offers me, perhaps I could love it if it changed, fluctuated, looked a little different, perhaps I could let it have all that it wants and just see how that might feel. I'm not discarding my health, I am offering myself a new version of health that doesn't involve punishment. The way women experience pleasure and embodiment is so deeply impacted by the structures of a society that values us for our smallness, silence, submissiveness. It is then both a pursuit of all the joys that I want for myself, and a pursuit of deconstruction and bodily autonomy that lie ahead for me. I am terrified of what might happen if I release some of the tight grip I have on food, exercise, and money, but I know that the last three months of my life have been some of the most wonderful, invigorating, refreshing, and pleasurable I've ever known. And so, I feel that I might actually have a tremendous amount to gain from falling into my fears: power to leap into the unknown, to treasure my body, to cherish my heart and its capacity for boundless love. I am recognising a fierce resistance to submission that I never knew I was capable of, and I adore it.

Of course, I will be writing far more about how I go in my journey of letting go, but for now, pleasure awaits.

RESOURCES within Australia:

Butterfly Foundation 8am-midnight call- 1800EDHOPE

Eating Disorders Victoria- website has excellent resources-

Lifeline 24/7 call for mental health support- 116 123

QLIFE LGBTQIA+ 3pm-midnight call for mental health support- 1800 184 527

Ps. I've covered this page in photos of some of the amazing food I ate while overseas <3 <3

Pps. This piece was lovingly edited by my queen, Louise Cain!! No one knows grammar like her, I'm forever indebted to her amazing use of the English language xx



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