Content Warning: This article contains discussion of eating disorders and restrictive eating
Rebecca Newlands discusses the dismissal of eating disorders that don’t “look” like anorexia and bulimia and how potentially fatal this ignorance may be.
The term “eating disorder” tends to conjure one very general image in the mind: bony arms and legs, protruding ribs, thinning hair, pale skin – the ultimate image of poor health. But while we think we can use these physical indicators to identify someone suffering from an eating disorder, we may be overlooking those who do not fit this physical stereotype and look healthy – on the surface.
I have never been underweight, but like most of us, I have struggled with body image. When I was 15, I was convinced that I needed to lose weight and so I did. I was fixated on a target weight – which was healthy for my height – and when I weighed myself one day and the scales read lower than the number I focussed on, a tiny wave of euphoria rippled through me. I looked around in isolation in my upstairs bathroom, wishing someone was there to congratulate me.
For what, though? Did it make me happier? No. That’s when I realised my behaviour was mirroring that of someone I never wished to be, someone I used to look at photos of and think "I am never going to be like that." I would see people with eating disorders as ill, not inspiration. But just because I didn’t aspire to have the concave stomach and jutting collar bone didn’t mean I was taking any better care of myself. It was my mentality that was unhealthy.
I thought I didn’t have an eating disorder because I wasn’t making myself throw up, I was still eating most of my meals, and I never became underweight. Because I never "looked" anorexic, it never reached a point where family and friends grew concerned for me. I fainted in school one day, and a teacher asked me if I was anorexic. I said no because I wasn’t. But I knew I felt faint because I had binned my lunch. Yet I normalised it in my head because it wasn’t every day that I did that, and I knew I’d definitely eat my dinner later that day, at least most of it. I never told anyone. If I was fine, why did I feel the need to keep it a secret? It was only in hindsight that I realised what I was doing was not good for my physical and mental health, nor was suppressing and normalising it. It wasn't anorexia, but it wasn’t healthy.
We have to get over this idea that eating disorders are just physical; they are mental, with visible physical side-effects. It is a complex issue, it affects everyone differently, and goes beyond just anorexia or bulimia. Food phobias are just as damaging, and something we may not even realise is serious. We laugh at reality shows such as Freaky Eaters, but that "freak" lives in crippling anxiety over the thought of eating any other food. A video of Kelly, addicted to cheesy potatoes, trying to eat a piece of broccoli went viral and was refashioned as a funny meme. But Kelly’s addiction was the result of a traumatic childhood experience with being forced to eat the food she didn’t like, and her husband was begging for an intervention due to the weight she had gained due to her extreme food habits – the extreme opposite of the results of anorexia and bulimia. Her visible shaking and breaking down in tears is demonstrative of a serious issue that needs to be addressed sensitively rather than forcing her to try broccoli in front of a camera crew.
We should not only class "pro-ana" images as results of eating disorders just because they are seemingly the most visually unhealthy. Any changes to our diet have the potential to be dangerous. If stereotypes of anorexia and bulimia continue to be pinned as the posters of eating disorders, people who are struggling in other ways may not feel like they can open up about their behaviour. Purely because we don’t look what we think someone with an eating disorder looks like and we don’t behave in these typical ways, doesn't mean they don't exist. More awareness of the mental element of eating disorders could enable better discussion of them, no matter how trivial, before they have the potential to develop into something damaging or potentially fatal.
If you need help with an eating disorder/disordered eating, you can contact Beat for more information and support:
0808 801 0677