The August Outfit Challenge: What I Learned 

Last month I read an interesting statistic: that most women wear 20% of their wardrobe 80% of the time. A quick mental assessment of my recent outfits showed me that was definitely true for me. So I set myself a challenge: wear a completely different outfit every day for a month – without going shopping and buying anything new. 

The idea was to hopefully wear a few more of the clothes that I don’t appeciate enough, and try and experiment and have a little fun with my wardrobe.  What I learned was both obvious and unexpected in equal measures. 

Days 1-8 of the challenge

I didn’t come close to running out of clothes 
Yup. By the end of the month I still had piles of t-shirts lying in my chest of drawers, and a dozen dresses hanging in the wardrobe, untouched. What I did run out of was things I wanted to wear. I wore my favourite black shirt dress on day 12 of the challenge and for the rest of the month I kept reaching for it and feeling annoyed when I didn’t have it to wear. A lot of the other things I didn’t wear were either to summery (for such a chilly August) or too wintery (because it was still August) and therefore impractical, or they were too short, too long, had buttons missing. That gave me a great idea for my next challenge. 

Days 9-16 of the challenge

I’ve got far too many average or ill-fitting clothes in my wardrobe 

On many of the days in the challenge, I found myself tugging at a skirt or hemline or trouser waistband or rebuttoning a shirt and thinking “if only this was an inch tighter/longer” or “if only this shirt fitted a little better” and feeling irritated. I have a terrible tendency to buy things that are “good enough” in the moment, or which seem good after a full day of shopping and finding nothing, but which actually I don’t like anywhere near enough. It’s the absolute opposite of the mindful consumption I’m trying to practice in every area of life. And when I look through at the outfits which are my favourites, they aren’t the ones bought in haste because of a desire to have something new – they’re the ones I thought long and hard about and which I carefully considered before buying. 

Days 17-24 of the challenge

I wear a lot of black 

Which I guess if I’d been paying attention I would already have realised. Maybe it’s working for an architect (stereotype alert!), maybe it’s a reaction against all the block colours and jewel tones I used to wear in my corporate life. In fact, almost every outfit I wore was either mostly black, an all-over pattern, or plain white. Apart from the green dress I wore to a wedding on day 19, I didn’t wear a single other plain colour. Is that interesting or meaningful? Maybe not to anyone other than me, but it’s definitely helped me to become more aware of what I am likely to actually wear – and to avoid buying things which don’t fit into these categories and are therefore unlikely to go with my existing clothes or be worn much. 

Days 25-31 of the challenge

I’m a creature of habit 

So many of my clothes are actually all very similar versions of each other: I wore 4 pairs of jeans in this experiment – all basically the same shade of blue. I wore 8 little black dresses, so many black patterned items, and only about 5 different pairs of shoes all month! I’ve also got several other black and white polka dot items… You could see this as problematic – that I keep buying the same things rather than branching out. But I’m quite pleased with it really. It makes me think that slowly downsizing my wardrobe to a capsule wardrobe is possible. 

I spend a lot of time in sportswear these days 

I didn’t photograph any of my sportswear because it’s ugly and boring. But as a side note because I know some people reading this will be aware I cycle to work, I wore my sportswear almost every day, and most of these outfits were partly chosen because they can withstand being squished into a rucksack! 

Looking forward to September 

Overall, although I felt like a bit of a prat taking a selfie every day, I felt like the outfit challenge was worth doing. Staying away from the shops and focusing on what I already owned was a good reminder of society’s constant pressure to buy new stuff just because it’s new, not because you need it or it’s better. 

Initially I was going to try and do another themed wardrobe challenge for September, but I decided not to after the August one because I didn’t think I would learn much new from it. 

Instead, my September challenge is to make sure that everything in my wardrobe is something I’m ready and able to wear. Mending all the broken things, giving away all the stuff I’m never going to wear, taking up hems, altering sleeves, doing everything I can to ensure that I’m putting what I already have to the best use possible. 

September is already nearly half gone, and I’m excited by the process I’ve made with this challenge. My mending pile is growing steadily smaller, and I’ve breathed new life into some of my clothes with some fun alterations. I’ll share my updates here soon, along with my final challenge, the October outfit challenge. 

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It’s not over till it’s over

Today is A level results day, and newspapers the country over will be filled with images of jumping blonde girls with gleaming smiles, clutching envelopes filled with A grades. 

I was never one of those girls, and not just because at 18 I had short pinkish hair. I opened my A level results envelope with a churning stomach and felt the floor fall away from my feet when I saw I hadn’t got the results I needed. I wasn’t going to be accepted to university. My dream was over. 

The rest of the day was a blur. I didn’t speak to anyone, didn’t join the celebrations in the pub, couldn’t be comforted. People kept telling me about celebrities and the rich and famous who had gone a long way without great A levels, but I didn’t know anyone who could help me go a long way. And more to the point, I knew the long way I wanted to go: 220 miles straight up the A1m to Durham University. But I couldn’t do that without an A in English. 

Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this story. My English teacher flatly refused to believe that I could get AAAAAE in my six papers, and asked for a remark of the E. My university agreed that if I could get the result I needed by the end of the month I could take up my place. The remark was sent off and an anxious wait ensued. After a week, my mother was so unsure if I would ever smile again that she agreed to take me to the Ashford Designer Outlet and buy me anything I wanted. My mother, principled anti-consumerist that she was and remains, knew this was the only thing that might cheer me up. I agreed. 

We had just arrived in the car park when my phone rang. It was the exam board. There had indeed been a mistake. The examiner hadn’t marked one of the two essays on the paper. My mark went from an E to an A, and my overall grade shifted from B to A. I was back in to Durham. We didn’t even get out of the car, didn’t buy anything I wanted, just drove home and immediately called the university. It was solved. 

On my graduation day with Bill Bryson

I went to Durham, loved it, graduated, and had the time of my life. But since then I have had other experiences like this one, with the rug pulled from under my feet, and I am grateful for the lessons it taught me. 

One, that Baz Luhrmann was right in ‘Wear Sunscreen’. The things you need to be truly afraid of are the ones you are not expecting. So do not fret. It had never occurred to me that a mistake like this could happen, and once it happened, that it would be so easy to fix. 

Two, do not lose your head. I wanted to lie in bed and cry forever after this, and I think I may even have uttered the words “it just feels like I’ve died”. But my mum was practical. She could tell my result was unlikely, and underneath my hysteria I knew it too. Be practical, seek out solutions to small problems if the main one is too big to understand, and move forward one step at a time. Remember: you eat an elephant one bite at a time. 

Three, remember that this is not the end. Life is not a movie where the credits roll once everything is sorted, and if things aren’t sorted within two hours, they remain unsorted forever. Setbacks can seem like end points so easily in this mentality, but life is long. If I hadn’t got in to Durham that year, I would have gone somewhere else the next year, done something different. Since that time there have been setbacks of many kinds in my life; break ups, redundancies, financial woes. Sometimes you don’t get what you want. And learning to cope with that is an important part of life, and avoiding becoming bitter or spoiled. 

Two years after this moment, it happened again. I failed one of my second year finals. And this time there was no happy ending, no teachers or mum to solve my problems. I was an adult and I had to solve it myself. I was recently bereaved, grieving and drifting but that was no excuse. I applied to a retake, worked hard all summer, passed the exam, and continued on my course and graduated the next summer as planned. 

So if you, or someone you love, woke up this morning and felt your dreams crashing down around you, don’t lose heart. There is a solution to every problem, and a setback need not mean the end of your dreams. It’s a cliche, but a lot of life is in the journey. And what great journey isn’t beset with some mishaps along the way? 

A guide to surviving your mid-Twenties

 

A very long time ago (five whole entire years) I graduated from university on my 21st birthday. It was a momentous occasion. I thought I knew everything there was to know because I’d studied philosophy and answered difficult questions about the universe. I thought I knew loss. I thought I knew what life was going to hold. I thought I knew what hard work was. I didn’t know anything. Five years later I’ve learned so much but all I really know for sure is that there’s so much I don’t know. But in honour of my 26th birthday, here are some things I do know.

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Graduating aged 21.

 

Forgive, but don’t forget the lessons you’ve learned.
Forgive your parents for calling you fat as a teenager. Forgive your friend for getting so drunk on your 22nd birthday that you had to take her home and miss your own birthday. Forgive people for big things, forgive them for little things. The space that anger is taking up is all inside you – they probably don’t even know you’re angry. Let go of the anger, but remember the lesson. Be better than others have been.

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Turning 21

You don’t need to be liked by everyone, you don’t need to like everyone, but you should never be a dick.
I used to be so embarrassed about who I was. Then I used to show off about how quirky I was. Both those things are cringeworthy. What do you love? Go with it. I sew my own clothes. I have uttered the phrase “there’s a great song you have to hear by the guy from Deep Purple’s side project band” (it’s seven minutes of glory guys) and I’m not ashamed of that. I cry at adverts, like the Lloyds Bank one where the horse comes home from war. I’m who I am and I’m not ashamed of it. Some people aren’t going to like it and that’s fine, there are some people I just don’t click with either. We’re all adults, we won’t be mean, we won’t be cruel, we’ll just get on with doing us.

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Turning 22


You’re going to make some terrible mistakes
I stayed with a boy who read my diary. I hurt myself because I was afraid to admit that what I wanted wasn’t what everyone else told me I should. I took out an overdraft and a credit card when I really shouldn’t have. These things happen. Take a deep breath, square your shoulders and dig yourself out of the hole.

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Turning 23

Make time for yourself
Stress and burnout are real, and they’re miserable. Real life isn’t like university, you don’t get summers off to recharge. I worked four straight Christmasses after university, and four straight Augusts. I didn’t have two weeks off in a row for four years. That was dumb. I was so burned out I’d lost enthusiasm for everything I liked. I had to relearn how to listen to new music and read novels. Do something just for you at least once a week. Carve out the time. I go to Pilates twice a week, take a bath afterwards, and paint my nails. It’s unashamed me-time and it keeps me sane. Do what works for you, so long as it’s positive. Alcohol does NOT count.

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Turning 24

Stop waiting for the cavalry. You are the cavalry.
My boss said this in a work context the other week and I thought it was amazing and exemplifies so much of what I’ve learned. If you’re waiting to win the lottery, lose 100lbs, for the perfect man or job to fall into your lap, you’re going to be waiting forever. If you want something, go out and try for it. If you don’t know what you want, start by making sure you’re not doing what you don’t want and inch closer to what you do want from there.

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Turning 25

Worse things are going to happen than you can imagine, better things are coming than you can comprehend. 
When I was 22 I was made redundant from a job which although terrible, was the real job I’d ever had. I was single, broke, unemployed, friendless and hopeless. A week later I got the opportunity of a lifetime and got a new job in a field that I’d always wanted to work in. Within a month I had a great job, money in the bank, and had just met the love of my life. Bad things will happen. People you thought you could count on won’t be there for you. Loved ones will die. But new friends will reveal themselves in unexpected places, bad love will give way for good love. Never give up hope, and never judge. Remember the words of Baz Luhrmann: “never congratulate or berate yourself too much. Your choices are half chance”.

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Ready to be 26

And one for the future… Be inspired by people younger than you 
Because you have something to learn from everyone, and something to teach everyone.

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baby Bella one day old.

Keep your body shaming off my commute

A lot of people are going to disagree with Sadiq Khan’s decision to ban body shaming adverts, but I think it’s pretty great. There’s a world of difference between a bikini advert which is effectively saying “look at our bikinis they’re nice you should buy one” and an advert like this which says “you have to look like this to achieve the right to wear a bikini”

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I also think the TfL director’s point that “advertising on our network is unlike TV, online, and print media. Our customers cannot simply switch off or turn a page if an advertisement offends or upsets them and we have a duty to ensure the copy we carry reflects that unique environment.” is a really good one. You can’t choose to avoid an advert like this as a way of showing your disapproval of it; it’s shoved in your face all the time. When these adverts were on, there was one opposite me on the platform of Tooting Broadway every day and to be honest, it did make me feel a bit shit.

We’ve moved on from the simplistic view that thin models cause women to have eating disorders (whoever could have imagined that eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with multiple causes!). But a relentless barrage of adverts, TV programmes, newspapers, people on social media, friends, colleagues, bosses, politicians, famous people and everyone else telling you “you’re not good enough” is real, and has a real psychological impact.

It’s hard to stay feeling confident about yourself, and your choices, when you’re constantly told they’re not good enough. I used to work in a job where everyone was on a diet. My boss was a size six and lived on cottage cheese and tuna from the can because she wanted to be thinner. Everyone was on the Dukan diet. People stared when I had pasta for lunch. I used to eat my lunch in secret so that I could avoid their stares. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t want to be thin as much as they did.

One of the most insidious trends in modern life is the idea that there is a perfect way to be, which you should be achieving, and if you’re not it somehow undervalues your other achievements. You see it with everything, and the pressure is on men and women: successful entrepreneurs have to be good looking, everyone needs a gorgeous partner, beautiful children, a lovely pug, and a perfect home to be photographed in so they can tag themselves on Instagram #blessed. And for women, underneath it all “you must be thin, above all else, in addition to everything else, and no matter what else”.

I don’t need to go in to how stupid this is as an idea – anyone with half a brain can see that being thin is not in itself something of an achievement. It doesn’t make you healthier, or stronger, or better prepared to tackle life’s challenges. It doesn’t improve your relationships with friends and family, and it doesn’t make you better at your job. And yet the pressure’s on, every day, to live up to this ideal. Adverts like this are the thin end of the wedge, but it’s not the thin end of a censorship wedge. It’s a wedge that threatens to split you open, so that you crack under pressure to be perfect. It’s to knock down your self-esteem because they know that it’s easier to sell things to people who are insecure. It’s to create a need for validation where none previously existed.

A fact I love to tell people is that women never used to face pressure to shave their legs – no one thought women’s legs were hairy enough to need shaving. But during the war, the Gilette shaving company worried that not enough men were buying razors. So they came up with the idea of marketing razors to women to shave their legs. And now every western woman feels self-conscious if their unshaven ankle might peek out of their trouser leg.

Banning a couple of adverts won’t change the world, but I like the message it sends. That advertisers will have to try a little harder for their money, that we don’t want to shame people from the walls of their daily commute, that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to just go to the beach, lie in the sun (with suncream on of course), and just chill the fuck out and be who you are.

 

It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message

I bought a lovely yellow blouse recently and the first time I wore it several colleagues told me it looked nice.  I told them it was from Zara, and they all remarked how much they loved Zara.  “I never normally go in,” I shrugged, “But yeah it’s great.”  They couldn’t believe it – Zara is the de rigeur choice of the fashion-conscious office worker.  Well, that’s not strictly true.  It’s the choice of the fashion-conscious office worker who is a size 12 or smaller.  Because more than 90% of Zara’s clothes are only available in sizes XS-L, and by their own website’s admission, their large falls somewhere between a 12 and a 14.  A quick scan of their website shows that of the 518 different tops on sale right now, only 19 are available in a size XXL, and only 150 in a size XL.  In store, I’ve often noticed that the coolest, most magazine hyped clothes, are only available in XS, S, and M.

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Here I am being far too fat and uncool for Zara and yet somehow still managing to feel happy.

In previous years, I would have ranted about this “it doesn’t make economic sense!  Where’s the capitalism in choosing to exclude half your target market? The average woman in Britain is a size 16 don’t you know?!”.  But the dark truth is that averages hide a multitude of class issues.  There’s an old adage that says that statistics is the discipline that proves the average person has one breast and one testicle, and never is that truer than when looking at size.

Sure, the average woman in the UK may be a size 16, but that size is not evenly distributed.  When I look around me in upmarket Clapham brunch spots, rooftop bars in Shoreditch, popular instagram feeds, and even at the people around me when I get off the tube in Holborn, no one is a size 16.  A toned slenderness is now the ultimate sign of status and wealth – a sign of leisure time, access to an expensive gym, the opportunity to cook and eat healthy meals.  Fat used to be a feminist issue, now it’s a class issue.  If I go home to my parents’ area, it’s a very different story.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive, gyms are expensive – it’s genuinely difficult to eat healthily on a budget, especially if you’re on a zero hours contract or working two jobs and you never know where and when you’re going to be working so you can’t prepare yourself.

When I lived in Catford, there was a headline in the local paper: “46 chicken shops in Catford and NOT ONE GYM”.  It says it all.

What Zara, and others (I’m looking at you, Urban Outfitters, Mango, & Other Stories and more…), have done may be distasteful but it reflects an economic reality that bleating about statistics hides.  Being fat is associated with being poor, and not with aspiration.  They are selling an aspirational image – they want to be seen on the backs of girls brunching in Clapham and dancing in Peckham.  They don’t want to be associated with mere mortals who might have a spare tyre around their waist and might *gasp* be wearing their clothes in such undesirable areas as Catford – let alone somewhere outside of a chi chi urban destination.  They feel that if they were, their cooler, richer customers might no longer wish to be associated with their brand.  It’s like charities who reject donations from noted racists, knowing the good PR they receive will ultimately be better than the money.  “Fat” women are the noted racists in this miserable equation.

There will be some people who think this is a good thing.  That fat people should feel pressured into losing weight.  That being a size 16 is in some way immoral.  That the best clothes should be reserved for the people who look the “best”.  This is bullshit on a variety of levels.  For a start, for a 5’2″ person to be a size 12 is very different from a 5’10” person.  For another thing, if a person has struggled with eating disorders, or is on certain medications, it could be healthier for them to hover at around a size 14-16 than to risk their mental or physical health trying to become a socially approved 10 or 12.  People also carry weight differently – before I gained weight while working in a desk job, I was tiny on my bottom half and slipped easily into Zara sizing.  But I’ve always had broad shoulders, a long back, and large breasts.  I couldn’t be a size 10 up top without major surgery – far too high a cost for fashion.

Of course, Zara knows all these arguments, and so do all the fashion brands that choose to market exclusively to them.  They’ve just decided not to care.  It’s hard to know if body acceptance movements will bring about a change in their opinions or if they’ll stick to their ways.  Either way, it brings a bitter taste to my mouth to know that it’s more economically profitable to judge half your potential customers as a low class liability than it is to cater to all who might want to buy your products.

 

Divine Decadence, Darling

I’m not sure when my love affair with nail polish began.  Maybe it was watching Sally Bowles’ glittering talons in Cabaret, decadent even in the poverty and deprivation of Berlin in the 30s.  Or maybe it was because painted nails were banned at school, and there’s always frisson in the forbidden.  Regardless, for me nail polish was love at first sight.  And since I left my strict school at 16, I honestly don’t think there’s been a single day when I’ve left the house without nail polish on.  And any time friends visit my house, the box is soon lifted off the shelf and “nail polish night” begins.

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My collection, a couple of years ago.  It’s grown since.

It’s gone from a symbol of teenage rebellion to an elaborate ritual, and I think the ritual is half the fun.  Cleaning off the old polish, trimming and shaping the nail, preparing the surface with a base coat, choosing an appropriately stylish colour, and finally adding a quick dry top coat.  Sometimes I go around the edges with a make up brush dipped in nail polish remover to get the splashes off, or just peel them off in the shower the next morning.  Either way, it takes about 45 minutes, and it’s some of the only time in the week that I sit still and take a moment to reflect.  Sure, I could do that without nail polish – but I don’t think I would.  In our busy modern world it feels unbelievably indulgent to spend 45 minutes doing effectively nothing once every five days.  But that’s part of the joy of it.

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Christmas nails

Nail polish is completely pointless, like make up I suppose.  But while make up tends to be done at the beginning of the day or before the night out, nail polish is best done at the end of the day, before bed.  It can be a time of reflection, a time to look back over the day, a time to be still and quiet.  It’s always the same process, and yet it’s always different.  Every week brings a new colour, a new style.

Unfortunately, having waxed lyrical about how wonderful nail polish is, it’s also become a problem for me. I can’t fail to notice how thin and flaky my nails have become, how easily they split, and how often when the nail polish chips it takes a sliver of nail with it.  They aren’t glamorous talons any more, they’re ever shrinking stubs.  So I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that I need to take some time out from my ritual of glamour and let my naked nails see the sun for a few weeks in the hope that it will tempt them back to strength.  It’s going to be funny going out without my armour.

It’s going to be even stranger living without my ritual.  I shall have to think of some new stress-busting evening activities.  Any recommendations gladly accepted.  In the meantime, RIP nails, and may you grow stronger soon.

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smashed up current nails – to be improved

 

FODMAPs week eight: the diet is done!

Apologies for not posting last week, but unfortunately I have just moved house and my new house has no internet! I am typing this from my iPad and really hoping it will work…

So, the diet is done. Eight weeks of abnegation and being “awkward food lady” are finally up and what have I learned?

Well, to start with: the diet works. I haven’t had a single one of the crippling stomach aches which were plaguing me before I started the diet in the last eight weeks. This is obviously good news, although sticking to the diet religiously in the long term is considered by dieticians to be too unhealthy to contemplate, something for all budding orthorexics out there to consider carefully.

When I began the diet, I’d never heard of it, but in the last eight weeks I’ve read two think pieces about modern dieting crazes which both mentione it.  It seems that people are taking up the FODMAP plan without seeing a registered dietician (a nutritionist who talks a lot about toxins does NOT count!) and are continuing it relatively long term.  As someone who has gone through the plan, this shows me the sad state of our eating habits today. It’s true that far too many people are unhealthy, obese, and miserable in their eating habits. But the flip side of this is that far too many people are unhealthy, obsessed, and miserable in their pursuit of healthy eating, cutting out gluten, sugar, dairy, whatever the latest thing is.  One of the other things I’ve learned from this diet is that you can’t be “everything in moderation” combined with a moderately active lifestyle.

Another thing I’ve learned is that we’re all little miss special diet these days – even the men. The number of people I heard explaining that they were allergic to non organic wine, or that they had to eat paleo beggared belief.  In a way, it’s helpful, because it raises awareness that not everyone can just eat anything, and I think people are more aware of genuine digestive problems like IBS or coeliac disease, but it also makes it harder.  People faking it don’t get sick when they eat traces of gluten because they’re not really sensitive to gluten, they’re sensitive to stuffing their faces with carbs all day (seriously, I’ve halved the carbs in my diet and they don’t bother me now). This makes it harder for people with coeliac disease to be taken seriously, because waiters mistake them for attention seekers. Hopefully in time the attention seekers will move on, leaving a better range of gluten free products, and coeliac sufferers will be able to reap the benefits. M

The other big thing I learned was not to be so afraid. A couple of times during the diet I did have to ask if we could switch restaurant because I couldn’t eat anything at the proposed restaurant but you know what? No one said no!  I was so convinced I would miss out entirely on seeing my friends, or even that I might lose friends who couldn’t understand. That absolutely wasn’t the case. My mum may have had difficulty understanding the diet but all my friends were extremely supportive.

The final thing I learned was of course which foods were troublesome to me, and it’s a surprising list: beans, lentils, chickpeas, mushrooms, red onions, diet coke and regular coke, rum, and cider. I’ve also really lost my taste for sweet things, which was happening anyway.  I also learned that you won’t lose weight on this diet, unless you exclude dairy and alcohol as well. Since I finished the diet I’ve been eating more healthily than when I was on it, and I’ve lost the weight that I gained on the diet. But this diet is a diet for health, not for weight loss.

So so there we have it! If you thi you have IBS I would strongly urge you to go to your doctor and discuss it with them.  Cutting out large food groups can leave you vitamin deficient, and can be a sign of compulsive behaviour and eating disorders.