Content note: this article contains mentions of eating disorder

In my first year at Cambridge, I wrote a column of articles for Varsity in which I reflected upon my final years at school where I suffered, fairly severely, with anorexia. I found life in sixth form hard — which was something I never liked to admit — and as a result I spent a lot of that time quite unhappy. My eating disorder was undeniably linked to an unhealthy yet high-achieving perfectionism which I developed throughout school. I had to get certain GCSEs and A-levels, I had to be head girl, but I also had to see my friends and of course post it on Instagram, and, above all, I had to go to Cambridge. Indeed, I did manage all of these things — but at what cost? Whenever any one of these 'perfect' things seemed out of reach, that anorexic voice in my head knew the punishment — and it was always surrounding food and further eating restrictions.

I left home to go to Cambridge at 18, having only just about achieved a healthy weight and a sustainable mindset in order to live essentially alone, and entirely in control of what I eat. I don’t think I ever could have predicted what going to university would do, good or bad, for my disordered eating habits.

“Like magic, I found I didn’t question how many calories there were in the college brunch I was eating”

But a year into Cambridge, I suddenly found myself questioning where that anorexic voice had disappeared too. It seemed to begin to vanish as I walked into my shabby Old South first-year room in Emmanuel College. Like magic, out of nowhere, I found I didn’t question how many calories there were in the college brunch I was eating, or refuse the cake offered by my new neighbour, or the VK at my first Cambridge night out. I threw myself into so many things — I had so much fun, loved almost every minute. However, I certainly didn’t end that year with a first. I would like to say that that didn’t faze me at all, but it certainly did, and I found my instant reaction was to attempt to return to anorexia’s old ways: to eat less. Yet something over that summer and beginning my second year completely changed again. I suddenly let go of the idea that I had to be the best at Cambridge, that I would be 'perfect' — in a sense I knew I could never be — and so I chose to just be happy instead.

Now, having just graduated this summer, and it being over three years since my last therapy appointment, I am in a position where I haven’t suffered from anorexia for some time. Not because instances where it had previously prevailed were not regular — indeed, a weekly supervision essay where I didn’t achieve 65+ would once have been enough to begin an anorexia-fuelled cycle of punishment and starvation. Yet somehow, especially in my second and third years, it didn’t matter so much. What mattered was making friendships, relationships, memories; going out for dinner, to formals, to May Balls; not scrutinising the calories in the drinks at Cindies or the Gardies chips on the way home. Or those hilarious late-night library snacks and hot chocolates with my new best friends, the 2-for-1 Franco Manca on UberEats, the Sidgwick Buttery cookies, the Novi cocktails, the pub golf night, the Sesame swap, and the curly fries in hall. All these things anorexia would never have allowed me to do — but all of these things are memories that will live with me forever.

“My last year at Cambridge was the happiest of my life, and not because I topped Tripos, but because anorexia wasn’t there to punish me”

In the end, I graduated with a 2.1, which would probably have killed 17 year-old me — but it didn’t kill 21 year-old me, because 21 year-old and graduating me was inexplicably happy. My last year at Cambridge was the happiest of my life, and not because I topped Tripos, but because anorexia wasn’t there to punish me. Looking back now at those articles, although I knew then that the anorexic voice had somewhat muted, I did write that I would never live without this perfectionist mindset:

‘I know I am still learning how to couple this perfectionist ambition and fear of failure with being my own best friend, yet I would never live without it. This little voice, which constantly shrieks for perfection, has got me to exactly where I want to be in life; I wouldn’t be at Cambridge without it.’

Two and a half years later, I’ve realised I was wrong. I think to reach the mindset that I now have, I have had to let this perfectionism go in many respects. In many ways, it did get me to where I wanted to be — but I think I could have got to Cambridge without it. Thinking otherwise would be downplaying my own achievements and handing them over to anorexia. Undeniably, that little voice isn’t constantly shrieking for perfection but I would much rather be able to genuinely smile than be pushed to an extreme by that ever-persistent and nagging voice inside my head.


Mountain View

How perfectionism fuelled my eating disorder

Sure, I probably could have done more. I probably could have gone to the pub a little less and the library a little more — or not had that three hour long 'coffee break' — but regretting that would be letting that anorexic voice win again, and to me, I did just fine. I did the best I could while being the happiest I could. I also now know I could never say I have fully recovered from anorexia if I did let this perfectionist voice continue to plague me.

This, then, is to all those suffering, who may be in the midst of the intense unhappiness which an eating disorder brings. I’m walking proof that things can get better — things change, and anorexia isn’t always there. Who needs to be perfect anyway? No one is. This is also to Cambridge, for giving me three amazing years. I’m sorry I wasn’t your best student ever, but I may have left as one of your happiest.

No grade or number on the scale is worth your life. I could never have made the number of friends or memories I did throughout these three years if I had allowed anorexia to come to Cambridge with me. Never in a million years would I swap the happiest three years of my life for a first, or to top Tripos — never, ever, ever.