What do you think of when you hear the words ‘mental health’? Anxiety? Depression? Bipolar? But very infrequently in campaigns and in the media, do we hear about the biggest mental health killer in the UK: eating disorders.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to the Adam Buxton podcast, and guesting on this episode was everyone’s favourite documentarian – a one Louis Theroux. I could listen to Adam and Louis (old childhood friends) talk about any old crap for hours, but my ears pricked up when Louis mentioned he had made a documentary on eating disorders. They’re just not that commonly covered by such a big name in docs, and furthermore, as most ex-ED people will attest to, even when we’re recovered the subject matter still fascinates us. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that a lot of media coverage of EDs can be incredibly triggering. I found To the Bone somewhat unhelpful. Less because of the risk of it being treated as a sort of ‘How To’ by vulnerable watchers, because if young impressionable minds want that kind of info they were born into a life of Googling everything anyway: they’ll find it. What I didn’t think we needed was another portrayal of EDs as the reserve of white, middle class, pretty young people who otherwise want for nothing: we need to stop equating thinness with success and I’m worried Hollywood can’t help itself.
I hope that Louis has made a documentary much more diverse than the Netflix gloss that missed the mark. I also hope that he doesn’t entirely dwell on the idea that eating disorders are always, if often at all about size. I’ve had close friends who still, after years of knowing me and knowing my mental health problems, would boil it down to “Charlie doesn’t want to get fat.” This almost offensive over-simplification of something that has ruined huge chunks of my life, and the lives of millions of others, is so common it almost feels easier to nod and agree. Yep, that was it. I just didn’t want to get fat. That’s why I lied to everyone I loved over and over. That’s why I said I was better when we all knew I was worse. That’s why I let plan after plan – big ones and small – fall through when I was too exhausted and sick to achieve anything good. That’s why I hold the legacy of my sickness every day in my aching body, in my faded teeth, in my lost trust in my own ability to make good choices for myself.
Luckily that last one can be repaired and I work on that self-belief every day. I don’t judge anyone for misunderstanding eating disorders, either. Firstly, because I try not to judge as a rule: we are all flawed, we are all learning. Secondly, because you don’t always even understand your own eating disorder. I am in the very strangely privileged position of having a partner who also suffered from an eating disorder for many years. You know when teachers bone other teachers and profess “oh it’s just easier to date someone who does the same job because they do the same hours and have the same workload.” (Defo not because they’re all just too exhausted to meet, woo and bump uglies with someone outside of their colleagues!) Well anyway it’s sort of like that. You get an exceptional satisfaction from being genuinely understood and you also get a sponsor, because they know every trick in the book: even the really, really shady ones. So when my self-belief fails (and from time to time it does) I have a wonderful back up, championing my good health and strong mind. But I am lucky, I know.
The other saviour of my mental health, and doing such amazing things for diversity and inclusion, is the body positivity movement. It is because of people like @BodyPosiPanda, @Keah_Maria and @pink_bits (to name but a few) I not only never purge now: I never diet; I never over-exercise; I never restrict after I’ve eaten a lot; when I gain weight it doesn’t bother me and I don’t see why it should and when I lose weight I don’t view it is an achievement or victory. My size and weight and my appearance in general has become of such little consequence since “meeting” these women. Definitions of small, medium, large, plus size, flawed, perfect, ideal, beach ready etc now seem so arbitrary and pointless. I am worth so much more. I am precious and valuable. And I fucking love food. I love my life more than I ever have before and I think a huge part of that is letting the heck go of so many ridiculous beauty standards and enjoying just LIVING. Even when it wasn’t about fat or thin for me, it was my bathroom scales that made me feel in control of my other anxieties. Well now they’re in the bin. I don’t need to be weighed and neither do you.
So, whilst I hope that Louis does a good job with Talking to Anorexia I also hope that we can start to talk about a real change in attitude amongst our biggest, brightest influencers: the social media generation. I think BoPo has done more for me in a few months than years of CBT ever did, and whilst I’m not disparaging therapy, I want health care providers to understand that the mind-set of our young people is different now and that means the treatments will have to be too. We need to completely overhaul the narrative that feeds the priorities of today’s youth and end these vicious cycles of anxiety, depression and self-abuse. We need to stop cutting support services for young people and support services for victims of abuse and sexual violence: two of the most at-risk groups. We need to face up to the realities causing our children to hold themselves up to unachievable standards of “success” and “wealth”, that drive them to behaviours that are so extreme and so damaging.
One day I really hope that both Dan and I can talk to young people about our experiences of eating disorders and our recovery, but for now I salute those online heroes playing their part in dismantling diet culture and its toxic influence on people’s mental health and empowering their followers, in a way that is both inclusive and intersectional. Everybody and anybody can be affected by these issues. If you watch Talking to Anorexia and find it triggering please do feel free to drop me a line. I’m not a medical professional but I sure can listen and I know some great places to go for help too.
Thanks for reading. You’re awesome.
Some helpful links:
Eating Disorder Support: http://www.eatingdisorderssupport.co.uk
Anorexia & Bulimia Care: http://www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk