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Campaigning against calories on menus came to be one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had

Popular wisdom says it’s best to cut all communication after you end a relationship – particularly a toxic or damaging one. But there’s one old relationship which I revisit every day: an ongoing dialogue and an often-draining argument with no end.

The problem is, if I don’t keep responding to every jibe and needle, this old friend’s voice gets louder, stronger, more persistent. Worst of all, sometimes it can even start to ring true. So, when it pipes up, I’m quick to fight back.

When the news broke about calorie-labelled menus becoming mandatory, me and my old pal had very conflicting reactions. Mine was initially visceral and panicked fear. My powerlessness was immense and overwhelming, like I was adrift at sea with not a raft or rock in sight. Soon, in bled anger, resentment, indignance, exasperation; of course, I thought to myself, mental health is being dismissed while rudimentary and tokenistic gestures to physical health are being set into law.

My former friend felt differently. In her corner of my brain, there was a flash of jubilance and a resurgent glimpse of control. A-ha! We can see what we eat, make calorie-dictated decisions, adjust our exercise… All the old ‘tricks’ – or rather, traps.

Once again, I had to muster up the energy to counter and challenge these wearisome whispers. I had to take back power against the voice and against this dangerous policy.

Proactive, decisive action felt like the best antidote. Simple verbal sparring wasn’t quite enough, not when so many other lives were being affected. I felt a sense of duty not just to myself, my recovery and my beliefs, but the thousands upon thousands of other people who’ll feel the negative impacts of encountering calorie counts on menus. There was doubtless some solace in solidarity, but there was more of a spur.

I looked around for something I could do. There were a couple of petitions which was great to see, but a little passive compared to the monumental powerlessness and hopelessness I felt. Then I found Beat’s campaign to get in touch with MPs. Finally, a chance to put into words all the logical and emotional reactions I’d had to this (to my mind) disastrous decision to implement calorie labels.

Beat had a really handy and detailed template ready for use, which was a great option for family and friends. I sent many of them the campaign, and they were able to send off a persuasive email to their MPs with just a few clicks.

For my own part, I decided to amend the email, personalising it with my experiences. I’d been through my own calorie-counting nightmares and had lived in countries which had mandatory calorie-labelling for menus, seen how ineffective they were for their purpose and how difficult they made life for people prone to disordered eating. I wanted to convey this real-life perspective to my MP.

Of course, it was a scary thing to do. I haven’t discussed my eating disorder with many of my closest friends, let alone a perfect stranger. But the weight of Beat’s campaign, and my determination to fight the pesky duo – my long-time nemesis and this proposed policy – drove me on.

And thank goodness: it came to be one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had. From the moment I sent the email, I felt empowered. It was at once a relief and a thrill to have taken action, to have told that triumphant voice to shut up and stop celebrating, and to have made my voice heard in a productive and proactive way.

To really grab the opportunity our democratic system granted, I also asked my MP to meet with me to discuss this policy, its misguided motivations, its possible effects, and its alternatives. Again, this was a scary move but all the advice, guidance and support which the Beat website and staff (special and big shout out to Vicky!) provided made it an easy decision as well as a necessary one.

Having the research which Beat sent to me, and doing some of my own, gave me hard evidence to back up my convictions and really helped to settle my nerves. There’s such a wealth of information out there – from scientific studies to first-hand accounts – that I felt I had something valuable to communicate to my MP. And in a somewhat rare twist for me, I felt well-prepared and well-placed to do so.

A few weeks later, the meeting with my MP was coming up. Although I had confidence in my research and logic, I was feeling a little apprehensive. Sharing the personal story underpinning my beliefs was an unfamiliar and slightly alarming notion. I didn’t quite know how to communicate it and treading the line between emotions and rationalism felt like an extremely precarious balancing act.

Thankfully, Beat got in touch and arranged a video call with me to go over what I might want to say, what to expect, and to generally provide support in all its forms. We talked through how to share and what to share, and questions that either side might pose. By the end of the video call, I felt calm and confident, ready to go into battle against the stalwart dragon (if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors) and the perilous policy.

If I had felt empowered after the email, it was nothing to my experience during and after the meeting. Thanks to the preparation and information I’d had, I was able to combine rational argument with subjective experience without losing my cool. My MP was receptive and empathetic, and eagerly agreed to take action.

I couldn’t believe it: I had really been listened to and understood! I even got to see my questions posed in the House of Commons, which was an incredible experience. My anxiety and indignation, properly channelled, had truly translated into political action.

Unfortunately, the policy was passed. But my old friend’s triumph has been severely dampened by the action I took against it. She knows now that I won’t be caving to the old impulses that calorie labels brought on. She knows that this is decidedly bad news to me, and that I found positive power and control, not the artificial sense of control I used to seek in numbers.

The dragon might never be entirely vanquished, and this toxic relationship might never peter into total silence, but the action I’ve taken has severely and lastingly injured it. I don’t think it’ll be chiming in with such assurance and aggression again.

Contributed by Gabi

If Gabi’s blog has inspired you, the Campaigns Team are holding a free webinar about getting your voice heard to make change. You can find out more about the session and sign up here: https://campaigning.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/page/96250/subscribe/1