EDAW: Visions of eating disorders in film and writing

Every time that Eating Disorders Awareness Week comes around, I am amazed to find that is has been another year without the control of Anorexia/Bulimia.

Perfectionism – and feeling like you will never reach the standards that you set for yourself – is a common underlying cause of eating disorders (especially Anorexia). The ability to pat yourself on the back, or congratulate yourself for the things you have achieved, is thus a tricky business when you struggle with perfectionism. But recently, I’ve learnt how important it is to take a step back and acknowledge how far I have come, and how many amazing things I have been able to take part in now I am recovered.

This year, I’ve decided to talk about authors and screen writers who have depicted eating disorders, rather than talk about my own experiences, as this upcoming week is a busy one and I want to avoid dwelling on negatives. However, what I will say is that I am one of the lucky ones. Although I was not underweight, my GP took me seriously when I eventually asked for help, and they referred me to therapy at my local hospital that had a short waiting list. Many are not so lucky. In a time when waiting lists for counseling are ridiculously long – or are shut altogether – and people are denied treatment for Anorexia simply for not being underweight, it is so important to have sources other than professional help which responsibly and truthfully talk about mental illness.

A book about the toxicity of diet culture cannot solve Anorexia. A film about Bulimia can never truly depict the agony of living with an eating disorder. What they can do, however, is educate people on the realities of mental illness and the pressures contributing to the development of disorders. A mother may watch something like My Mad Fat Diary to try to understand her daughter’s binge-eating disorder. An office worker may read Body Positive Power to learn more about the diet obsession that pervades her workplace. The books and series that I have listed below have been sources of interest and inspiration to me; if I ever have a stressful day or start to overthink my appearance or food, I will read a chapter of Ruby Tandoh’s book. If the (false) feeling of power and control that comes with an eating disorder begins to look appealing once more, I will return to the truthful depiction of Anorexia in Overshadowed, to remind myself that a life of restriction and obsession can only bring misery. Although I do not believe that a book can solve an eating disorder – only therapy and hard work can do that – it can be a useful resource for life-long recovery, and a helpful reminder of why you should keep battling your mind.

Next to the titles I have included advice as to when in your recovery journey the text would be useful, or who might find the text helpful, as some things may distress those still battling with an eating disorder.

Body Positive Power – Megan Jayne Crabbe.

Crabbe has put trigger warnings into her writing, making the book more accessible to those with eating disorders. Most useful: during or after therapy – to re-train your brain to avoid diet culture / body hatred. Very useful for family members wanting to know how to help.

Megan Jayne Crabbe is better known as the body positive blogger, @bodyposipanda. Famous for her Instagram account, she spends her days critiquing our diet-obsessed culture, and educating us on the damage of diet talk and the devastating consequences that such talk can have on our minds. Anorexia – which Megan herself struggled with from the age of 13 – is discussed alongside diet culture in this book. Body Positive Power highlights that body negativity and food restriction are so engrained in our culture that we think it is normal to hate our bodies, and to spend our lives trying to get thinner. Crabbe says that diet culture is ‘in the never-ending murmurs of how many pounds have been shed this week that you overhear on the train, at work, among friends’ – and considering the obsession with bodies and food it is no wonder that eating disorders are on the rise.

Far from simplifying the onset of eating disorders, however, Crabbe does not insinuate that diets cause Anorexia. A lot of the book focuses on eliminating diet culture from our vocabulary, rather than the relationship between Anorexia and diets. She does, however, discuss eating disorders in depth in her chapter ‘Not Sick Enough’. She preaches that Anorexia does not necessarily equal drastic weight loss, and that this societal conception of the illness must be dispelled:

‘Losing weight doesn’t compare to gradually losing everything you thought you were, every opinion, every passion, every joy in life slipping away until all that you are, and all that you have, is a voice, and what it allows you to do.’

Most of all, Megan Jayne Crabbe stands as an inspiration to all who have suffered with disordered eating; she has been fully recovered from Anorexia for 3 years and wants to encourage others that recovery is possible:

‘It’s possible to reach a point when the pain from those days doesn’t hover over everything you do. One day you might stop and realize it’s been a while since you even thought about that time. And when you do think about it, you know that those demons don’t have the power to tear you apart anymore.’

Body Positive Power is an incredible resource not only for those who have suffered with eating disorders, but also for those who feel pressured to lose weight, to look a certain way, or to feel guilt about their food habits (aka, all of us). I highly recommend reading.

Eat Up! – Ruby Tandoh

Credit: https://www.amazon.co.uk/

Most useful: deep in recovery and after therapy. This book helps you to see the joy in food again – written by Ruby Tandoh (Bake Off contestant) who has recovered from an eating disorder.

This book puts the love, joy and excitement back into food. In a world where we are encouraged to count calories, restrict ‘unhealthy’ foods and avoid processed food like the plague, Ruby Tandoh’s book is a breath of fresh air. I am yet to finish reading, but so far every chapter is full of beautiful descriptions, simple recipes and inspiring positivity about food. In her chapter ‘Emotional Eating’, Tandoh tackles the subject of comfort eating:

‘Comfort eating gets a particularly bad reputation and I’m not here to write off this kind of eating as some weak-willed, emotional indulgence […] We’re conditioned from the moment we’re born to equate food with comfort, and we carry this belief with us through every sucked thumb, soothing bedtime Horlicks and post-breakup feast.’

Obviously as a recovered bulimic, comfort eating has been, and continues to be at times, a problem for me. Although there is a massive difference between binge eating and comfort eating, eating for comfort has been a prominent part of my lifelong relationship with food, and thus it is easy for comfort to become binging / massively over-eating. However, Tandoh discusses comfort eating in a non-judgemental, balanced way. By removing the guilt, obsession and restriction from food talk, she is feeding a similar revolution as Megan Crabbe: food is not the enemy. It never has been – we have just been convinced by forces out of our control that it is.

As Tandoh reminds us, sometimes there is nothing more relaxing than cooking a hot meal, or more satisfying than getting a ready meal out of the microwave after work, or more comforting than a slice of cake on a Sunday afternoon. Eat Up! tells us that wanting food does not make us greedy, that processed foods are not evil, and that clean-eating is not the way to happiness. If that’s not the best kind of book to read after years of a broken relationship with food, then I don’t know what is.

Overshadowed – BBC3 series, Kay Mellor

Most useful: after therapy and deep into recovery. Mellor’s series is a difficult watch if still trapped in an eating disorder – but it may be useful for family members trying to understand a loved one’s Anorexia, or for a person who has been recovered for some time.

I have praised this series before for its honest and gritty depiction of Anorexia. In this series, Anorexia is personified in the form of Imo’s best friend, switching between screaming at Imo to get on the scales and plaiting her hair after a long day.

One of my pet hates about Anorexia in film is that the focus is usually on physical symptoms (hair loss, brittle bones) and drastic weight loss. Here, however, Mellor keeps the focus on Imo’s emotional torment and fracturing relationships with her family and friends. Through Imo’s daily vlogs, the audience sees the obsession and denial that encases her, as all too soon a harmless fitness plan has spiraled into an eating disorder. If you are looking to understand how Anorexia is about much more than food, and the impact on an individual’s perspective on themselves, look no further than Overshadowed.

Hollyoaks (Cleo’s Bulimia storyline) – Channel 4 series, Phil Redmond

Most useful: after therapy, once the person is confidently in recovery. Good for people wanting to know more about Bulimia.

Back in November 2017, I got the incredible opportunity to go on the set of Hollyoaks and talk to staff about representing Bulimia on screen. Cleo’s Bulimia storyline started just before New Years Eve, and so far has been a respectful and effective depiction of the mental illness.

Hollyoaks shows the secrecy and guilt that surrounds Bulimia (Cleo is still yet to seek help for her illness or tell a family member), but it does so without sensationalizing the feeling of control that comes with an eating disorder. Cleo turns to binging and purging as she is still reeling from the impact of her step-father’s abuse, and her drug addiction. Feeling broken and lost is such a crucial part of an eating disorder; Cleo wishes to disappear all together and eating becomes a way to have a sense of self-worth and power.

Hollyoaks have been working closely with Beat (UK’s Beating Eating Disorders charity) to produce this storyline, and when I shared my experiences with Bulimia they treated the subject matter with such respect. I felt as though everything I said was taken into consideration, and as I watch the storyline unfold in the show I am noticing bits of advice that I shared with the team. I recommend watching this storyline, and using it to educate young adults about eating disorders.

Charlie Collett

Photo credit: Rii Schroer, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/my-perfect-weekend/10424780/My-perfect-weekend-Ruby-Tandoh-Great-British-Bake-Off-finalist.html