We Need To Talk About Eating Disorders
Student and feminist Delilah Doe shares her own story of eating disorders, the secret that nobody seems to want to talk about.
At the age of 15, I weighed myself at the primary school where I was doing work experience; at 5’4” and weighing nine stone, I was the heaviest I’d ever been.
I thought back to how, round about seven or eight, I’d weighed six stone, and I longed to be skinny again. I felt chubby, and I hated it.
And so began almost a decade of yo-yo dieting and disordered eating.
That summer, I became unwell, losing half a stone and returning to school that August noticeably slimmer. One teacher, on seeing me for the first time in four months, gasped when she saw me, “you’ve lost so much weight!”, whilst friends pointed out how well I looked.
But the thing about losing weight when you’re ill, is that you gain it back pretty sharpish, and soon, I found myself in a cycle of gaining and losing the same half a stone.
Throughout my final year in high school, I went on diet after diet. Well, I say ‘diet’, when really I was living on cigarettes, sugar-free Red Bull, and the odd cereal bar during the day, followed by as small a dinner as I could get away with in the evening. If I felt like I’d eaten too much – and I very often did, either in real-terms through binging, or perceived terms by eating a whole portion of pasta instead of half – then the next day would be spent eating even less, working out that bit harder, and loathing my very being.
Then, the laxative abuse started. After numerous failed attempts at self-induced vomiting, I discovered that I could easily purge through the use of laxatives, which spiralled from the odd tablet to industrial quantities within a few months.
Aged 17 to 18, my days went something roughly like this: go to school, come home, go to the gym, binge eat junk food/healthy food/whatever-food-was-in-the-cupboard, consume a packet of laxatives, tell myself I was an awful, fat, useless human being. Repeat.
It was miserable.
I looked for answers countless times. I knew, realistically, that I wasn’t fat. But neither did I have the bird-like proportions of Cheryl Cole, who to my mind looked incredible even as the newspapers and magazines were crying out about her extreme weight loss.
So I googled my symptoms. Excessive exercise? Check. Obsession with weight? Check. Restrictive eating habits? Check. Rapid weight loss? No. Self-induced vomiting? No. I wasn’t anorexic – I was too big – and I wasn’t bulimic – I didn’t make myself sick – so that I was that. I was, I thought, basically an attention-seeker, desperate to look like my favourite celebrities.
The last bit was kind of true. I did want to look like certain celebrities.
Remember when Alexandra Burke won the X-Factor in 2008? Remember Cheryl Cole in that beautiful gold dress, hands held high in triumph, and how that picture was in all the celebrity magazines and newspaper sections the next day, with her protruding ribcage circled and numerous column inches devoted to how skinny she was?
That’s what I wanted to look like.
Every magazine I read, I looked for diet tips and miracle weight loss solutions. Skipping over the celebrity gossip, I went straight for the double-page feature on whichever female celebrity had lost weight that week, pouring over her measurements, height and weight, and comparing myself ruthlessly to them. Daniella Westbrook, at 7.5 stone, was a size six after her stint on Dancing On Ice – she was the same height as me so logic followed that at her weight, I could be her size too.
Victoria Beckham was only an inch or two taller, but super skinny at six and a half stone, so maybe I could get that thigh gap I so desperately wanted if I was just a bit heavier than her.
And the thigh gap I really wanted.
Desperate for diet tips, I searched online, and found the dark world of thinspiration and pro-anorexia, where I learnt that washboard abs weren’t enough; I needed a thigh gap - space between your legs as you stand, feet together – if I was to be properly skinny.
But let’s be honest – we’re not meant to have a thigh gap. Most women’s bodies aren’t made that way. But for the women, teenagers, and girls running these websites, a thigh gap was the ultimate goal; the ultimate skinny status symbol.
Even now, as an educated woman in her mid-twenties, I really, really want that thigh gap.
Despite the fact that we can all now revel in being “real-women”, as Dove or the Daily Mail would tell us, I still don’t feel happy. I kind of still hate my body, in fact.
A couple of weeks ago, Lady Joan Bakewell claimed that anorexia was a product of western narcissism, and a desire to be thin. Despite her apology shortly after, numerous commentators have crawled out to claim that she was in fact correct, that anorexia and other eating disorders are simply the result of young, affluent women wanting to be thin like their favourite celebrities - that selfie-culture is to blame.
I can’t claim to know what anorexia is or isn’t about – I have never suffered from it. But having suffered from disordered eating for the past ten years, what I can say, is that any form of eating disorder or disordered eating is about much more than just looks.
You may start out in a diet because your favourite singer looks pretty damn good after losing that 20lbs, and you want to look like that too. But when the disordered habits kick in, when you start to binge and purge, to starve and obsess, it becomes something else entirely. The self-hatred isn’t about narcissism, but about thinking that you’re worthless.
You think that you’re worthless, in part, because society worships thin; to be thin is to be successful, to be in control. You’re worthless because you can’t manage to be effortlessly thin and constantly in control like good women should be.
And maybe that’s the crux – or one crux of many – of the issue. What a good woman should be.
Nobody really knows what a good woman should be, but young and older women alike are faced with a myriad of pressures and contradictions. How you should look, how you should think, the perfect career, the perfect man, looking after your children, your parents, your sick relatives, going to work, paying the mortgage. Food is one thing that you can focus on, something to control, when everything else is spiralling out of your control.
Sadly, to get help, someone needs to recognise that you have a problem, and you need to know where to turn to. Doctors still won’t diagnose anorexia without the lack of a period, whilst bulimia - the nearest thing to what I had – is only reluctantly diagnosed in the absence of self-induced vomiting, whilst every time we hear about bulimia – in magazines and on TV – it's all about the vomiting.
There’s an entire section of young women – and middle aged and older women – who are struggling, alone, with eating disorders because of narrow and outdated medical criteria. Add to that the treatment options and the waiting times to access treatment, and you get a pretty toxic situation.
I’ve never told anyone what I did as a teenager, or how some of those behaviours have followed me into adult life, as it goes with the old shame factor – like I say, I still want the thigh gap, the visible hip bones and the 24 inch waist, despite being stridently feminist and fully aware that these things are unrealistic manifestations of a culture where women aren't just objectified on a daily basis, but one where we're encouraged to objectify ourselves.
With a rise in eating disorder hospital admissions throughout Scotland, and perpetually poor access to mental health services, we shouldn’t simply assume that eating disorders affect only the affluent, middle-class, narcissistic teenage girls, who drop huge amounts of weight in extremely short periods of time, and walk around, waif-like in their academically high-achieving lives, taking skinny selfies.
The reality is, that eating disorders and disordered eating are mundane and commonplace, rather than glamourous, easily hidden yet frighteningly pervasive once they take hold. What starts out as a seemingly harmless mission to lose a few pounds to be that bit slimmer can rapidly become a life-consuming – sometimes life-destroying – obsession, fuelled by a seemingly permanent feeling of worthlessness and self-hatred.
And if you still think eating disorders are about narcissism, attention and glamour, then try taking two boxes of laxatives after seven failed attempts at self-induced vomiting, and see how you feel the next day.