TW: eating disorders
Disclaimer: I am basing this on my personal experiences only (I have been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, mostly restrictive type). Regardless of any generalisations I make, I do not assume to know everything about eating disorders, nor how they can affect each and every sufferer. I am learning just like everyone else. Please be aware that the following contains explicit mention of several symptoms associated with anorexia, and thoughts and feelings I have had as a result of my eating disorder.
I scroll through my Facebook feed, and there is yet another article documenting an anorexia survivor’s recovery. Another inspiring story of a brave sufferer’s triumph over a soul-destroying mental illness. As someone with an eating disorder myself I should be jumping for joy, shouldn’t I? Here I am, blessed with yet more evidence that recovery is possible; a resounding “f%*# you!” to the enemy that has viciously snatched so many months away from me and my loved ones. Instead of feeling understood, optimistic and less alone I feel the opposite: misunderstood, disheartened, and more isolated than ever.
The opening paragraph is enough for me, for as eager as my corrupted mind might be for me to welcome into my life anything with the power to send me hurtling further and further into the disorder’s clutches, my situation is not so hopeless that I will willingly burden myself with more triggers. They are already far too prevalent in a society utterly consumed by diet culture. It feeds and thrives on such phenomena as body-shaming, the promotion of extreme weight-loss, “#thinspiration”, the quest for beauty, for conformity, and for perfection. Trigger, after trigger, after trigger making me question:
How many calories was I having in comparison to her? How much of a difference was there between her weight and mine? Was my BMI anywhere near as low as hers?
“Why would I indulge in such behaviour?”, I hear you ask. Because I have anorexia. So this is just another excuse to make myself feel worse, less worthy, to self-flagellate.
I must match her standards. I mustn’t allow myself to be any less strong-willed or focused, any weaker, than she has proven herself to be. I have to be as skinny as she is. I have to to weigh as little as she weighs. I have to restrict my food intake to the same extent, if not more so. There’s no excuse not to.
To compare my efforts to hers to save myself from my eating disorder’s torturous dissaproval was motivation to push myself further, to be more ruthless, more extreme.
It’s the game anorexia likes to play with all of its victims – to suck the life out of them and then pit them against each other in a vicious battle to their own destruction. I don’t protest, because I’m addicted to the game. I’m too fearful and entrenched in my anorexic mentality to even try. So I can guarantee that what I’ve read will continue to gnaw away at my self-esteem, in terrifyingly menacing fashion, for the rest of the night, and rear its ugly head again tomorrow, and the day after, and next week, and in weeks to come. I will become smaller and smaller and smaller, at the cost of all else.
Yes, my reaction to a supposedly uplifting article may seem ludicrous. But what did the author hope for? Who were their intended audience? It can’t in fact be fellow “anorexics”. So, friends and family of the ‘victim’ perhaps? Surely that can’t be right. I have no doubt that even if I were healthy and happy, my parents, for example, would not welcome such a stark reminder of me at my worst. They would be horrified at the thought of being forced to stare at a picture of my skeletal body, my sunken eyes and gaunt cheeks. Is the intended audience the general public then, those for whom eating disorders are still a mystery? Did the writer seek to inform them? Because, in my opinion, this is hardly the way to go about it.
We hardly need to see another white, young woman with a curved, hollow belly and bones jutting out from under her skin. Such images are all we are exposed to in regards to eating disorders. It gives us the idea that those with eating disorders must all look a certain way, and this can be particularly harmful for those suffering for a huge number of reasons. It can breed even more insecurity about how they look and anxiety regarding how well they are embodying this supposed anorexic identity. It can give people who are exhibiting signs of having an eating disorder the wrong impression – “I can’t be ill, I’m fine – I’m nowhere near as thin as she is.” It can dissuade people who have acknowledged they are suffering from seeking treatment because they feel unworthy, that their case isn’t as dangerous or pressing because their body does not resemble “the anorexic” in all the photos.
These harmful stereotypes are perpetuated by articles such as this: we misinform those who are ignorant of the issue and put those who are already vulnerable at risk of pain, discomfort and further deterioration. For what? Sensationalist shock factor and the voyeuristic pleasure of its readers? Moreover, it’s very misleading. Eating disorders can and do target anybody, at any age, regardless of the path they are following through life, regardless of the colour of their skin, eyes, or hair, their gender, their sexuality, their size, whether they are able bodied or not. Not everyone will end up “skinny” or “underweight”. And that doesn’t matter. Yes, in general your body suffers great trauma when you engage in eating disorder behaviours, and that can result in severe weight loss, but it is after all a mental illness, so that’s where the focus should be.
Perhaps the author was unaware of the triggers their piece would present, and, conversely, believed they were doing a good deed in spreading awareness of such a vicious and misunderstood illness. Instead of profiting from graphic “before and after” photos in which weight restoration is used to symbolise recovery, why not give voice to the highly important message that being in a “healthier” body does not in fact equate to having a healthy mind?
An extremely low weight hardly makes a person’s recovery more impressive, (although I am not undermining the immense bravery they must have conjured to overcome all that they faced), and we definitely shouldn’t be classifying survivors based on the supposed severity of their illness anyway.
So, why does the author not look into some of the reasons for which eating disorders commonly manifest themselves, or the functions they come to serve in sufferers’ lives? Why not raise awareness about the different types of eating disorders that exist (aside from anorexia and bulimia) and the strain they invoke on the mind in addition to the body? Why not put more emphasis on the survivor’s perspective – what helped them through the recovery process, what hindered them, what they have learned and what they feel is important to share? Wouldn’t it be great if we could all look forward to the bright future she has reclaimed for herself, the inner (and outer) beauty that she has been able to recognise, the exciting prospects she can look forward to etc., rather than merely recalling the hell she has been through?
It should be remembered that these people are more than their illness . These newspapers shouldn’t take advantage of them , exploit them as a mere opportunity to sell papers. They are not a financial asset or a reflection of their former, troubled selves. They are not a diagnosis. They are human beings, with many facets and eccentricities that make them unique. Let us not forget that. In addition to this, whoever has suffered, or is suffering now, is deserving of love and support. You don’t need to be any more ill, weigh any less, restrict (or binge or purge etc.) any more, be any thinner to warrant acknowledgement that what you are going through is tough. We hear you, though you may stifle your screams. You are brave, you are worthy, and treatment is as much your right as it is for those who fit the stereotype. Don’t let the media side with your eating disorder.
If you would like to learn more about eating disorders, haven’t understood some of the terms used in the article, or wish to seek help, on behalf of yourself or someone else, get in touch with b-eat, the UK’s Eating Disorder Charity.
Helpline 0345 634 1414
And this link should be of particular pertinence to those in the media industry.
Written by Brittany Roberts