Doing anything, from working, sleeping, reading, showering, exercising and eating, in the midst of a global pandemic, is a massive feat. It’s hard to concentrate on much else when the uncertainty of information, the confusion around restrictions, fear of long-term unemployment and panic buying is all we ever see day-in-and-day-out on every source available to us from the news to Instagram.
On Sunday, 22 March I made the decision stay home due to the rapidly growing cases of COVID-19 in Australia and in my home state of NSW. I haven’t left my house for over a week and so far, it’s been okay. I’ve sat in my bedroom to work, joined in on a live Zoom yoga class and finally got to the dust bunnies I’ve been ignoring under my bed for the past year. I am the general manager of a literacy movement and a freelance writer, which means I have the privilege of being able to transition to working-from-home full-time with ease. However, I’ve found the static nature of my new environment has me reliving the dreads of my old eating habits.
I am recovering from an eating disorder called orthorexia.
I am recovering from an eating disorder called orthorexia. Orthorexia is the term for a condition that includes an obsessive pursuit of a “healthy diet”. I was eighteen when “healthy eating” was a massive Instagram trend and everyone was quoting I Quit Sugar by Sarah Wilson and sharing YouTube videos of a woman who swore that her slim and fit body was acquired by eating fifty one bananas a day. I was the perfect candidate to be influenced by these self-proclaimed “health gurus”. As a mixed-race Tongan, I grew up haunted and traumatised by the stereotype that all Pacific Islanders were fat and therefore physically and sexually undesirable.
So, when I met *Ruth, who was the older sister of the boy I was dating at the time, I knew I wanted to look like her. Ruth was a white paper pale model with blonde hair. The first time we met was at her family’s kitchen while she was baking vegan refined-sugar-free flour-free biscuits. When I asked her if she liked biscuits, she shook her head. ‘I just love the smell, that’s enough for me!’ Her skin was taut at the cheeks and it made her blue eyes bulge out of her head. I remember when Ruth hugged me. With her tiny frame pressed into mine, I could feel every bit of her protruding ribcage.
When I asked her if she liked biscuits, she shook her head. ‘I just love the smell, that’s enough for me!’
In the years between 2012 and 2017, I committed myself to looking like Ruth. I became a vegetarian so that I had an excuse to buy my own food. I cut out fast food, refined sugar and eventually anything that came out of a packet. I started refusing to eat out with friends unless they allowed me to buy fruit and vegetables, which I washed thoroughly in a public restroom sink, instead of lining up with them at Macca’s. At the height of my orthorexia, I told myself I could only eat two pieces of vegetables and one piece of fruit a day. I was always hungry but it didn’t matter because my diet was only fruits and vegetables. How much “healthier” could I get? I relished every moment someone noticed how much weight I’d lost and told me, “You don’t look like a Fob.”
It took me a long time to realise my eating disorder was self-hatred. In 2014, reporting by the World Health Organisation outlined that out of the top ten most obese countries or territories globally, nine are Pacific islands. Statistics and comments like these being shared around on social media at the time made me ashamed to be Tongan. Back then, I could only see Tonga as a small and insignificant island full of the world’s fattest people.
It took me a long time to realise my eating disorder was self-hatred.
My recovery from orthorexia began at Awafi Charcoal Chicken & Carwash in Revesby – its existence based on Western Sydney’s apparent need for chicken, garlic sauce and a freshly washed WRX. I went with a friend named *Leyla, who attended a fortnightly writers’ workshop with me in Bankstown. Awafi Charcoal Chicken was packed and the line was long, so I had plenty of time to stare at Leyla’s TNs and go down a list of possible excuses as to why I couldn’t eat there. But before I could say anything, I heard a girl whine, ‘What do you mean you don’t have fat-free garlic sauce?’ until she was fighting with the cashier about how the restaurant had a responsibility to provide a “healthy” option. All the bones underneath her skin sharp as paper cuts. The cashier’s face turned red, matching the colour of her own hijab. I watched as Leyla eventually tapped the whining girl on the shoulder and said directly, ‘You have the choice to eat here. If you don’t like it, go back to Newtown.’ Leyla’s intervention radically transformed my thinking. I had just witnessed a young working-class woman of colour stand up to the growing culture of food-shaming that is rampant in left wing and middle-class circles throughout Australia. For the first time in five years, I sat with a hundred other people who looked, sounded and dressed exactly like me, and ate with dignity.
While I spend my hours restricted to the house with the rest of my family, which includes my parents, five sisters, two brothers, brother in-law and two nieces, I am terrified of entering the kitchen. A place where I’m faced with an endless stockpile of white bread and baked beans, things I could avoid without even thinking before panic buying became a thing. In order to overcome this fear, I have found a digital way to return to the car wash for lunch. I schedule a FaceTime with Leyla. We discuss the books we’re reading, for me it’s Banana Heart Summer by Merlinda Bobis, and the stories we’re writing, which for every writer in Australia right now seems to be something about living in the time of Corona. I eat banana and peanut butter on toast with arrowroot biscuits. Leyla eats homemade hot chips drenched in tomato sauce wrapped in Lebanese bread.
*Names have been changed
If you need immediate assistance or support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au. For further information about eating disorders contact the Butterfly Foundation Support Line on 1800 33 4673 or www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au or talk to a medical professional or someone you trust.
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Editorial support for this piece has been provided by Michael Mohammed Ahmad.