Eating Disorders and Academia: A Fight for Control by Emily Ennis

TW: This blog discusses eating disorders

Academia has a way of making you feel like it is the only important thing in the world. It makes you expect to treat yourself and others badly because it’s ‘just part of the journey’ from student to tenured professor. Yes, an enriching home life, strong family bonds and living near your place of work are all vital components to mental wellness and personal fulfilment, but are they more important than student essays? Than your first book? Than doing whatever you can to keep your foothold in a notoriously cruel and unfair environment? At some point I answered those questions for myself. Academia had to come first – I was taught that excellence should be the outcome at all costs. 

This became my main and only way of thinking. When I was trying to imagine a way out of my situation, I believed the best route to cope was further self-hatred, using my destroyed sense of self-worth – slowly eroded by higher education – as a way of fuelling my drive for excellence, as well as hoping for a better, calmer, life to emerge. If I felt bad about what I had achieved, then I told myself to achieve more. If I didn’t like working so many jobs concurrently, I would try even harder to get a full-time, permanent academic role, which meant taking on more and more, such as sacrificing all to get my book published and undertaking unpaid opportunities to keep improving myself. 

These feelings of self-hatred, intense dislike for myself, and my desire to suffer in the pursuit of achievement, which had begun in my experiences as an academic, had already transferred onto my feelings about my body. Suffering was key, and I never felt more like I was suffering than when I was starving myself. Losing weight became a way of managing and measuring my success, where success and control had otherwise been denied to me professionally. I had tried and failed for over a year to get a handle on it. I didn’t see that disappointing result for what it was, which was an indictment of how impossible it is to live a healthy and active lifestyle alongside academic career-building, but instead saw it as demonstrative of my overall lack of ambition.

If I couldn’t lose a few measly pounds, how would I ever achieve academic success? By not rewarding me with the dream academic job, academia had, in my mind, judged that I was inconsequential and disappointing.

I couldn’t see at the time that this was due of the lack of jobs for early career researchers in the global higher education industry, not a reflection of my capabilities.  

Fighting for Control

Early last year I was having more panic attacks than ever before. I had a long and tiresome relationship with anxiety and panic, so this, plus some significant life events, seemed to be the root cause. However, I very quickly developed a method of dismissing them. I had a panic attack at Glastonbury Festival: It was just so hot! I had a panic attack while holidaying in Scotland: It must have been my IBS bloating that had made me feel rubbish! It was when I had my first panic attack about not going to the gym that I became worried. It was the gym. I hated it; I had never been sporty. As I was in therapy and had been for years, I told myself that this couldn’t possibly be a symptom of a new mental health problem. I agreed with my partner that I would make an appointment to see my GP in three weeks and if I still felt worried about my exercise habits and – as I rapidly discovered – my eating habits, then I would go to the appointment. Three weeks passed. I went and I was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

From January to the mid-summer of 2019, I had lost a substantial amount of weight in a very short period of time. I lost the same weight in six months that I previously lost in a year. Having never been particularly overweight, I had begun dieting half-heartedly in 2018 as I began working full time teaching at one of the UK’s best higher education institutions. The university was two hours away by train and I was routinely staying in a different city, existing on supermarket breakfasts and fast-food dinners in cheap hotel rooms. I wasn’t exercising because I didn’t have time, and I was exhausted from 4am starts and midnight marking sessions. I didn’t have time to think about my body other than to make sure I survived the job. When that job came to an end and I found myself unemployed at the end of 2018, my body became my project. I was at home all the time, which meant I was able to very carefully control what I ate and how often I exercised. Time to get fit! But this period of intense physical challenge happened concurrently with the psychological challenges higher education was throwing at me. I received rejection after rejection for the academic posts I applied to, which gradually eroded any sense of value I had for myself and my academic work, and meant I rapidly lost trust in the UK’s Higher Education system, into which I had poured over 10 years of my life. I was made to feel worthless and that I didn’t matter. 

When September rolled round, I took on three part-time jobs: a teaching job at a university two hours away by car, as well as teaching and professional support roles at my alma mater. It wasn’t perfect but it meant I could move forward, and it meant I wasn’t alone with my thoughts in unemployment. My fascination with my weight and dieting disappeared – or so I thought – as I worked through these jobs. I threw myself into my work, working every weekend and most evenings, writing lectures about books I hadn’t read because I simply hadn’t had time to. The teaching work was rewarding but required more than the hours I was being paid for, and more than the hours I was able to work. I routinely woke up at 4am and drove to my job 2 hours away, in time for 9am lectures, eating at 5.30am and then not again until 1pm after my teaching ended. Hunger became proof that I was working hard. Then I would drive two hours home, making sure I squeezed in a heavy gym session on the way. I ignored fatigue and feelings of starvation. My body didn’t matter, only my work. This, I thought, was me being in control of a heavy schedule. Control. That was the problem.

I woke up one morning and decided I would continue eating the same amount of food (which was already a calorie deficit) and begin exercising five times a week instead of three. I exercised when I was ill and when I was starving. My mouth was so dry from hunger that no amount of water could quench my thirst. I thought about food all the time, adding up calories of meals and future meals in my head. Every time I saw a thin woman on television or in films I would trawl the internet trying to find out what dress size she wore or what her measurements were, and then criticise myself if I hadn’t reached those numbers.

Academia had taught me to value perfectionism and achievement and to devalue my body and my health. I rapidly started to lose weight, and I became addicted to my success. Even if I couldn’t become a lecturer or a world-renowned Professor, I could be the best person at losing weight.

Watching my friends and loved ones eat while I starved made me feel like I had finally become exceptional. Everyone else was failing when they ate, and pretty quickly I started to feel that every food I ate was failure and that every day I didn’t exercise I had failed. I was simultaneously in total control and no control over everything. I could control eating and exercising even if I couldn’t control the academic job market. It didn’t matter that my fixation on food and exercise had meant I had completely lost control of everything else. My body began to revolt: adult acne, once well managed, returned. Every photograph I took of my body showed that I was stooped over, suddenly heavy with bones I had lost the mass to support. My skin was grey and sullen; my joints hurt; I was dizzy all the time. When I looked in the mirror what I saw would flicker rapidly between what was real and what my eating disorder had made me see, between a woman losing weight too quickly and a woman who was “fat” and therefore a failure. In the gym every motivating playlist I made rang hollow. Body positive and affirmational songs, mostly by Lizzo, didn’t mean anything because I didn’t mean anything. This body had one job, and that was to be perfect. All other services could be suspended, and they were.

A Missed Opportunity

On Christmas Day in 2018, my grandmother passed away. I was three-months deep into my three different jobs, and I had already had to deal with a burglary in my house while I slept, in which the perpetrators made away with my car: the only transport I had to get to my teaching job. I was incredibly stressed, and my bereavement made it clear to me exactly how much I had taken on, and how overwhelming it had become. This wasn’t control, this was suffering. This should have been the moment that everything changed. I sat in my parents’ house marking student assessments – I couldn’t get an extension.

I had been given compassionate leave from my support role, but I was still planning lessons, reading for lectures, and marking essays, while also planning my grandmother’s funeral and writing her eulogy. I look back now and see the complete absurdity of the situation. 

Looking back, I realise now I was at a crossroads. I had successfully recognised that I had not been treating myself well. I knew that something had to change or I wasn’t going to survive. I made New Year’s resolutions: get back on track. Handle things better. Be more in control. Control. Control. Control. Except this search for control continued to push me towards my eating disorder. It’s what set my new expectations to exercise more and eat less. Controlling my body meant controlling my world. In this essential re-evaluation of what needed to change, I didn’t yet recognise that control over my health and mental wellness was impossible as long as it was a substitute for control over my academic future. Both my feelings about myself and about my career required significant overhaul, but I could change my life. I couldn’t change the academic industry. 

In fact, it took six more months, to that midsummer panic attack last year, for me to finally acknowledge something was wrong and recognise the unhealthy role academia had played. Most people don’t think about food every second of the day (for most people, I now understand, the default isn’t to keep themselves hungry), and most people don’t experience panic attacks for not going to the gym. To diet and to lose weight through exercise is to assume that you are not already enough, and isn’t that what academia had taught me? That if I just finished my PhD/wrote my book/got my first teaching job/supervised dissertations/was a good colleague then I would get the academic job, surely? That just gaining control and striving for perfectionism, at all costs, was the sign of a good academic? This clouded my view so that I couldn’t see my capabilities, or what I’d already achieved.

In that trip to my GP, where my eating disorder was finally realised, I discovered that although my heart was fine following months of starvation and over-exertion, my body had developed Neutropenia: an absence of neutrophils, a kind of white blood cell, that is the primary defence against bacterial and viral infections. If what I was aiming for was to be healthy I had missed the mark by a long way. I was terrified. I began eating more and, over the following months, found a psychologist and a nutritionist that were able to help me. In particular, they helped me understand my perfectionism, its origins in my desperate pursuit of an academic job, as well as work with me to develop a healthy relationship with myself and with food. Although this has been complicated in recent months by UK lockdown due to coronavirus and my IBS symptoms becoming much worse, I am now on the road to recovery. Recovery moves in fits and starts, especially where low self-esteem and perfectionism have sustained an eating disorder, and other mental health problems, for so long. 

It took only a few months to develop an eating disorder, but its onset was so rapid in part because I had already built, with the help of academia, the mental structures that were able to sustain it: low self-worth, perfectionism, lack of confidence, ability to function highly under pressure, a total disregard of the physical body in pursuit of the perfect academic job. These psychological structures had already helped me achieve so much, and I was now tasked with finding an entirely new way to see and understand myself and the world around me.

There is, I hope, a future for me and for everyone where weight doesn’t matter. Where size and the numbers on the scales don’t matter. There is also, I hope, a future where saying ‘no’ in academia is normalised, and where institutions recognise that the best solution to both chronic overwork and academic unemployment is to make more jobs and create more manageable workloads. I am also hopeful for a future academic world in which individuals are seen as just that, individual, and not part of a measured and managed machine where numbers and metrics are the only symbols of value and success. It’s time to recognise the unhealthy habits that an unhealthy working environment can drive us to – and say ‘no’ to that too.

Details of how to contact the UK’s leading Eating Disorder charity, Beat, can be found here. In the US you can access NEDA and The Butterfly Foundation in Australia.

Emily Ennis

Emily Ennis completed her PhD at the University of Leeds, UK, in 2016. She is currently working on converting her thesis, which focused on how British Literary culture responded to the rise of popular, amateur photography at the end of the nineteenth century, into a monograph due to be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2021. She has taught literature courses across a variety of universities across the north of England, as well as the University of Leeds, where she currently works.