Category Archives: society

So Now We Have to Lose Weight to Get Surgery

On Sunday I read the news that obese NHS patients will not get non-urgent surgery until they lose weight.

It made me want to cry. I’m a recovered anorexic who is very active and eats a varied and balanced diet and because of that I am both fit and healthy. I also happen to fall into the “obese” BMI category. In order to lose weight I would have to restrict my food and exercise to the extreme, leaving me both hungry and exhausted; pushing my body below the weight that it sits naturally at. This is unhealthy, and it would mean that my physical and mental health would be in decline. I would also end up spiralling back down into a very dark and dangerous place, with even more devastating and continual effects to my physical and mental health. If I required non-urgent surgery, I would therefore have to force my body into a place where it is not at its healthiest, experience distressing physical symptoms, and in the process would be triggered into a life-threatening mental illness that could leave my physical health in such a bad way that it could kill me – if the torture of living with an active and consuming eating disorder didn’t tempt me to end my life first. In short, I would be put in a life-threatening situation in order to get non-urgent surgery. For me, it wouldn’t be worth the risk.

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Artwork by Francis Cannon

BMI is bullshit. All health professionals know this. And if they don’t, then they should: there’s been so much indisputable evidence that shows us that using a basic BMI chart to tell us whether we are healthy or not is ridiculously primitive, simplistic, and inaccurate. To think that I might not have access to the same healthcare as someone thinner than me after working so incredibly hard to get to this healthy and happy point in my life both physically and mentally makes me feel sick.

We all have individual natural and healthy weight ranges that our bodies choose and we maintain when we have a healthy lifestyle. We don’t get to choose that weight. No one else gets to choose that weight. Our bodies determine it. And those people who don’t fit into the “socially ideal” weight category (that literally wasn’t EVER intended as a way to measure health) get punished for it (whilst those who push the “obesity epidemic” and reinforce the stigma and myths around “obesity” profit from it). There is so much overwhelming evidence that it is possible to be healthy at most weights, shapes, or sizes (depending on yourself as an individual and what your own personal healthy weight is), and it is nauseating to think that people will be forced to make a choice that could cause them both physical and mental distress. 

Even regardless of health, “singling out patients in this way goes against the principles of the NHS,” says Mr Ian Eardley, senior vice-president at the Royal College of Surgeons in The Independent.

The article also reports on more details:

Patients with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 40 will not be referred for routine surgery unless they are able to reduce it to under that number over a nine-month period.

Alternatively they will be required to shed 15 per cent of their weight, according NHS Herts Valley Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and NHS East and North Hertfordshire CCG. 

Whichever achieves the greater weight loss will then allow them to be considered for surgery.

Patients with a BMI over 30 but under 40 will also be required to reduce that figure to under 30 or lose 10 per cent of their weight before they are considered for surgery.

This decision is yet another discriminatory act against people in larger bodies in the UK, and I’m so tired of it. I’m tired of being told everywhere I look that my body is “wrong”. I’m tired of watching my category of bodies represented by images of men and women with protruding stomachs and their heads cut out of the shots as if they are nothing but  their size (for example right now I typed in “obese patients will not get non-urgent surgery until they lose weight” into Google and the majority of the images are fat people with their heads chopped off – seriously, I’m so done). I’m tired of things like having a “World Obesity day” following the National Mental Health day – which if it wasn’t so revoltingly ironic, would be laughable, without even addressing the fact that there is literally a day to tell us all how bad and unhealthy our bodies are if we are over a BMI of 30.

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Artwork by Frances Cannon

Despite that, I’m someone who exists in a body that is fairly “average”. Even as an “obese” person, I have an amount of thin privilege. I can fit into clothing at regular stores. My friends laugh as if it is absurd when I say that my body fits into the “obese” category. My booty is the UK’s “average” size (although this booty is anything but average, just saying), and my top half is below the UK’s “average” size (and just so you know the average clothing size for women in the UK is a size 16, which is a US size 12, and in the U.S. the average size is between a 12-14, which is a UK size 16-18). I have only had one health professional (physiotherapist) mention my weight in a negative way (AFTER I had told him all about my previous experience with an eating disorder and described to him my active lifestyle and balanced diet. And boy, did he receive an educational six-page feedback letter on eating disorders and health at every size? Yes he most certainly did). The discrimination that I face is significantly less than those who live in bigger bodies than I do, and it can have devastating effects on mental health.

I don’t want to be fighting to be seen as equal to other people because of my BMI. I don’t want to fight for those bigger and smaller than me to be treated the same. I don’t want to fight to get rid of negative associations with certain body sizes. I just want it to BE like that. Right now. I will, of course, keep fighting this fight, but man, am I exhausted of having to argue with at least one person every time I say that to be obese is okay and that someone who is obese can be just as healthy as someone who is not. And now we have our healthcare to fight for, too.

Hopefully, one day, we will all be at peace with our own bodies, and each other’s, and regardless of our weight, shape, or size, we will be treated equally and our health considered individually. Until then, let’s keep being angry, let’s keep speaking up, let’s keep pointing out the evidence, and let’s never give up.

Artwork by Francis Cannon

Exercise (pt 1): Is it Part of Your Healthy Lifestyle, or Are You Waging War on Your Body?

personal-exercise

My first ever blog post was on the dangers of exercise addiction, but I wanted to reboot this topic and do it over in two parts, focusing more on exercise in recovery from an eating disorder (in part 2), as well as exercise in the general community (part 1 right here), and the effects it can have on both sets of people.

Exercise is something that those with eating disorders use and abuse to lose weight, change their bodies, and deal with negative thoughts and feelings in a negative and unhealthy way, but it is also something that has become a toxic part of many people’s lives in the community at large. It has become something that is unhealthy for many people who are engaging in it.

“Exercise…unhealthy?!” you gasp in disbelief, “How can something that is clearly part of a healthy lifestyle be a problem?”

The issue with exercise in our society now is the way people exercise. The issue is why people exercise. The issues are the mentality: the thoughts and feelings behind what is driving someone to exercise, and the outcome that they are looking for.

If you look around at the media, at health food blogs, at doctors recommendations, at magazines, books, and website articles, then you will see that women primarily, but also men too, are constantly being told that they should be exercising in order to lose weight or become toned, or in some way alter the way that their bodies look. I frequently see my friends updating their Facebook statuses letting us all know they have had an intense session at the gym, or tweeting about how they don’t want to go out for a run because it’s cold but that they need to. I see “healthy” lifestyles which include clean eating (eliminating all processed foods and extra additives from your diet, and only eating whole, unrefined foods) and regular exercise all over blogging sites. I can’t seem to avoid fitspo. Society has become obsessed with it.

There are people who genuinely enjoy the physical activities that they pursue as hobbies. There are people who don’t like the physical activities that they choose to do but feel that the results are worth it.  There are people who cannot stand to do the physical activity that they force themselves to do but feel like they have to do it because of whatever the driving force behind their exercise is – which is usually body hatred.

In my opinion, only the first of the three types of active people that I mentioned should be exercising. The others should cease exercise and heal their relationships with their bodies and themselves before resuming any physical activity. They should find physical activities that they genuinely enjoy that are primarily focused on having fun and/or socialising rather than changing the way their bodies look.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning a lifestyle of sitting on the couch eating Chinese takeaways and playing videogames forever after (but if that’s what makes you happy, by all means, go for it! No judgements made), as I believe movement is part of a healthy lifestyle, but I do not think that anyone should be forcing themselves to do a workout that they don’t find any enjoyment in. I do not think that anyone should be wasting time engaging in activities that they do want to do purely because they are driven by a society telling them that their bodies are not good enough as they are and/or that they are lazy and unhealthy if they do not engage in x amount of physical activity doing certain types of exercise.

“I really don’t want to go the gym today, but I know I need to/have to/should,” is a common comment that I hear from colleagues, friends, and strangers, and this is a result of the insidious and toxic system that is diet culture. Nobody has an obligation to engage in physical activities that they don’t enjoy. Nobody should.  These days we see exercise as something we don’t want to do, but something that we have to do. Doctor’s orders. Exercise has become something we associate with gyms and aerobics and gruelling runs, which most people don’t really enjoy. We’ve lost touch of recreational activity: doing things that we enjoy that involves physical activity. The enjoyment part is primary, and the activity secondary.

Being active is great, but only when you have found something that you actually enjoy. This could just be leisurely strolls through the countryside, or hikes in the hills. This could be swimming with your kids, or challenging a friend to a few badminton games. This could be finding a team sport that makes your heart race and your grin wide. It could be practising mindfulness through yoga, or getting competitive with a colleague whilst playing squash. This could be once a week or once a day. Whatever makes you happy. Not whatever makes you lose weight, or whatever gives you abs. Not whatever gives you a tiny waist or bulging arm muscles. Not whatever burns the most calories. Whatever makes you happy.

Physical activity should be done only if it adding to your life, not something that comes at a cost. Not something that you dread. Not something that you have to make yourself do. Exercise is something that is pushed on us as categorically healthy, but it’s just not when it comes at the expense of someone’s mental or physical health, and it’s not when the drive behind it is body dissatisfaction, or downright body hatred. On the extreme end of the spectrum, exercise can also turn into a dangerous addiction, and in the case where exercise becomes the focus of someone’s life it needs to be taken very seriously, and this is something that I will talk about in my next article in the coming weeks (part 2).

If you are exercising not because you want to, but because you feel that you should, or have to, then I would highly suggest that you take time out, stop the exercise that you have been engaging in, and take the time to evaluate if what you are doing is actually benefiting you. Assess your reasons for exercising, and start building a positive and healthy relationship between you and your body. Because you need it, and you deserve it. Your body is perfect just as it is. Learn to love it, not to wage war on it. Then find movement in your life that makes you smile. Find movement in your life that you look forward to. Find movement that brings you positivity, and never expend energy in the name of diet culture ever again. You are beautiful, and this is what you deserve.

 

Why Do We Find it So Hard to Accept that Our Weight is Not as Within Our Control as We’d Like to Think?

bridget jones

Most of us have grown up in countries preoccupied with weight. We have grown up being told that it is down to us what size we end up at, that we have control over what weight we are, and that it’s about having willpower and making the “right” choices about what we put in our mouths. We’ve been told to count calories, exercise at the gym, resist cake, fill up on fruit and veggies, and even to curb hunger with glasses of water. We’ve been told to ignore hunger, wage war on our bodies, and to trust the information given to us by the media and the weightloss and dieting industry. Even our doctors have gotten on board with the “healthy is only for the slim” message, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

But recently, health at every size and weight set point theory are finally starting to become recognised as fact. Information about our bodies having varying, individual, healthy weights that the body will attempt to stay at regardless of what you eat is at last wedging itself into the media. Information about the fact that you can be fat and be healthy is now getting noticed, rather than being swept under the rug and buried by the pharmaceutical and weight loss industries that benefit hugely from the majority of the population trying to alter the way that their bodies look.

But even though this evidence is coming to light, people still seem to be having a hard time accepting it. By people, I mean healthcare officials and others who get to make the big decisions about what information is given as guidelines for health. By people, I also mean the public. Even though the evidence showing those who are in the “overweight” BMI category are living longer than any other BMI category (yes, including the “normal” category) was so overwhelming that it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people are still trying to find reasons to why this could be other than it actually just being the obvious: that it’s healthy to be “overweight”, and that “overweight” is not overweight: that we have to accept this as reality, like we would with any other comprehensive scientific study. Even the medical community keep trying to bury their heads in the sand and subtly hide or erase the information that the (many) studies have given us.

Other studies show that you can be any shape, weight, or size, and be healthy (this becomes less likely with the very morbidly obese and the underweight, but that is not to say that there are not those in both categories that are healthy), and many, many studies show that food and weight is not as correlated as we have been told it is (for more information on weight set point theory go to “Weight Set Point Theory!” under my links section). In fact, it probably doesn’t play much of a part at all, unless you are starving yourself so that your body cannot maintain its weight because of the lack of energy, or you are stuffing yourself to the point of nausea every time you eat so your body cannot cope with the excess energy. The latter is not a common occurrence, except for those with binge eating disorder (which is far less common than you think it is, but that’s a conversation for another time), whereas, unfortunately, the former is – because of the influence the dieting and weight loss industry has had on us, and the prevalence of restrictive eating disorders. The body actually has it’s own system for regulating body weight when you are listening and responding to it properly, not ignoring hunger, and following cues from the body to eat whatever it wants, whenever it wants. If you are in touch with your body and can eat an amount comfortably within your day, then you’re not eating too much, and your body can regulate the energy it is being given so that you still maintain within your healthy weight range that is individual for your body.

So why, even with all the hard facts and evidence, it is so hard for us to accept that a) you can be fat and healthy and b) if you want to be healthy, you have to let your weight be what it is supposed to be naturally?

It’s something that I’ve had to think about, because this is a topic close to my heart and one that helped my recovery from atypical anorexia, and because I’ve come across people on the internet and in my life that have point blank refused to even look at the research showing them that the misinformation that has been drilled into us from our fatphobic, thin-obsessed diet culture isn’t actually reality. It’s frustrating, and it’s sad. I am lucky that most of my friends are at ease around food, and – even though they have their own insecurities about the way that they look – accept their bodies as they are. However, I have a few friends that include those who go on and off diets, desperate to find a way to feel better about their bodies, those who flit between diets and disordered behaviour whilst loathing the skin they live in, and those who battle eating disorders (and before I end up validating the myth that diet culture is a common cause of eating disorders, it’s not, but it sure as hell makes recovering all the more difficult). It’s these people that I feel so sad for, and all the billions of others that are at war with their bodies, that don’t know about – or can’t accept – the fact that their natural, healthy weight is not under their control. And I feel sad for all those who are naturally in the overweight or obese BMI ranges, whose natural, healthy weights are where there bodies are at, but are constantly shamed and abused for those bodies that they are in. And I feel sad for those who have spent their life yo-yo dieting, only to see their weight go up and up and not understand why (side note: it’s because your metabolism slows down during the diet because your body is being starved, and then it stores energy as fat when you go off the diet and so you subsequently gain weight, so you end up back on a diet again, and the cycle continues, rather than letting your body heal and settle back at its natural, healthy weight range). And I feel angry at those who remain wilfully ignorant and keep judging and condemning those who are overweight or obese.

culture

But back to the question: why is it that we find it so hard to accept that maybe body diversity is great, and that people can be healthy at any weight, shape, or size,  and that we can’t dictate what our weight is if we want to be healthy and happy?

The first, most obvious reason to me is that we have had misinformation drilled into us for so long. We have grown up being told fat is bad and that we are responsible for saying no to so many of the foods we want to eat, responsible for exercising frequently, and responsible for maintaining a slim body. To then hear such opposing information means that our world turns upside down. Food and weight are such integral parts of our culture and society that to have what we think we know turned on its head is disturbing. It’s confusing. It’s shocking. It means we have to rethink everything about that topic. For some people, that’s just too much, so they refuse to believe it: they reject the new knowledge outright. People don’t like change. It’s scary and it makes people feel uneasy and unstable. It also means that if you accept that we are being lied to, then it makes it hard to know what information to trust, and that makes life a hell of a lot harder.

For some people, making choices about food and maintaining a certain weight through those choices are a form of control. People generally like to be in control. And even though we associate food and control being two parts of an equation that results in an eating disorder, those without eating disorders often engage in what is called “disordered eating”, and that can most definitely include feelings of control. Disordered eating is not a mental illness, but it’s an unhealthy relationship with food (and most probably involves body image issues too). It’s also really, really common because of how obsessed our society has made us with food, and because our diet culture literally encourages it. To be someone who uses food and weight maintenance as a way of feeling in control, and then finding out that you don’t need to have that control and actually to not be controlling about food and weight is the best way to be healthy, is an anxiety-provoking experience. So they reject it.

People also don’t like to have laboured under false hope. Those who feel unsatisfied with their bodies (and who doesn’t after our bodies have been attacked and shamed and ridiculed by the media and the dieting and weight loss industry in order to get us to buy their products) and who have gone on to diet, don’t want to know that their efforts are in vain and that they will not maintain any weight loss, that they will probably end up gaining more weight than the weight they originally lost, and that their dieting and subsequent weight loss and weight fluctuations can actually create health issues including higher risk of developing diseases, and a higher mortality rate. People who feel unhappy in their bodies don’t want to hear that they actually can’t make those changes to their bodies, especially if they want to be healthy. They don’t want to know that they are stuck with the body that they have, even though it has been shown over and over that changing your body doesn’t make you any happier (and again, changing your body isn’t sustainable). To actually learn to accept your body as it is can – sadly – seem like a much bigger challenge than changing it.

In addition, there’s a darker reason why people don’t want to accept the changing of the tides where food and weight is concerned: people who make what are considered “healthy” choices about diet and exercise feel morally superior.

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from “How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food” By Leon Rappoport

This makes me feel highly, highly uncomfortable, and it should make you feel the same. What people eat or don’t eat is not a reflection of who they are as a person. It doesn’t make someone a better person if they eat whole foods and abstain from any kind of “junk” food. It doesn’t make someone a worse person if they enjoy burgers and fries. Eating “healthy” doesn’t mean that they have more willpower than someone who chooses to eat “junk” foods. It doesn’t make anyone more superior than anyone else. It doesn’t mean that they are making better life choices. It doesn’t even mean that they are doing the best thing for their body and souls. It doesn’t mean anything except that they are making different choices to someone else. That’s it. That’s all it means. But somehow, it has become ingrained in us that we are morally superior if we make “healthier” choices. And yes, I chose to put that word in quotation marks because I don’t believe that you are necessarily healthier if you only eat “healthy” foods. I also believe that distinguishing “healthy” and “unhealthy” perpetuates a negative relationship with food because it then leads to “good” and “bad”, and there we are, back to morality, guilt, and shame again.

Accepting information that affects us in so many different ways is a really, really tough thing to do. Food and weight is inextricably linked with feelings of superiority and willpower, shame and guilt, with privilege, abuse, money, hatred, insecurity, laziness, greed, power, and sexuality – if not much more. To look at it all anew and recognise how much of it is wrong, and the devastating affect it has had on so many people takes time and patience. It also takes acceptance that those providing us with our health information don’t have our best interests at heart, and that can make some people feel embarrassed for having such blind faith in such a corrupt system.

So I get it. I get that it’s not something that people can just accept at a moment’s notice. But on the other hand you can’t bury your head in the sand and protest blindly against that which is proven fact, however much others try to muddy the water and cloud your judgement. Think for yourself. Educate yourself. Whatever conclusion you come to, make sure you’ve got the information and the knowledge. Don’t just blindly accept whatever you are told as the truth. That is all I ask, for your sake, and the sake of those affected by our obsession with food and thinness…for the sake of everyone. Take control by educating yourself, making the right choices for your physical and mental health, and taking steps towards making peace with your body, as it is.

Food is Not a Moral Issue

cake

“I’m being naughty today”, the woman in front of me paying for her coffee and brownie says to the cashier. I grit my teeth and bite my tongue. I want to tell her that the word “naughty” does not apply to food. I wanted to tell her that being naughty is doing something wrong, and food is not a matter of right and wrong. I wanted to tell her that food is not a moral issue.

“I’m treating myself today” is another one I hear often when in the queue at coffee shops; the women looking guiltily at the cashier, wanting to justify their hesitant decision to buy a slice of cake. The underlying message is always “I’m disciplined usually! I swear it’s just this one time! I don’t usually eat cake!” And underneath that, is the belief that cake is bad.

How can a food be bad? It doesn’t make sense when you really think about it. Food fits into the category of inanimate objects. They are not alive, and do not possess a personality or a concept of right and wrong. Food cannot be good, and it cannot be bad. Food is food. Food provides energy, and different types of nutrients dependent on the type. Eating one type of food doesn’t make you good, and eating another type of food doesn’t make you bad. It just means that you are eating a food type. Having cake does not have an impact on your morality, and therefore, neither the cake nor you are bad.

Bad, indulgent, naughty, sinful – these are all words to describe a personality or moral status, and yet we – and the advertisements that we watch – use them to describe some of the foods that we eat. Why only certain types of food? Who decided that cake, chocolate, or ice cream was indulgent or sinful? Who came up with the idea that eating a burger is bad? Who suddenly felt that consuming a bag of crisps was naughty?

But what about gluttony? you ask, gluttony is one of the sins. If you are of a certain religion, then you’re right: gluttony is, in some Christian denominations, viewed as a sin. I also want to point out that, according to the Bible, wearing two types of material together is a sin, as is divorce, eating shellfish, and your wife defending your life in a fight by grabbing your attacker’s genitals (no seriously: “If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity.“). We seem to over-exaggerate some “sins” and ignore others entirely to suit our society. Gluttony – derived from the Latin “gluttire” (to gulp down or swallow) – means to over-consume food, drink, or wealth items to the point of extravagance or waste. Note that it is not limited to food and is about the immoral actions of wasting food or wealth that could be given to the needy. Note again how it does not specify certain types of foods and is not related to weight or healthy but rather to greed – having so much that it goes to waste. That does not mean eating a piece of cake because you fancy one. It means buying two cakes, eating to the point of nausea, vomiting so that you can fit in more, eating again, and throwing away the rest. (In this example I want to make it very, very clear that I am not talking about vomiting as an eating disordered behaviour. Vomiting to fit more food in was something that historically was used by wealthy citizens so that they could continue to eat more when extremely full, and I would imagine is linked to how gluttony was historically viewed in its accurate portrayal rather than our ridiculous twisted version of “gluttony” in our diet culture orientated society).

Even when I’m aware of all of this and have a healthy and happy relationship with food, it is still sometimes near impossible to not become sucked into the feeling of shame for buying foods that are considered “bad” in our diet culture, even though I myself do not feel that way. Standing in the queue at a store, chocolate in hand, I have felt anxious that I might be being judged for my choice of purchase. This is heightened by the fact that I am not someone who is super slim, and people are far more likely to judge those who are not super slim for their food choices than those who are. This type of judgement becomes more prominent the bigger the body – which is utterly inappropriate and stems from the incorrect belief that food and weight are intrinsically linked and that those who are bigger should eat less or differently to those who are smaller (check out my section on set point theory under “links” for more information), so I dread to think of the way those without any kind of thin privilege might feel at the prospect of being harshly judged for buying chocolate and the like.

I was talking with a friend recently about how people feel they have to behave in a society like ours in regards to food and exercise. My friend, for your information, is the epitome of the “ideal” woman that our society says we should strive to be: a blonde beauty: very slim but with curves in all the “right” places, but she is not exempt from the multitude of insecurities that our society pushes upon us. You can be the “ideal”, and you are still not ideal enough, and that is how the diet and weight loss industry makes billions of dollars per year, because we are always striving to change our body and make it “better”. She says, “I can be dressing up to go out on a night out, and I will have the same amount of insecurities as someone else [with a completely different body type] – they are just different insecurities about different things.”  In our second year of university she was miserable, and on reflection, she now puts a lot of that negativity down to the fact that she was forcing herself to go to the gym and eat salads, just because she felt that was the “right” thing to do. She was restricting her body in the name of being “healthy” and being “good”, when in actuality she was starving her body and subsequently destroying her emotional state at the same time. She has no history with an eating disorder in any shape or form, and even so, our diet culture told her that what she was doing was “right” – something she continued to do for the majority of that year, in spite of  both mental and physical effects.

The message our society gives out about food is toxic and damaging. Start trying to repair your relationship with food. It’s okay to eat what you want, when you want. You do not have a moral obligation to eat in a certain way (the same applies to exercise). Don’t label foods as “healthy” and “unhealthy” (read: “good” and “bad”), as this perpetuates a negative and unhealthy relationship with food. Enjoy your food. See it as a wonderful thing that provides for your body, brings people together, and gives you pleasure.

Food is food. Food is not a moral issue.

The Portrayal of Anorexia Nervosa in the Media (and the General Lack of Representation of Any Other Eating Disorder)

Magazines

There was a time, a couple of years ago, when I expressed interest in a photoshoot that was going to show people of various shapes and sizes in bikinis or “tasteful white underwear”, to accompany an article on the recovery of eating disorders. As a B-eat media contact, I receive emails about research projects, articles, and surveys to do with eating disorders that I could possibly help out with, which is when I stumbled across this article and the request for those who had recovered or were in recovery to contact the journalist who was to be writing the article.

I expressed my interest, and the journalist and freelance writer who was to write the article responded. She explained that the aim of the article was to have a positive and influential impact on the way eating disorders are viewed in the UK. She wanted to eradicate the myth that a full recovery isn’t possible, and also to present a healthy image of women’s bodies. She expressed that she was aware that the media usually sensationalises eating disorders, and portrays the subject is a very negative light, without ever looking at the recovery journey and people who have achieved remission. She wanted the article to inspire those in the grips of an eating disorder. To me this sounded like an excellent idea until I read with unease that my present weight and clothes size was expected to be included in the article, as was a “before” and “after” photograph.  It stated within the email that she was not looking for a shocking image, but if that was the case, why on earth was there any need for a “before” photograph at all, showing me when I was sick?

If the intent was to raise awareness for non-disordered people, and inspiration for those who have an eating disorder, then a photograph of someone when they are sick would not be beneficial in any way. Disordered people would only be triggered by such images and most likely put off by the weight gain that they see between the before and after photographs (a comparison between the two would be inevitable), and raising awareness means showing a variety of eating disorders: bulimia, EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), and BED (Binge Eating Disorder), as well as anorexia. People who suffer from eating disorders that are not anorexia tend to be of a normal or above normal weight, and therefore a “before” photograph would not illustrate their sickness. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, and therefore the problem lies predominantly within the mind, not exclusively within the body. A photoshoot portraying people who are recovered in bikinis or underwear would be positive because it would show those in remission being proud of their bodies instead of feeling ashamed and hiding them, the focus should not be on what clothes size or weight they are now. Giving that number significance just defies the point of recovery and draws attention to what these people have been fighting so hard to get rid of: the destructive obsession with attaching such an importance to a number. Why would that number even be given a mention in an article about recovery?

I replied to the journalist, stating my thoughts on the matter, but she never sent me an email back to answer my questions about it all.

The media need to stop printing photographs of these extremely underweight girls day in and day out. Not only does the frequent publishing of photographs of anorexic individuals numb the viewer, but there is a high risk that it will trigger people with eating disorders to push themselves further into the disease, and hinder those who are trying to recover by possibly sparking a relapse. This could also cause the same for those who are recovered, because being recovered does not mean being cured. One of the eating disorder’s most powerful weapons is its little mantra: you’re not sick enough, and so when faced with images of the worst cases of anorexia, those with eating disorders more than likely have that voice whispering persuasively into their ear. Photographs of anorexics at their lowest weight benefit nobody. Ever.  At the end of the day the use of these images of very underweight people are there to satisfy the curiosity of the viewer, and not for any beneficial reason for those afflicted with the disease.

Notice that I said “girls” in the paragraph above. The prevalence of eating disorders in men is becoming more and more significant, but articles about men with eating disorders are extremely rare, which furthers the stigma surrounding it and invalidates the many men suffering from the illness. We need to start representing the male population who suffer with eating disorders. It is so important that they get recognition and acceptance, so that more men feel able to ask for help and support which they desperately need.

Another negative to these images is that because anorexia nervosa is the eating disorder most visible to the eye, the media focuses almost entirely on that eating disorder only so that they can publish disturbing images alongside the articles to shock the viewer and satisfy their morbid curiosity. This results in the media neglecting to give equal coverage to bulimia nervosa, BED, and EDNOS, not to mention ortherexia nervosa* and ARFID, which most people have not even heard of, and anorexia athletica. Our society seems eager to gawp at people who are physically different in some way to most others; whether they are exceedingly thin, extremely overweight, showing severe symptoms of illness, deformed, or disabled. Some examples of this are the programs Supersize Vs Superskinny, The Undateables, and Embarrassing Bodies. We are overly intrigued to see those deemed physically unattractive try (and often fail) to lead a normal life, but that has got to stop when it effects those in similar situations in a harmful way, which is exactly what the publication of these types of images does. We are so obsessed with staring at those different to us that it becomes the main focus of articles on eating disorders, and so all the other eating disorders get barely any coverage, which is extremely invalidating and perpetuates the myth that anorexia is the only “serious” eating disorder. All eating disorders are life-threatening and soul-destroying, and it is so important that people receive that message loud and clear.

Because the media focuses chiefly on those with severe anorexia nervosa and ignores the existence of other eating disorders, this only enhances the misconception that eating disorders are about weight, and that people who are not severely underweight cannot suffer from an eating disorder. Eating disorders are judged far too frequently by appearance, and people that are of a normal weight or above normal weight are not taken seriously enough by friends, family, and even doctors. The media only panders to that incorrect judgement.

People need to realise that eating disorders are exceptionally harrowing, extremely serious, and utterly destructive mental illnesses, and not some kind of sick pastime in the form of some “light reading” in a glossy magazine.

We are people, and we are suffering: stop parading us around for the entertainment of others.

*Ortherexia nervosa is not mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) but was first used by Steven Bratman to characterize people who develop an obsession with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. This is something a vast majority of people in recovery from an eating disorder experience a phase of, but it is also very much experienced as a stand-alone mental disorder and should be taken very seriously, as it can result in malnutrition and even death.

Being Open About Mental Illness

Mental illness can be a tricky topic for a lot of people. Whether you are the person suffering from a mental health issue or not, the topic can be difficult to talk about.
Most of the time this is due to ignorance. Mental health issues have stigma attached to them. Maybe you have heard someone say that someone with depression just needs to get over it and make an effort to be happy. Maybe you have heard someone tell someone with anxiety to “stop being a pussy” or to “man up” or to “get a grip”. Maybe you have heard that eating disorders are self-inflicted, or that someone with schizophrenia is a “psycho”. Maybe you have found yourself being the one that has said these things. This is due to the misunderstanding surrounding mental health problems: they are never a choice, and it does not mean that you are “crazy”.
Mental health problems are not something to be ashamed about, nor are they something that you should make someone else feel ashamed about. Mental health issues and illnesses are real, and they are extremely difficult to deal with, and often debilitating. 1 in 4 people will experience some mental health issue in the course of a year and 1 in 6 experiences this at any given time (The Office for National Statistics Psychiatric Morbidity report, 2001) . Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain, and depression affects 1 in 5 older people. British men are three times as likely to die by suicide than British women, and self-harm statistics for the UK show one of the highest rates in Europe: 400 per 100,000 population. (source) (more statistics for Britain here). That means that a hell of a lot of us suffer from mental health issues/illnesses. It means that even if you do not suffer from any mental health issues/illnesses yourself, then you will know someone who does.
Some people seem to believe that if you are open about a mental illness or disorder, then you are looking for sympathy, shock, or pity. This is an absurd opinion. I am, and have always been, very open in the fact that I have/have had an eating disorder, but I do not want anyone to feel sorry for me. Thanks, but no thanks.  Some people think that you are attention seeking or trying to provoke a reaction. This may be true, but not in the way they perceive it to be. People with mental health difficulties are suffering, and sometimes their illness can be a way of coping, or a way of expressing to the world that they are in pain (think eating disorders and self harm). Not always, but sometimes, this is the only way they can communicate how they are feeling with the outside world. Next time you think someone is looking for attention, it might be the kindest thing to do to give them some, and show them that you care.

People with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bi-polar, borderline personality disorder, OCD, psychosis, schizophrenia, or any other type of mental illness should not have to hide part of themselves for fear of seeming like an “attention seeker”, or labelled in any other negative way.  They should not have to feel ashamed of an issue that they have the strength to deal with every day. Dealing with mental health issues does not make a person weak. In fact, it is often mental health issues that reveal the immense courage and bravery of a person.

Just because you suffer with a mental health problem should not mean that you automatically hide that part of your life and be made to feel uncomfortable expressing the things you have to overcome in your daily life. When people have a bad day, or they break up with their boyfriends, or have a huge fight with their parents/siblings/friend/partner, they are able to express their feelings of hurt and anger without fear of being judged. However, when someone with a mental health problem has a bad day due to their condition, a overwhelming amount of the time they feel like they are unable to openly admit about their bad day purely because it was down to a mental health problem. It is important to be able to vent and communicate when you are having a hard time, so please make sure to open up to the people around you that you trust and are comfortable with, and if you are that person who someone opens up to, be sensitive and responsive and mature about the situation. Talk to them, support them, and encourage them to seek help from a professional if they are feeling overwhelmed.

Some people find my rather blunt way of stating my problems and talking about them matter-of-factly without appearing awkward or breaking down into a pool of tears quite unusual, but I am fortunate in that I have never felt inclined to hide who I am and what my day consists of just because some of it used to be down to an eating disorder that I suffered with, or anxiety, or a bout of depression. I will not edit out part of my life simply because the way society is has caused a lot of people to feel uncomfortable when the subject is brought up. They may feel uneasy talking about it, but I spent years living with it every minute of my life. We all have problems, and we should all be able to express them as much as the next person.

If you have a mental health issue, be open about it if you can. Communication is key in relationships, and it is key to getting help with whatever it is that you are struggling with. If you don’t have a mental health issue, be aware that others around you do. Be receptive. Be kind. Do some research to further your understanding. The world will be a better place once we eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health issues and illnesses.

 

What Being Healthy Really Means

About a year or so into my recovery, I went to the hairdressers. When I sat down for a haircut, my (very awesome, around-the-same-age-as-me) hairdresser said, “You’re looking healthy!”

It took me a while to register that what she had said was a compliment. The eating disorder lodged in my brain saw an opportunity and cried out “Healthy?! Healthy?!What she really means is fatter.”

image

The above image is me before and during recovery from atypical anorexia. I didn’t even realise that there was a difference in the way I looked then and now bar that I had gained weight until I was at a friend’s house over Easter and on her wall were two photographs that included me: one at a healthy weight and one when I was underweight. I was in shock. I never realised how pale and sick I looked.

My hairdresser had been cutting my hair in Manchester since my first year at university. She saw my drop weight to my lowest, and she saw me restore it again. That’s how I know that her compliment was so sincere.

One thing that I’ve noticed since being in recovery is that even though sometimes I am unable to act on my own opinions, those opinions about food and weight and body shape have become so healthy that they’ve moved way over to the other side, as far away from disordered as possible, and past even most “normal” people’s views. My views have become so healthy that when I am having coffee with my friends at Starbucks, and one of them says “Oooh, do you think I should get a cake with my coffee? It’s kinda a lot of calories…” I look at her disapprovingly and say “Of course! If you want it, you eat it! Stop asking me for validation, that chocolate cake looks so damn good that you should get TWO SLICES.” Another of my friends said that she had eaten loads that day but “haha it was okay” because she would just work out for double the amount of time. To which I shouted “No, no you will not! Our bodies are not mathematical machines that have specific countable amounts going in and our like our diet culture would have us believe. You do not have to double your work out just because you over ate for one day. GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK!”

Having an eating disorder and trying to recover from it has ruined a lot of my life and had me existing in constant misery. What it has done for me though is introduced me to blogs like Fyoured, TheFuckItDiet, and Youreatopia , which opened my eyes to the actual truth rather than the lies that our money-grabbing, body-shaming diet culture would have us believe (I suggest that you check them out). I began to learn that being healthy means making the right choices for you and your body. It means going swimming if you genuinely love going swimming (but not before being in remission, or nearing it). It means having a second helping at dinner if you still want more. It means playing badminton with your best friend if that is what makes you smile. It means sitting down with a friend to watch a movie and sharing a whole tub of ice cream if that is one of your favourite foods. It means eating whole foods if that makes you feel great. It means spending the day in your pjs in bed blogging and watching TV when you want to relax. Being healthy means doing with your body what makes you happy. Genuinely happy. Without that eating disorder voice having any say.

In addition, exercise doesn’t have to be exhausting, or stressful. You don’t have to dread it. In fact you can exercise without even having to take much notice of it, and that’s the way that it should be done. Exercise should not ever be about changing your body. What it should be about is genuine enjoyment. In fact, I have talked about this topic extensively on my YouTube channel (Herehere, and here are my videos on exercise in recovery, and exercise in remission). It does not mean you have to spend gruelling hours at the gym or engaging in high intensity aerobics, gasping for air in your living room. It can mean taking a walk in the countryside with your dog/friend/camera. It can mean splashing around with your mates in the pool. It can mean getting competitive and enjoying a game of badminton in the sun. It can mean getting on the trampoline with your siblings. It can mean walking in the fresh air to town to do your shopping rather than catching the bus. It’s about what works for you.

Health is eating the right foods for you and nourishing your body and your soul. It’s about eating whatever you want, whenever you want. It’s about trusting your body and it’s cravings; whether it is calling for doughnuts or broccoli, you should respond to it. Being healthy is being happy, and the happier you are the more it will shine through your skin and your eyes and in the way you hold yourself. Knowing that is how I overruled the voice of my eating disorder when my hairdresser complimented me with those words: the knowledge that I was shining the most I had done for going on two years.