One big side effect of disordered eating that not enough people bang on about
It's a funny thing, isn't it? That we've all probably started a diet thinking that by cutting our carbs or fasting two days a week or only eating sugar on a Sunday that we'll lose some weight and unlock our next-level-selves. Our cool, calm, confidence, thin, healthy, sexy selves. But when I lost the weight I wanted to, and then some more, and then a bit more, I was none of the above. I was always anxious, I was stressed, mentally and physically, I was haunted by disordered thoughts. I was thin, yes, but it was a very, very unsexy experience.
And that's one side effect of under-eating and over-exercising that doesn't get shouted about nearly enough. How unsexy it is. Really. Because when I was at the worst point of my disordered eating, the last thing I wanted to do was bang.
I've been in a committed, loving, fulfilling relationship with the kindest, most generous and beautiful man for the last nine years but when dieting took over my life, sex was the furthest thing from my mind. I mean, please! Whilst I was on my weight loss quest, I had bigger fish to fry! (Or bake in the oven without the seasonings or oil I deemed 'unnecessary', obvs). I had food diaries to keep and hours to spend in the gym and days to spend beating myself up for eating ice cream! It's not like I had the time, nor mental energy, to consider actually engaging in sexual activity with the person I love most in this world. Dinner dates were for agonising over the menu and trying to work out how I could burn off the 'cheat meal'. Precious time spent together (which was few and far between, seeing as we were in a long distance relationship until last year) wasn't for catching up or enjoying his company, it was for asking him, over and over and over again, if he thought I looked thinner.
And as well as not having the brain space to dedicate to thinking about sex, physiologically my body also wasn't driving me to do it. And it's not surprising: given how low my body fat percentage became, how under-fuelled I was by how little I was eating, and how stressed my system will have been from my intensive exercise regime, it's likely that my body was preserving vital reserves in not pushing me to engage in any further, potentially energy-intensive, activity. It was already shouting the message loud n clear that I couldn't carry a baby by cutting off my period for two years, so why would it send me the signals to have sex?
So when I lost the weight, my body and brain were not down with sex, baby. And even if they were, it's not like my self-confidence had improved either. The notion of there being a direct correlation between self-esteem and losing weight, that once you drop those pesky extra pounds you'll feel so much body confidence that you find any excuse to go to your admin job wearing a bikini, is so prevalent that obviously, I believed it. But it didn't happen. It doesn't happen. I'd say I was probably less confident in my body when I whittled it down to a tiny body fat percentage than I was when I started dieting, and I certainly like my body a lot more now I'm much heavier. And that's because any sense of confidence I felt came from external validation: from compliments, from seeing the number on the scale go down and down and down, from fitting into a smaller dress size. My confidence was tethered to those external factors, so when and if they changed, so did the few shreds of confidence I had. I had no real sense of self-worth. My self-esteem hinged on whether or not I avoided carbs that day. I stared at myself in the mirror and in photographs cursing the tiny bits of extra fat on my hips or the chubbiness of my cheeks. Outside I was trying to portray happy, cool and confident. Inside I was a mess. A disordered, anxious, 'couldn't eat pizza without crying' mess.
Anecdotally I've heard and read about so many other women experiencing the same thing (my pal Alice brought it up at the panel we spoke on a few weeks ago) and I don't think it's a coincidence that once I regained the weight (and then some), started eating what I wanted and exercising in a more rational way, that my body became less stressed, that it had more energy to spare than to just keep my vitals going, and that soon enough (without going into too much detail...) my libido found its way back.
I think it's so important to keep chatting about this kind of thing and showcase the damage that disordered eating and extreme dieting can do. Because it will: give it an inch and it'll take effect on your life not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, financially (how many times did I shell out £20 of my meagre student budget for tea that makes you poo yourself?!), socially and maybe even romantically. Maybe it's because it's under-researched, maybe it's because sex is still taboo, maybe it's because it's a women's issue and dieting and thus female obedience fits pretty nicely into a patriarchal society (lol hello political Caitlin) but not enough people bang on about the link between low sex drive and dieting, so I think it's about time we did.