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Content warning: This article discusses depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
It is mid-January as I write this. Unless January is your birthday month, I’m guessing you’re not thrilled about it either. I cannot speak for you personally, but I have an idea as to why the first month of every year makes me feel miserable, and why the celebratory fireworks on New Year’s Eve, although pretty, feel ironic.
Believe it or not, the reason I dislike January is not that Christmas is over. Nor do I begrudge the fact that outside it is cold and grey and what little sun there is disappears before I’m ready to wind down for sleep.
The reason I dislike January is it can seem like thirty-one days of failure. For the entire month, every now and then I will hear the word “resolutions”. So many of the videos in my YouTube subscription box will claim to possess “Five Tips to Make This Year Fabulous!”
There is so much pressure, every January, for me to become a better human being at the same pace as the rest of the world. I am flawed. Most people are. For that reason, we should not try to change so that we match the others around us. We should only change to make personal, manageable improvements, which – and this is the crucial point – are tailored to our own personalities.
In theory, I know what I need to do to become happier and healthier. Two of the things – shock horror! – are eat better and exercise more. This year, I will exercise and keep track of what I eat. But I will be making these changes in unconventional ways, not following the advice of the media. I also won’t be devastated if the changes do not go to plan, because I know that my relationship with food and exercise does not define me.
Some of my most embarrassing memories originate from high school Physical Education classes. I remember participating in a game similar to rounders, once, where I had to run to a base as quickly as possible, even though I wasn’t the person with the bat. Ring a bell, anyone?
Anyway, I dutifully started sprinting, nearly reached the base in question, then tripped over my feet and crashed into the muddy grass. No biggie. The fall had taken place in-front of my entire year group, but I picked myself up and recommenced running towards the base.
To my dismay, I again tripped over my feet and hurtled to the ground. My peers probably got a laugh out of this, but I wouldn’t know as I’ve done my best to repress the finer details.
Yes, I was the archetypal well-behaved but clumsy high schooler, and P. E. was my private hell on earth. After being targeted by dodgeballs, or shoved around in bench-ball, I usually left the P. E. hall with considerably less self-esteem than I’d had originally.
Circuit training wasn’t too bad. I liked that there was no chance of getting whacked with a ball and that everyone did their own thing in one-minute intervals. I guess circuit training was least likely to trigger my social anxiety. As it was not a team-based experience, I knew that nobody cared how I performed: nobody was relying on me to run to the correct goal, or stay on my feet.
But we did not do circuit training very often, and even when we did there was still an aspect of performance to the thing. I was not very body-confident in the early years of high school. Did my bra fit properly? Would someone see I hadn’t shaved my legs? Would I smell afterwards? These anxieties and more taught me to hate P. E.
Later in high school, when I was also battling depression, my learned fear of P.E. resulted in panic attacks I did not have the will-power or energy to control. Eventually, I was permitted to sit in the library instead of participating in these lessons.
Nowadays, I am not pressured to take part in team sports where balls fly everywhere, and because of my high school experience, I know that I would prefer to exercise on my own, safe in the knowledge that nobody is watching.
Therefore, when I plan how I want to exercise this year, I won’t consider signing up for a gym membership, as is the norm. Instead, I will learn what exercises I can do indoors at home, and time my outdoor exercise sessions so that social anxiety won’t hold me back. Nobody is awake and outside at five o’clock in the morning, right?
I have always had an up-and-down relationship with food. I was brought up as a vegetarian, which I’m grateful for because I care very much about animals (excluding the creepy-crawly sort), but at any point if I’d had to make the transition from meat-eater to plant-eater, of my own volition, I’m not sure I would have managed it. I do not have much will-power when it comes to food.
Growing up, I would dawdle over my meals, particularly the last meal of the day. I would doodle on scraps of paper and pictures in the newspaper, rather than pick up my cutlery. Regular meals did not excite me, and somehow it could take me over three hours to eat a bowl of rice and some vegetables.
On the other hand, I did eat enough. This changed in high school, when the idea of eating with my friends in the school hall tied my stomach into knots. There weren’t any measures in place, that I was aware of, which would allow me to eat by myself without a student or teacher in sight.
I knew that nobody, realistically, would make fun of the way I ate my sandwiches, but the hypothetical chance that they would still bothered me. Not only that, but eating in the school hall would have meant socialising with my peers, and, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, I was not adept at that.
Anyway, I started throwing my sandwiches in the bin. I wasn’t very crafty, it must be said, as I hid them in my bedroom bin rather than in a random dustbin on the way to school. Sure enough, my mum found out what I was doing.
The fact that I had been missing breakfast most days, as well as any kind of lunch, and only making up for it with an evening meal, meant that I was exhausted a lot of the time and could get fairly irritable. This hadn’t gone unnoticed.
My parents soon acted to make sure I was eating enough at home, and for a short time encouraged me to drink a disgusting pink concoction which would boost my calorie intake. But they didn’t force me to eat my lunch at school. I appreciated that. I know it is important to eventually face one’s fears, but my anxiety got so bad, in later years, that to not have to also worry about eating in public was a blessing.
Nowadays, I am more able to eat in public. But, until recently, it was eating in the privacy of my room at university which brought its own set of issues. Many times, in the last couple of years, I have happily made my way through a ridiculous amount of junk food in one sitting, and then forced myself to be sick to get rid of the subsequent stomach cramps. I didn’t learn from the pain, either. Instead I repeatedly told myself that junk food would help eradicate my stress and anxiety.
So, I now know that my will-power when it comes to food is limited. I doubt I will ever be someone who enjoys cooking meals, whatever the benefits, because my brain instead demands short-term satisfaction. My new routine, this year, takes that into account. I only expect myself to make three small, relatively healthy “meals” a day, each of which hardly classifies as “cooking” and is probably a slap to the face of every Foodie out there. But I know I won’t stick to a meal plan if it feels laborious.
The point I’m trying to illustrate, is: if you are feeling down because you haven’t managed any life-changing transformations this month, you just need to chill. Hopefully, I have given you an idea as to how a person’s history with food and exercise can be complicated. Your own history will be complicated, too, for many different reasons.
By all means, if you want to try and make some changes to your daily routine, or general outlook on life, then go for it! Just make sure that those changes are achievable and considerate of any small battles you have previously fought.
I’m not saying you should never face your fears, but it is wise to first tackle something achievable, before warring with your bigger demons.