‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’
Very easy to say, much more difficult to agree with when those words rattle around your brain, a constant reminder of your unacceptability, of your ‘otherness’. I don’t have a doctor’s prescription to say that the bullying I experienced at school – about my glasses, my brains and my weight – was what drove me into anorexia, but nothing else stands out so prominently in my past as undermining my sense of self-worth to the extent that losing weight seemed the only way out.
I don’t remember feeling bad about myself until it was pointed out to me that I was slower, softer, fatter than everyone else; I don’t recall the moment when I became the butt of all the jokes, from friends as well as those who changed their targets from week to week depending on how bored they were. The bullying was rarely physical and not always incessant, but every time I tried to react, either by fighting back or trying to appeal to their sense of humour, the abuse simply got worse. My reaction was two-fold, both retreating into myself and, much to my shame, picking on the few boys below me in the school food-chain in the hope that the bullies’ radar would turn on them instead. I didn’t consider whether they were as sad as I was, I couldn’t recognise the hypocrisy in what I was doing, but I was so desperate for the ‘Cool Kids’ to like me that I laughed along when they picked on other people. Maybe the bullies didn’t consider how I was feeling either.
After three years at school the situation hadn’t improved and it seemed clear to me that, as they weren’t going to change their opinion of me, I had to change myself, to make myself less of a target. I started wearing slightly less geeky glasses, but seeing as I didn’t think being less good academically was a useful solution, losing weight seemed to be the only route to the acceptability I craved. Not only would it stop everyone picking on me for being fat, but it would mean I’d be quicker, stronger, fitter and, much, much better at football, the only really important thing in our school at that time. I commenced a regime of exercising and restricting which had a noticeable effect – so much so that some of my friends began to joke about my anorexic appearance. Crucially though, and in parallel with my decreasing weight, the bullying started to ebb away, and I became convinced of an umbilical link between the two events. The bullying had stopped because I’d lost weight; therefore to keep the snide comments and the sense of unacceptability at bay, I had to stay thin, above and beyond anything else.
I’m under no illusions that anorexia has been by far the biggest and most dangerous bully that I have ever encountered. Even in the worst throes of my anorexic existence, however, I don’t ever recall being as sad or feeling as unacceptable as I did when I was in school. Anorexia gave me back a sense of pride in myself that had all but evaporated away amid the name-calling and the punches and it is only by regaining that sense of self-worth through recognising my other qualities that I have been able to emerge from its shadow. I never felt able to stand up to the bullies when I was at school. I believe that by continuing to battle my eating disorder, I am fighting back against them as well.