Eating Disorder Awareness Week – Can you spot a sufferer?

Yesterday began the UK’s Eating Disorder Awarreness Week, flagged up by charity B-eat. the year is littered with various ‘awareness’ and appreciation days, weeks and months, making them all too easy to meet. Why should we pay attention to this one? Do eating disorders really need more awareness? Arguably they’re one of the most sensationalised mental health problems, providing women’s weeklies and gossip rags an endless supply of material, along with photographs of emaciated beings. There’s an argument that this publicity does more harm than good, teaching young people that throwing up and skipping meals is a viable way of losing weight. When you think of eating disorders, what kind of image comes to mind? Nicole Richie? Mary-Kate Olsen? Red-carpet shots of protruding ribs or an image of a supermodel nibbling on a lettuce leaf?

For the majority, this is not the true face of eating disorders, and this is what needs greater awareness. An eating disorder may exist in a stereotypical teenage girl who aspires to look like a model and goes on a starvation diet, but they could also be a middle-aged single mother, binging after her children are asleep and then overdosing on diet drugs and laxatives. Body-image campaigners Body Gossip have spoken about this far better than I could, so I’ll leave you with a few links to some fantatastic websites and a few stats.

  • The stereotype of eating disorders is a teenager/young woman, white, heterosexual, middle-class, wanting to lose weight. But eating disorders occur in men and women of all ages and backgrounds. Suffers may have no obvious outward signs of their disorder and may be very successful in other areas of their lives, so the problem goes unnoticed. Not all sufferers want to lose weight, be thinner or be more attractive, the disorder can begin for many different reasons. Some sufferers may actively want to make themselves less attractive. 
  • The majority of individuals with eating disorders will be of ‘normal’ weight, or overweight. Many cases of obesity are due to a binge-eating disorder. Services for individuals who are not at a ‘dangerous’ weight can be very limited, adding to the stigma that one must be underweight to have an eating disorder and be ‘worthy’ of help. Ilona Burton’s fantastic article ‘But you don’t LOOK anorexic’ is well-worth reading.
  • Anorexia is probably the best-known eating disorder, but only accounts for about 10% of cases. 40% have bulimia and the remaining 50% are often categorised as ‘Eating disorder not-otherwise specified’. These are disorders that do not meet the AN or BN criteria and may include: all symptoms of anorexia but being a ‘normal’ weight, binging and purging less often, abuse of diet-drugs, eating non-food items, purging without binging, binging without compensatory behaviour, eating a very selective diet such as avoidance or fear of a particular food/group, difficulties relating to swallowing.
  • All eating disorders, regardless of the individual’s weight, are dangerous. Binging, purging, over-exercising, use of laxatives and diet-drugs can have very serious physical effects including electrolyte imbalance, risk of diabetes, fainting, osteoporosis, obesity, tooth damage amongst others. Sufferers of eating disorders are also at high risk of suicide, self-harm and problematic drug and alcohol use.
  • Eating disorders have been seen in children of 6 and adults above pension age. Often these conditions are misdiagnosed or not picked up. Although age of onset is often between 15 and 30, many sufferers may take the disorder with them through their lives.
  • An estimated 10-15% of eating disorder suffers are male, though the real figure may be greater as many do not come forward for treatment due to the stigma attached. Check out the wonderful MGET for more details.
  • There is often overlap with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, where individuals have a distorted view of their body and may go to frantic and obsessive lengths to change or conceal it. Recently more attention is being given to Muscle Dysmorphia, a condition where individuals believe they are weak and ‘puny’ and may abuse steroids and over-exercise in attempts to build up muscle. This condition is seen more frequently in men than women.
  • Eating disorders can be beaten! It often takes a lot of time, support, patience and determination from both the sufferer and the people around them. There will be set-backs and relapses, but recovery is very much possible and worth it.

More facts and figures at B-eat. 

So there’s my bit! Don’t forget, the Re-Capture exhibition (which features one of my photos) launched today in Edinburgh and will be on at Scottish Parliament on the 27th February – 2nd March, in the Garden Lobby. More on the project here. You can also see my article on body image distortions and obsessions in our culture here.

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Ordinary Obsessions

When I left eating disorder treatment I wanted to love myself and my body. Love, not just like. Not just tolerate, put up with, make-do. I wanted to look in the mirror and smile at the person standing there, feel that that was someone worth being. Turn around, do a twirl, and love the me-ness reflecting out.

I was 18 and I’d been in out-patient treatment for a year. I’d been to countless assessments and therapy sessions, cried in front of various stern professionals, and grudgingly, bite by painful bite, I’d put the weight back on. I was crawling back to wellness. But it had been worth it. When my body had enough energy to power it, the world didn’t feel like quite such a fearful place. I began to venture out, to open my mouth, smile and rekindle the friendships my illness had tossed aside.  Something warm began to grow in me.

When the clasps of this monster started to loosen, I felt like I could finally see the full extent of the horror I’d led myself into. The scars on my limbs, the downy hair that now grows permanently from my cheeks, my back and chest.  The dull ache in my fragile, calcium-deficient bones. The feeling of grief for the younger-me began to turn into an anger. Why had being thin, being ‘beautiful’ been so important that I had risked my life and hurt so many others for it? I felt desperately sad for everyone else still stuck in the pain I had felt. I wanted to lash out at the world that had planted such ideas in my head. I was a born-again body-confidence evangelist. Working Saturdays in a local book-shop I felt a surge of rage at the shelves in the ‘health’ section.  Filled with tones of empty promises for the perfect figure and the perfect life; through a few simple dietary instructions. Why should we sell so many of these ugly things, when we didn’t have a single copy of ‘Lolita’, or ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’? But there was a demand that kept the books in stock.

At the eating disorder clinic, there were no fashion or gossip magazines in the waiting room. Only rather dull publications on gardening, interior design and current affairs. At the time I found this rather patronising, that they feared that a photo of a supermodel would be so wretchedly triggering that I wouldn’t be able to bare it. But looking back on it, I think about how they’d tried to keep the clinic a safe space, away from the blare of the appearance-obsessed media. A rare haven away from the storm. It was a token-effort, but I can appreciate it.

In treatment you learn that ‘normal’ people do not keep their bodies at an unhealthy weight, or go to such extremes to lose and maintain weight. The dietician gave me a plan of ‘normal’ eating, with three balanced meals a day, plus snacks in between. ‘Normal’ people feel hunger, and then they eat. And they’re able to stop eating when they’re full. And then they carry on with their day. ‘Normal’ people do not wake up in the middle of the night sweating because they dreamt they went downstairs and ate everything in the fridge. ‘Normal’ people do not burst into tears when trying on jeans in Topshop.

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Re-capture – Eating Disorder Recovery in Photographs

I had a bit of good news today. Which I rather needed as this morning I went out to find someone had broken into my car, which left me more than a little bit miffed. Anyway, back to my news.

I found out that a photograph I took is going to be included in an exhibition of photos by young people (I still count as young!) about recovery from eating disorders. The exhibition is going to be displayed at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh during eating disorders awareness week (20th – 26th February) and then will be touring around Scotland. The people from the project say: ‘It is hoped that the exhibition will create a better understanding of eating disorders and the journey of recovery, while helping to tackle stereotypes and stigma attached to the illness.’  I sadly can’t go to the launch event, but I’m quite excited that so many people will see my photo (I’ve never had a photo in anything like this! I’m going to see if I can get a photo of my photo on the wall). I hope that people will see something in it, that it’ll mean something.

The photo I took probably isn’t one of my ‘technically’ best shots, but it’s one that I felt summed up a lot of my recovery (very much an on-going process). It’s quite simple, but it’s something about ‘making friends’ with my body, after putting it through so much. It’s a picture of my stomach, which if I’m honest, is the part of my body I’ve disliked the most. It does feel a bit strange to put it out there, to the world! I’ve spent many years obsessing over it, trying to hide it, sucking it in, measuring it, doing ever-more sit-ups and crunches. But it’s a part of my body, a part of me. And I don’t have to love it every single day, but I’m learning to live with it, to accept it. And maybe there’s something beautiful about the human body, just as it is. As a photographer I find the human body fascinating. I enjoy photographing people of all different sizes, physiques and looks, but I find it hard to apply this to myself. I’ve come a long way, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel 100% recovered. Maybe I will, I don’t know. It doesn’t dominate my life as it once did, and that’s amazing. There are days when I feel quite ambivalent about it all, but getting the email about this today kind of made me feel that even though it can be really tough, it’s worth it, it’s worth trying.

I haven’t seen the other photographs yet (part of my is hoping there aren’t too many images of smashed scales and tape-measures, but I guess a bit of that kind of imagery is inevitable), but I there’s going to be an online gallery. I’ll post a link when it comes up. I feel quite honoured to be involved in a project like this and be able to use something I love like photography to do something for the cause. Rather than a more public audience, I’m kind of wondering about what reaction I’ll get from other people with eating disorders, what they’ll think. If anyone’s in Scotland and gets a chance to see the exhibition in-real-life, I’d love to hear what you thought!