Courage is recognising the possibility of failure, and walking into the arena anywayJoe Cook

Content note: This article contains discussion of body image and eating disorders.

I remember the day I arrived in Cambridge. I was nervous, because I wanted to be perceived as ‘perfect’. In fact, I’d set myself just two goals for University: the first that I achieve stellar marks, the second was that my weight was forbidden from fluctuating – let alone increasing.

Entering the final term of my first undergraduate degree (I’m a medic), I’ve gained double-digits of kilograms, and my principal aspiration is to graduate in good health, both mentally and physically. First-year me is screaming: how could I let this happen?!

There is no clear flow-chart I can draw or equation I can write to explain my transformation, but there are a few key factors I can recognise have changed me and continue to do so.

The first was having to face academic disappointment, and finding that the shame I thought would never lift, did. No matter how hard I worked, my marks were never quite as ‘perfect’ as I had pushed for them to be. Conceptually, I understood before arriving that Cambridge was not in the same league as A-Levels, but it has taken me three years here to realise that I’ve been playing a different sport entirely.

At school, I could just devote ever more hours to reading neatly summarised books, and then regurgitate their facts and figures in the exam. That was my race, and it was one that I knew I could win. At Cambridge, year-on-year I’ve struggled with the vastness of the content, and it is only recently that I have realised that I will never be prepared ‘enough’ when I walk into the arena of the exam hall.

I will not sugar-coat  the daily reality of finalist me

Equally, my exams might not go to plan, with the grade that I wish for remaining just that – a wish. How does anyone cope with the uncertainty? In my case, often not especially well. I’ve been trained to perform highly, consistently, and being faced by what I would perceive as failure is anything but easy.

Nonetheless, I believe I also have to keep asking myself: at what personal cost will I pursue success? I can no longer study the relentless hours that I used to and, actually, I don’t want to. I have loved ones I want to see, hobbies I want to keep up, and health that needs looking after. My life can no longer be second to my grades. So, I may not get the exact marks I want, and – as clichéd as it sounds – I have to try and trust that the world does keep turning, and that all the doors of future opportunities will not start closing.

The second factor – or rather, process – has been challenging the security of starvation, and learning to tolerate what, for me, had for years been intolerable: weight gain. I thought, and often still think, that I will not be perceived as beautiful at my current weight, and shape.

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As someone who, for whatever reason, grew up perceiving grades and beauty to be the hallmarks of worthiness, genuinely thinking that I might not be thin, pretty, or smart enough feels like believing that I am unacceptable. I haven’t managed to rewire this belief system with a healthier one yet, but over my three years I have been able to recognise its existence for the first time, and make a start on chapter one: regaining weight, and then maintaining it, no matter how profoundly uncomfortable it has been, and continues to be. Still, in my next three years here, I hope for more. I don’t want to recover weight only to be stuck in a ‘functional’ eating disorder, still obsessing over food and judging my body as never quite measuring up. The next, and I suspect much harder step is in chapter two: total, unconditional self-acceptance.

These are lofty goals, and I am actively trying to pursue them. Nevertheless, I will not sugar-coat the daily reality of finalist me: I am petrified about my exams, and the panic is visceral – often physically, as well as mentally, intense. Think fast heart rate, sore stomach, and headaches. I have to invoke every self-soothing ability that I have within my cells, most frequently with the help of my therapist, to tame the beast of fear.


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The stress has further meant that any semblance of positive body image I once had has spontaneously combusted. I am constantly needing to remind myself: in four weeks, this is all finished. Indeed, to be able to finish, I am calling once more upon the same quality that has underpinned my ability to gain weight, and to face academic dissatisfaction: courage. Neither my impending exams nor my body shape may be what I want them to be, but I have to dare myself to keep going in the face of these facts. That is what courage means to me: recognising the possibility of failure, and walking into the arena anyway. After three years of scientific education, this is perhaps still the greatest lesson I have learnt at Cambridge. Who would’ve thought.

  • If you have been affected by any of the content of this article, B-eat Eating disorders provides useful information and resources, as well as a helpline at 0808 801 0677. The Students’ Union Advice Service provides a more comprehensive list of support resources.

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