My Oxford, by Catherine Haines, is a short and very personal memoir of the author’s descent into anorexia. She posits that the eating disorder is akin to a religious belief where eating is regarded as a sin. Religions have long promoted fasting as virtuous, gluttony as weakness, bodily pleasure as morally suspect. In a world where thin is regarded as good this is an interesting angle from which to look at the disorder.
Anorexia is more than a desire to attain a fashionable ideal – to harbour a preoccupation with the superficial. It is a potentially fatal mental illness that raises issues within the sufferer about the way they wish to exist in a world that dictates behaviour yet admires self-control.
Catherine’s problems started in 2011 when, realising she had gained weight, she went on a diet. Her mother suggested the Cambridge Weight Plan which replaces meals with sachets of minerals and nutrients. Combining these with a daily meal of pure protein pushes the body to fuel itself with fat.
Having met her weight loss goals, Catherine moved to Oxford to study. Here she continued to restrict her intake to 1000 calories or less per day.
Catherine’s studies involved an exploration of the overlap between philosophy and literature, focusing on Hamlet. To be or not to be; to exist or not to exist; if life after death is better than life before then why seek to continue?
Despite being severely underweight Catherine continued to exercise and deny her body nourishment. When family and friends voiced concern, she would eat publicly to avoid their censure. She subsequently suffered guilt at all the calories consumed and was exhausted by the effort of her performance.
Catherine’s year at Oxford included a religious conversion during which she was confirmed and took her first communion. Her intended celebration was abandoned when she realised that she was now mentally incapable of eating. Her academic writing grew opaque and fragmented as she struggled to retain energy and reason. Not eating had become an addiction; denying the body its necessary fuel a way of conquering the self and finding salvation.
The writing is clear and concise, the reasoning of the sufferer well presented. It is not a misery memoir but rather an intelligent attempt to understand why skewed ways of thinking can develop such an iron grip on the psyche. It offers much to consider in how society blames those who eat ‘too much’ or ‘too little’, and the damaging consequences this can induce in their mental health.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, New Welsh Rarebyte.