There are hundreds, thousands maybe, of stereotypes surrounding anorexia. And some of them might be true. For some people.
The idea that every person who suffers from anorexia fulfils every stereotype is absurd, and dangerous, but it is an idea that is constantly perpetuated, within the media, public view and even our own minds.
My own experience with anorexia ticked many of the “boxes” that people might associate with it – restricting, weight loss, calorie counting, loss of my period, to name a few. But I also didn’t fill many of the criteria for anorexia – I never reached a point of being medically underweight, my disordered behaviours went on for less than two months before I was referred to treatment, I was relatively open (perhaps overly so at some points) during my entire illness and inpatient treatment was never even considered as something that was needed for my recovery – and this inability to tick every box used to haunt me every day.
Despite some attempts at challenging the stereotype around weight within anorexia, in my experience, the underlying belief of most people, no matter what they say, is that you don’t really have anorexia unless you are severely underweight, or that if you aren’t underweight then it’s “not that bad”. This belief was most proven to me when, during the most intense part of my recovery last summer, To the Bone was released, and the main actress was required to lose a significant amount of weight in order to convince the rest of the world that her character did have anorexia. Whilst there is no denying that many sufferers from this eating disorder do reach a point of being medically underweight, and it can be an evident symptom of the eating disorder, not everyone reaches that point, and it is also important to remember that just because someone isn’t medically underweight, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t underweight for their body type.
I was extremely fortunate that my weight did not prevent me getting treatment on the NHS for anorexia, and I was able to access an incredible treatment program without having to drop to a certain weight. This is not to say, however, that my technically “healthy” weight did not cause me much distress. At the start of my recovery I struggled a lot with some of my friends believing me when I said I had anorexia, until they saw the extent of my weight loss, at which point their behaviour seemed to dramatically switch. I even struggled with some of my own family not understanding the severity of my illness, or seeming to be able to take it seriously, partly due to my weight.
The worst struggle, however, was with my own mind. My eating disorder both loved and hated the fact that I did not fulfil so many stereotypes associated with anorexia, and used them against me – my “not sick enough” belief was further proved to me by the fact that, in a lot of countries and according to a lot of medical criteria, I literally wasn’t “sick enough” to get treatment. It plagued me that at the start of my eating disorder treatment, I was the same size as many of the other girls my age who were weight restored and finishing their treatment. Whenever I spoke to anyone openly about my illness, guilt followed me around for the rest of the day, as my eating disorder screamed at me that I was a fake and a phony and that no one who actually had anorexia would be as able to talk about it as I was. Despite now being extremely grateful for early intervention, when I was very ill I resented that I had only been actively restricting for a very short period of time compared to the hundreds of stories about restricting that went on for years before people were able to fully commit to recovery. I couldn’t help but think – if they were only able to be treated years after being ill, why should I be allowed to recover after only a few months?
Now I am glad I didn’t fulfil those stereotypes. I know further weight loss would have meant a longer journey and much more weight gain, which I struggled enough with as it was; I know my ability to be open about how I was feeling and what I found particularly difficult and distressing was part of the key to my (relatively) quick recovery.
And early intervention? What did that mean for me?
It meant that instead of the initially proposed year-long treatment, I was discharged from my local eating disorder services only nine months later (something I am actually really proud of myself for)! It meant that my relationships with friends and family could still be salvaged. It meant that, even at my most ill, the hold anorexia had over me could not defeat the power of my mother and my treatment team. That my battle, whilst brutal, disturbing, and desolate at times, didn’t have any long-term effects on my physical health and, now a year later, I feel like there is light at the end of the tunnel. Early intervention means that it has been so much easier to fight this disease, and I know I wouldn’t be anywhere near the point I am at today if I hadn’t received treatment when I did.
I wonder, if we all examined the stereotypes we have internalised surrounding anorexia, (even sufferers themselves, as I know I still make assumptions that aren’t always true) then perhaps we could be more empathetic and understanding to others that are suffering around us?
Perhaps we could even be more understanding to ourselves?
Note from Beat: Weight can affect the diagnosis people are given for their eating disorder. Anyone suffering from any eating disorder requires and deserves immediate treatment, regardless of their weight. You can find out more about eating disorder diagnoses here.