The worship of cleanliness

When I suspended my studies, besides a feeble relief, my overwhelming feeling was of shame. It filled me hollow, weighing me down, dragging me beneath the water. Breaking away from the designated timeline of education, leaving my friends behind, moving home: all I could taste was the acrid bitterness of failure. Shame for being ill, shame too, for trying to get better. In the eating disorder mindset to eat is to fail. It’s a perverse game in which you’re at once in competition with just yourself, and at yet simultaneously with the whole world.

When adverts, like psalms, preach weight loss and beauty as the one way to heaven, to fly in the face of this dogma — to eat — feels sacrilegious. I used to think that the sight of me eating would tarnish others’ perception of my control. That even my association with food may corrupt my purity. Eating in public was terrifying and shameful. Instead of calories, I imbibed the correlation between cleanliness and control, dining on the notion that to restrict, to starve, would absolve my fleshy shame.

It caught me unawares, the realisation that I am no longer ashamed of eating. That I no longer feel guilt for fuelling my body, for partaking in the process of nutrition that (nearly) all of us partake in daily. Yet the heady lightness of this rationality becomes all too easily weighed down at the sight of a billboard advertising yet another diet, another supplement masquerading as a saviour, another label buoyantly claiming to be ‘guilt-free!’. To a recovering anorexic, the prolific trend for ‘clean eating’, which equates virtue with intake, is like continuously lauding vodka for its purifying properties to a recovering alcoholic.

Only 1 in 3 recover from anorexia. 20% of sufferers die as a result of their illness. This is an issue that goes deeper than ‘fad diets’ or ‘bikini bodies’. As Ruby Tandoh wrote for Vice, “This isn’t just about nutrition, it’s about morality, and when food becomes imbued with this kind of scandalising language, the dinner table becomes a minefield.”

They say ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’. The thing is, I’m agnostic, and have stronger belief in fairies than I do in ‘moral purity’. Food is not ‘good’ — it is not a sentient being- stop ascribing morality to something which doesn’t exist on an ethical plane. The definition on the Wikipedia entry for ‘Cleanliness’ reads, ‘Cleanliness is both the abstract state of being clean and free from dirt, and the process of achieving and maintaining that state’. It’s an abstract state — unobtainable by physical actions. No amount of exercise or ‘clean eating’ will ever translate your fleshliness into the purified abstract of cleanliness. Just as the notion of perfection is mortally elusive, the shimmering Emerald City of clean-eating is a fabrication, hidden behind a curtain of ‘wellness’. This is not health. It is a phantom controlled by a little man, calling himself a wizard.

You are not what you eat. You are fleshy and breathing, thinking and loving- you were not born in a foil package or picked from the earth by your roots. You are you. And while eating is the route to recovery, food is not the answer. It can’t cure autism, Alzheimer’s or anorexia. Food cannot purify your soul, cure heartbreak, or cleanse past mistakes. In the poem ‘Cleanness’ by the medieval Pearl poet, the narrator asserts that uncleanness angers god, while cleanness comforts him. But it’s not the 14th century anymore, and I refuse to whittle myself to the bone because of the preference of any man- mortal or divine.

We are told that to gain weight is an external sign of failure, that your bigger body will be studied and scorned. That people will question just what you were eating to swell (or shrink) to such a size. But we must eat to stay alive — it is not a sin to survive. I have gained a third of my body weight. And while I may not especially like my body, I’m no longer ashamed for existing in one.