In Conservation With: a recovering anorexic
I spoke to Helen (not her real name) about her eating disorder and what triggers episodes of extreme calorie restriction
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Helen has asked not to be identified by this article as she is still in recovery. If you need any help getting your eating disorder under control, the right time is always now. Contact www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk
Me: Do you remember any specific time when you started displaying an unhealthy attitude towards food?
Helen: It’s weird, kind of socially, you have to look a certain way to be accepted as having an ED (eating disorder). Like, in my head, ‘anorexic’ meant being super skinny, like six stone (38kg) and I was never that. But it started when I was about ten or eleven. I really wanted to be slimmer because I realised my body wasn’t like the popular girls at swimming birthday parties. I wasn’t athletic. I wasn’t fat either but kind of a normal size. That kind of upsets me looking back: a ten-year-old not eating because of how she looks? How f***** up is our society for that to happen? Anyway. Yeah. I started not eating meals when I could get away with it. But it didn’t get really bad until senior school.
Me: What happened then? Are you okay to share that?
Helen: I was badly bullied, not for being plump or anything, but for being weird. A bit like you were really! Anyway, I used to avoid my classmates by skipping lunch. That’s how it starts for a lot of girls. And you associate the relief and control over not eating or coming into conflict with being happier. So food becomes bad. I’d end up bingeing because I’d be doing so much exercise with sport, walking to school and stuff and then having a massive calorie deficit. My mum got so mad at me when she found chocolate wrappers in my bag because she thought I was overeating. (I wasn’t, at all. I remember taking my shirt off in the locker room and having a girl getting freaked out by my ribs.)
Me: So it evolved to be more than a ‘look’ thing?
Helen: Yeah, well, kind of. That too. A bit of me hoped that if I got pretty I’d stop being so badly teased and in my head being pretty was being thin. Shops and TV definitely didn’t help. Everyone was obsessed with really skinny role models like Kirsten Stewart and I remember wondering why I wasn’t that thin when I ate so little. Of course, now I know that bone structure and muscle mass is a huge part of what shape you are. But at 14 that’s not on your mind. Airbrushing worries me a lot nowadays. In 2009 you couldn’t really photoshop yourself: now everyone can and everyone can see photoshop. Jameela Jamil is such a role model for me on that. She really stands up for common sense.
Me: Do you think society or school could have supported you more?
Helen: Well, it was a bit different back then. EDs were still a bit sexy. I guess they still are, but we are more aware of them. We had Amy Winehouse looking amazing and fragile and Victoria Beckham and Keira Knightley back then: that was how you should want to look, the press and media were telling you. Even if you got very skinny, it was just something about you being careful and sweetly damaged. That’s so f****** wrong. I remember just being told to ‘eat more, you’ll be fine’. Now I think society recognises there’s a strong emotional level to eating disorders. No one really knew how terrifying the thought of eating over 1000 calories a day was to me back then, and why would they? Society knows and recognises EDs more now. We are also more aware of non-anorexic based EDs like binging, bulimia, overeating…I think we are becoming more sympathetic. But we really need limits on how retail and Instagram can market skinniness. It’s so triggering. I remember being 109lb at 5ft 7 and crying because I felt fat seeing a mannequin in New Look that had thinner legs than I did. I remember thinking “I’ll have to die to look like that.” And that was actually something worth doing to me, that deep in! Anyway. Yeah. Society could still do more. We need laws…on weight ‘normals’ in advertising in my opinion.
Me: Would you say you are on the road to recovery?
Helen: Yeah. For now. I’ve got this disorder for life, and I know that. I’m 26 and this started when I was 10, so yeah, it’s not going anywhere. I just know my triggers and I know I’ll have good times and bad times. I usually end up having a phase every two to three years where I get sick again, and yeah, that is usually triggered by seeing myself looking bigger than the media says I should. That’s really fucked up, as I’ve never been overweight, but there it is. I’ll be okay. My clinic is amazing and my family are so supportive.
Me: What would your advice be to young people out there who think they might be getting an eating disorder?
Helen: Get help straight away. I made the mistake of thinking I couldn’t be sick because I was still at a healthy BMI. Even if you are twenty stone, you can have an ED and that needs addressing before your organs start failing, your teeth fall out and your hair goes. There is nothing sexy about being ill. If you’re embarrassed, please call a helpline. I know it’s scary, but you need to get it sorted as soon as possible. Talk to your friends. Talk to your family, your managers, whatever. Just don’t make the mistake I did of having to be hospitalised until I got help. I now have to have vitamin tablets every day and my small intestine is screwed up for life. Please be careful out there. Being thin is never worth it. You are needed and wanted for more than looking hot on this earth. Get help.