It started innocently enough, with me and my friend sitting in our Maths class, the only ones who had chosen to take on extra Maths lessons in Sixth Form for a second A-Level in ‘Further Maths’. We waited for the teacher to arrive, and we chatted and gossiped as usual, and that is when I noticed it. She was scanning the barcode of a cereal bar she had just eaten and logging it into her phone. I hesitantly asked about it and she explained that it was an app she used to count the calories she ate in a day, and when I expressed more interest, she told me how to download and use it. I was so excited to use the app, my weight was always something that I had trouble with.
Throughout high school I had always carried a little bit of weight, and it had always bothered me. I remember hating taking my top off, and whenever I caught sight of myself topless it would really upset me. I remember seeing all my peers slowly get into relationships and have their series of firsts: first kiss, first relationship, first time; all while I seemed to sit on the side-lines. As a young gay man I just felt deeply unattractive, and this coupled with a momentous fear of coming out meant that the idea of anyone finding me desirable felt hopeless. I often felt like the supporting character in my own life, and I thought that the only way I would be able to become the protagonist was to lose weight, come out and become what I thought was ‘beautiful’ in the gay community.
I remember when I had lunch after that maths lesson, I can’t even remember what it was I had but I remember using the app for the first time. Slowly, and painstakingly, entering each item, the bread and even the butter had to be entered. I felt relieved when I remembered I had left home without having breakfast that morning, less calories to enter. When I got home and had my dinner, I felt ashamed at how much the calorie counter jumped up, despite about 600 calories being a normal amount for an evening meal. I still remember my Mum offering me some biscuits and me saying no as I was getting close to my daily calorie goal already; she seemed a little suspicious but didn’t ask me anything about it.
It was like I was bargaining with myself, if I didn’t have that packet of crisps then I would be able to have a chocolate bar in the evening. If I just had two custard creams instead of three or four, then I would be able to have a fizzy drink. I even used to log in when I had a cup of tea, as it had a couple of calories on the app, and to me they all added up. Every single time it came time to eat I felt sad and guilty, it was like all the pleasure I ever got from food had been bargained away. I used to walk around my house a lot or go to the gym and do cardio until I felt sick as that meant I was allowed to have more calories. It wasn’t just me that it affected, my Mum realised what I was doing, and I remember her bursting into tears, afraid of what I was doing to myself. Despite doing this to work on my body, I was in a worse relationship with it than ever.
I began to use this app during my first term in Year 12 and carried on using it until halfway through Year 13, using it for over a year. At this point, it just became a routine, every meal, every day I would log it into the app. Every snack into the app. Every cup of tea or can of coke, straight into the app. The bathroom mirror became something I hated seeing, I would pick and prod at my body, unhappy at what I saw. I would become obsessed with not only what I was eating but logging the calories I burnt through steps and exercise. It was a visitor in my life, an unhealthy visitor, that had decided to stay.
I wish I could say there was a moment in which I realised that the app was toxic in my life, and I began to love my body, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I stopped using the app shortly after I came out halfway though Year 13, and even though I was tempted at times, I did not redownload this app. I remember it wasn’t until I came to university, with a freer environment to help me figure out who I am, and who I want to be, that I began to look at my body in a kinder way. Even to this day, it’s an effort, some days I feel incredible and some days I have to really try to look at myself with kindness.
Looking back at using the apps, I remember it being just as much about control as it was about how my body looked. I needed control over something, at a time when I felt like I had none. However, it ended up feeling like the app controlled me, denying me the foods that brought me joy and comfort. I would say that the app was poisonous in my life, and I only managed to get out of a toxic cycle with it, even if it was just in my head and not on my phone anymore, was to look at myself with a little more kindness.
Being kinder to yourself is difficult, and it is not just a linear process. It’s not like you work enough at it and then you finally have complete love for your body and no self-doubt. Every single day you must work at it, you must be kind. One thing I do when I find myself criticising something about my body, is remind myself of something I really love about my body, whether that be my tattoos or my chest, find something you love about yourself and keep reminding yourself why you love it. Also, I found that I was a lot kinder to myself when I really embraced who I am, when I stopped trying to be who I thought I should be, stopped trying to run from who I am. I think often accepting ourselves also means accepting the body we live in, and that is an amazing thing. Overall, just being kinder to yourself, and reminding yourself what it is you like about yourself, is just so important.