Sixteen year-old white girl. Long blonde hair. Thigh gap, skips meals. Runway model.
That’s what you imagine when you think ‘eating disorder’, right? Tragic beauty. Trivial and vain.
No. As someone in recovery from an eating disorder, stereotypes are dangerous. The image of the ‘beautiful white girl’ is wrong. I accessed support alongside people whom you wouldn’t have expected.
Teenage boys trapped in the half-life of an eating disorder. I had a friend who had been struggling with anorexia for years but until it got to the point of threatening his life, his doctors and family refused to face up to the truth of what was wrong. He was cripplingly weak but couldn’t miss a gym session for the body-wracking guilt, but he was ‘just getting fit’, right? Pre-pubescent girls. There are 11 and 12-year olds who have had inpatient treatment, or whose families are so concerned with the self-destructive thought patterns of their primary school-age children that they’re seeking help. 50-year-old women who had tried to juggle raising a family with ingrained habits of binging, purging or restricting.
Stereotypes get in the way of people getting help. It’s easier to be in denial yourself if everyone around you is as well, such as if you’re male, of an ethnic minority or an age considered inappropriate for an eating disorder. Eating Disorders Awareness Week this year is about early intervention, and to make any progress in that area we need to eliminate stigma and remember that eating disorders aren’t about age, gender etc,: they are mental illnesses, and unlike people, mental illnesses don’t discriminate.
They also don’t make you less of a strong person- I was bought up in a family that believed in the mantra, ‘Pain is just weakness leaving the body.’ Suffering from a restrictive disorder was good at making me feel in control and strong- until I admitted to myself that I needed help. It took me a long time to accept help- about 8 months of a continued downward spiral. Then one day I realised that it wasn’t normal to walk 6 miles every morning before school to throw my advent calendar chocolate into a specific bin so I could get my exercise in as well as disposing of the ‘unnecessary’ calories. It wasn’t normal to exercise for four hours on Christmas day despite being so weak I technically should have been wheelchair-bound. It wasn’t normal to have weekly doctors’ appointments to check that my heart wasn’t about to give out. It wasn’t normal to physically shrink in height because of loss of bone density. It wasn’t normal to cry if my mother made me eat an extra half-portion of carbs. Admitting you need help is so hard to do, especially when your mind is screaming at you that you’re okay- but once you accept it there will be people there to help and support you.
So what are the signs of eating disorders?
Image credit to b-eat.com
Lips: Food starts to take over your thoughts, making it difficult to concentrate. Perhaps calorie-counting obsessively, feeling anxiety over social situations where there may be food, restricting food to a greater extent than dieting, buying and secretly eating large amounts of food, describing foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
Flips: Becoming more socially isolated, perhaps acting distant around situations involving food or diet talk, becoming uninterested in previous hobbies, mood shifts, feeling inadequate
Hips: Making comments on how ‘fat’, ‘chubby’, ‘disgusting’ they are and how much they’ve eaten after a normal/ small amount of food, obsessive weighing or measuring of body parts, ‘body checking’, body dysmorphia- seeing your body as out of proportion with reality
Kips: Difficulty concentrating on anything but food, excessive tiredness, dizzy spells
Nips: Perhaps disappearing after meals to purge with laxatives or by making themselves sick, or needing a distraction after a meal to avoid feelings of guilt
Skips: Compulsive overexercise can be a serious problem with effects of damaging bone structure etc. particularly in conjunction with eating issues. Feeling guilt after missing a workout, feeling compulsions to walk excessive distances or complete excessive exercise everyday.
Remember anorexia isn’t the only eating disorder: bulimia, binge-eating disorder and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Officially Specified) are all medical disorders and deserve treatment too.
For more information on symptoms, as well as how to get help visit:
Aside from clinical lists of symptoms, trust your instincts. If you’re worried about someone, speak to them or someone close to them – it’s better to be safe than sorry! If my friends had trusted their instincts, even though it would have been scary to breach the subject, I wouldn’t have had to get to such a critical point before getting significant medical help.
Recovery is Possible
So once you or a friend are receiving help for an eating disorder, one big question is: Does it all just magically go away now? That was certainly what I was thinking; how can the eating-disorder voice that is practically taking over my identity just be- killed off? Surely I would lose everything I was?
But, three years after beginning my recovery journey from late-stage anorexia, I realise that my eating disorder was not everything I was. Recovery has made me who I am today, yes: fighting against yourself 24/7 will do that to you. It’s made me stronger: I’m not saying I don’t ever relapse because I definitely do, but I can recognise a relapse almost immediately and get myself into a position to combat that. I’m not saying all the thoughts have gone away, that I don’t ever want to compulsively overexercise or purge or fast, but the thoughts aren’t there all the time. Some days they’re stronger than others but some days I don’t hear them at all.
I’m weight restored now and I’m 95% recovered, I have my fertility back, I don’t have to go for constant weigh-ins and bone density scans and face threats of hospitalisation every week. Sometimes it’s so hard and I still need help- it’s a mistake to assume that weight restoration and ‘normal’ eating means full recovery- but recovery is very possible and so worth it. I made it to university where I have a lot of wonderful friends and I can go out for nice meals and dates. I proved wrong all the doctors who told me I would be dead by 17. If you’re reading this and you recognise anything that’s been said here in you, please try and reach out for help. It’s difficult, especially with the stigma but f**k, it’s so much better than living in the half-life of an eating disorder.
“There are some days when the numbers take over and there are some days where the greed screams. But there are other days when happiness prevails and those days are sure as hell worth living for.”
To finish, here’s a bit of a prose poem I wrote back in 2015 regarding ED recovery:
(Sorry, us English students are the worst!)
My current convalescence rubbed salt water in my eyes. The pain is sharper than the bones I once longed to expose as I recoil from where the tide has bought me clarity. The darkness that was obscuring my vision now gone, I see the irony dance to life in front of my eyes. The water has extinguished the fire that chased me to the edge, and yet now I feel heat for the first time in years. And now the water is helping me see, the thoughts that led to my dissolution are dissolving themselves until they are nothing more than a bitter aftertaste. And the numbers that define me get bigger as my world expands, and words come pouring out of my hands like the streams that waterfalled from my eyes. The fire that held me prisoner now gone, and yet the stars are shining so much brighter.
And I thought that self-control made me strong, but in my convalescence I’m so much more a fighter.
By Louise Tilly- (remember I’m always happy to talk in more depth about any of this!)