Category: Eating Disorders in the Media


Like a 1980s throw back, the pavements are scattered with joggers, clad in fresh neon Lycra. Gyms full of frantic activity. Personal Trainer’s, like tour reps, guiding uncomfortable newbies, as the gym stalwarts look on resentfully, impatient at having to queue for machines they’ve come to call their own.

people in gym

Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

Me: I resist the magnetic pull of these sports, though my head aches for the hot, dripping sweat of impossibly intense cardio regimes. With every advert for a new workout,  I remember the hours spent pounding the treadmill, ever harder, ever faster. The high of running on empty, breaking through pain. The cycling, competitive climbing, rowing, bench press, skipping, weights…

… and actually, I hated it. Although I’ve always been fit, at 5ft 2″, I’m not a natural sportswoman. Don’t get me wrong,  I used to enjoy a cycle, climbing, a good walk, but in those days, it was a pastime, not a regime.

Why then?  Why did I endlessly punish my body with ever-increasing levels of cruelty? Why ignore the aching, the fatigue, the pain?

Ask the Anorexia.

Without wishing to sound too extreme, I want to warn anyone who has been lured into fitness regimes and fad diets this January.  Being healthy is all well and good, but making it a mission can make YOU a slave.

I write as one of the many who ironically start out flexible and end up rigid.

My illness began with a gym membership, a health kick. I had given up smoking and just  wanted to stay healthy, get fitter. That’s ok right?

But as I was running faster, and swimming stronger, and lifting heavier; the illness was very slowly, very quietly, creeping up behind me.

I had started toning up, losing weight, shaping up. I pushed my regime. Then I noticed that I felt guilty if I ate something ‘unhealthy’. Before too long,  I couldn’t HAVE anything unhealthy UNLESS I’d worked out. I pushed myself harder. I lost weight. The numbers started going down. I pushed myself harder. Then I could only eat on gym days… Before I knew it, I was too thin to exercise. I had the frame of a seven year old girl.

But I was thirty.

And trapped.

Over a decade later, I am still flying round the same old cage. There isn’t a bar which I haven’t beaten and broken my wings on.  I know every trick and trait of my captor and yet I can’t break free.

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I hate the January burst of diets and slimming aids and gym memberships, and new

fitness plans. I avert my eyes and ignore the call…

I know that for most, it’s a positive thing. But I write to make the case that we all need to be careful that a hobby doesn’t become unhealthy. This is especially pertinent if you’re prone to perfectionism, highly competitive and have struggled with eating problems / body dysmorphia. It’s fine to get fit, but be aware that Anorexia and other EDs thrive on seemingly ‘good’ initiatives. Be aware that these illnesses are clever, and pervasive. They take your brain prisoner…

And if you’re reading this thinking you’re immune, think again; because eating disorders tiptoe past your rational mind. You can’t OUT THINK them.

If you’re worried someone is developing an eating disorder or becoming obsessive about their diet, TALK to them. Be gentle. Suggest they talk to a professional. Be aware that they might not believe they have a problem. It’s crucial that they know it’s not THEM that you appear to be so against, but the stranger who is controlling their behaviour.

If it’s your intention to change your habits for 2019, try not to buy into the media hype. The diet and exercise industry cannot and should not promise you a new and sparkling existence.

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spaghettiJust eat! It’s really that simple”

The well meaning eyes of family and friends cast along the frame of an ED sufferer; pupils travelling the ridges of the clavicle, the skeletal hands and down the birdlike legs.

Just say, I CAN do this

Just make up your mind that you’re GOING TO do it and then DO IT

Lots of ‘justs’. Lots of good suggestions. Lots of spilled frustrations.

So why isn’t it ‘that simple’?

Surely it’s not rocket science…

Well…. in actual fact, although it’s NOT about rockets, there is quite a lot of science involved; physiology to be precise.

When someone is well below a healthy weight, the list of psychological blocks to recovery may be a mile long. However, unbeknown to many, there are also many physiological reasons. Chemical and hormonal shifts in the brain that induce behaviours which can make it incredibly difficult to behave in a ‘normal’ way around food. Experts in the ED field will tell you that a full recovery isn’t possible until weight has been restored to the point where a patient’s BMI is between 20 and 25. In fact, many argue that it is ONLY when a patient reaches a safe, healthy weight (and so, BMI) that recovery can begin.

I agree.

One of the strongest pieces of supporting evidence we have for this idea comes from a ground breaking, wartime,  experiment into the effects of starvation, performed by Dr Ancel Keys.

In 1944, as war raged throughout the world, Keys recruited 36 young men (mostly conscientious objectors) all deemed to be at a peak of physical fitness and mentally / psychologically healthy.  Over a period of a year, he studied the behaviours and mind set of the men as he systematically cut their calorie intake and increased their levels of exercise . By the end of the ‘starvation phase’, the men had lost around a quarter of their body weight and their physical appearance was skeletal.

Photographs of the subjects reveal bodies not dissimilar to those who had suffered in concentration camps. Certainly, the men appeared to have been subject to a lifestyle which denied them of their most primal need; much like the self inflicted discipline exercised by those with Bulimia or Anorexia Nervosa.

For someone attempting to recover from an eating disorder, the most pertinent revelations of ‘The Minnesota Experiment’ lie in the fascinating changes in behaviour displayed by Keys’ subjects. Behaviours and attitudes practised in secret, cloaked in a horrible sense of shame, perhaps feared by the sufferer to be so ‘odd’, so far from ‘normal’ that nobody should ever find out… Behaviour that actually, The Minnesota Experiment, proved to be a direct result of the human body being starved and therefore, some way beyond the sufferer’s control.

Keys documents that the more the men starved, the more overwhelming was their obsession with food. Food became an absolute priority while the rest of the world, family, politics, opinions, religion etc, all faded into obscurity.  The men were restless, their minds unconsciously forcing their bodies to forage for food, allowing little sleep as the need for nutrition overrode all other basic needs.

Interestingly, all the men developed ‘abnormal’ eating patterns, becoming ritualistic, taking up to two hours to eat a meal, cutting food into tiny pieces,  mixing food with liquid to make more of it and hoarding food so they could take it back to their bunks and graze on it. Moreover, the thinner the men became, the less able they were to judge their size as being thin or underweight. A few of them even went so far as to express thoughts that others were too fat. Spot the quandary of an Anorexic.

There were many, many physical effects, most of which an Anorexic will experience as par for the course, but in order to explain why it’s so damn hard to ‘just eat’, I wanted to draw from the physiological findings of Keys’ experiment. The state of semi starvation, of extreme self denial, is in itself, a trap. Being below a healthy BMI produces its own set of barriers to eating, making the initial ‘pre recovery / weight restoration’ phase about as difficult as it could be.

It’s really not as simple as it might seem.

Certainly, during the period of re-feeding, the men ate happily (obviously not suffering from an ED) but my point is that whilst starving, the men underwent such changes to the chemical balances in the brain, that food became an absolute obsession and habits previously unheard of, became commonplace.

When an Anorexic tries to recover, they not only battle the mental blocks that the illness creates, they also have strange, unseen physiological blocks.

(Another terrible hidden suspicion of The Anorexic, that their appetites will become insatiable once they begin to refeed, is also borne out in Keys’ evidence, producing yet another barrier).

I could go on and on about this great study in starvation, but it’s all for another post. What I want to convey is that, despite all appearances, recovery is never as straightforward as ‘just eating’. Refeeding, within itself, is fraught with unconscious physiological blocks and hurdles.

For me, personally, despite this knowledge, and armed as I am, I still stand on the wire, looking at that vast expanse that is ‘no man’s land’, weighing up the risk, trying to see where the mines are set, where the searchlight falls.

It’s been ten years raging, this war.

gripping barbed wireI still want to fight…

…but the real enemy

lies in the woodland

on the horizon

I still need to make it to.

THAT’s the pathology of an eating disorder.

THAT’S the physiology of starvation.

I’m not going to write about all the reasons why I was the least likely host site for Anorexia to burrow into. You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that nobody could believe it, me included.

However, just ONE of the reasons why I am an unlikely candidate, is the fact that I have always been regarded as being “a block of sense”.

It’s true, I have suffered with lifelong anxiety, something which has only really been acknowledged in more recent years, but as a general rule, certain phobias aside, I really am an incredibly pragmatic, diplomatic, rational thinker.

I don’t mean that I can do all the lateral thinking puzzles that MENSA books torment people with. I don’t have an endless chain of resolved Rubik’s Cubes.  And I don’t sit down everyday to complete the Times Cryptic Crossword, just for kicks.2000px-Rubik's_cube.svg

No.

However, I DO have a high proportion of common sense and very level head.

I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet, and again, you’ll have to trust me when I say that arrogance isn’t something that has been a strong feature of mine, but at the end of a long chat last week, a struggling friend looked at me quizzically and asked, “how did you get to be so wise?”.

At the time I shrugged it off, but later I heard it echo and I wondered… How come I have all this wisdom, and yet, can’t apply it to myself. How is it that I can see lights in other people’s tunnels, yet my own is the darkest shade of black? How can I have such insight into the pain carried by others, while I stumble in blind circles? Why can I feel what they feel, but not what I feel? How is it that people are consistently impressed with my intellect, my ‘wisdom’, when all the while,  my Anorexia is behind the scenes calling the shots.

It was my friend’s question that spurred me to write this post, because I want to illustrate something of the devious nature of an Eating Disorder. I’ve heard it suggested that sufferers of this illness choose to be thin in a ‘supermodel wannabe’ sense; that it’s vanity. I’m here to set the record straight. On the contrary, my illness makes me uglier, far less attractive.

I’m writing to explain that I CAN’T EXPLAIN how it is that my rational mind understands that I can’t be fat. It sees the figures on the scales at weekly weigh-ins at the unit. It hears the calculation of my (stupidly low) Body Mass Index, and yet, the Anorexia wraps itself round it all, and perverts it, twists it and denies it.

Lots of people ask the question, ‘do Anorexic’s see themselves as ‘fat’? It’s a massive (no pun intended) concern for those seeking understanding.

I know I’m not fat. Many seasoned Anorexics KNOW this on some level. I do however, feel that I look ‘normal’. I don’t see ‘underweight’. I don’t EXPERIENCE ‘thinness’.

So, I’m shocked beyond belief at a picture my dad takes of me.Picture altered to make background less recognisable.

I can’t recognise the scrawny person in it. She can’t be me. surely?

This is what I want to purvey. This is what I want to educate people about, because I think it’s the hardest aspect for those who watch, to understand. A person may have an IQ higher than the year they were born, but their perception of themselves can be as skewed as the government data on employment. Even with this photo, and the fact that I’ve lost weight since. I still cannot compute that I really look like that.

Such is the complete distortion of an otherwise rational mind. It’s one thing to know something in your rational mind, it’s another to experience it as ‘being real’. In this sense, I make the (somewhat controversial) assertion that Anorexia has an element which is akin to psychosis. This is where the illness becomes a mental health problem, rather than a ‘state of mind’.

 

 

It’s as simple as that really.

Whether it’s an individual or an organisation, if they have a responsibility, they need to be sensible. That’s why responsibility, the notion of it, is an adult thing. Many adults find themselves saddled with jobs, mortgages, children, pets… You hear people harking back to the halcyon years of our youth; waxing lyrical about the days of freedom; days where their minds, clear of clutter, could imagine and dream and create.

Why do they seem so alluring, these days of growing pains, curfews and restriction?

Obvious right? Because childhood is a time of careLESSness; a time without responsibility.

Children aren’t too great at responsibility. They lack the breadth of experience which provide us with the gift of foresight and hindsight. They forget things because they drift more easily through the mists of their creative minds. They have different priorities and values.

So it’s an adult thing then. And as adults, we find ourselves responsible for rather a lot of things, and (more terrifyingly) for rather a lot of people too. *Note, some find this more frightening than others

And really, responsibility, is just about being sensible. Taking a common sense approach. Using logic and sensitivity.

Why is it then, that in the twenty first century, in what is generally understood to be a ‘civilised society’, do we have media who behave in the most IRRESPONSIBLE fashion?

Can anyone explain it to me?

If it was ONE person, then maybe I’d get it. I mean, everyone is irresponsible sometimes. But a whole group? A whole team of, God knows how many, people? Photographers, an editor in chief, the creative director, features editors…

A whole menagerie of magazine employees, and NOBODY figured that featuring the Yves Saint Laurent advert which clearly depicts a horribly underweight model, would be grossly irresponsible?ysl model

Honestly.

I’ll write more on this, but my initial reaction is this.

They’re just

so

very

silly.