26 February 2015

The Eyes Have It

I am very weary of being critical of positive intentions; I am the first to despair over people taking issue with a small detail, and failing to look at the bigger picture. The furore over  the "no make-up selfie campaign", or the race row involving Benedict Cumberbatch last month, are prime examples of this. 

That being said, a combination of this brilliant Huffington Post article  by Claire Greaves, and my own encounter with NEDA posts this week, has drawn my attention to the worrying prevalence of 'low weight pictures'. While I recognise that restoring a healthy weight is a huge personal triumph - that the "before and after" is meant as a positive example for why recovery should not to be feared - it comes at a cost. 

We are trying to break that stigma which associates an eating disorder with a protruding ribcage or emaciated frame. For someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, even someone in recovery, they will look at that low weight photo and draw comparisons. Comparison and denial are both common components of the illness; the sufferer convinces themselves that they do not warrant help, or are not 'sick enough'. 

 I do not think your body offers the best indication of health. What does? The eyes have it. You can bundle up your body in baggy clothes, strain a smile and force laughter out of it; however, you cannot mask the eyes of malnourishment. 

In all the photos above I am at a higher weight than in the photos below. In all the photos above I am more entrenched in an eating disorder than in the photos below. The girl above had worse blood results than the girl below. The girl below was not 'recovered', but she was far more free than the girl above, despite that number on the scale being lower.

Even people who are recovered, and go on to speak of their story in the media, often refer to numbers in their accounts. I cannot help but feel this is a part of the illness still lingering. That saying they had x hospital admissions, restricted to x calories, or reached x pounds, is a subliminal way to validate the illness. You do not need an NG tube to be malnourished. Anorexia nervosa is not, in nearly all cases, the total abstinence of food. It is not that black and white. 

The media does not help things. I remember journalist Emma Woolf saying, in a talk at the University of Exeter last year, how a journalist once asked her for low weight photos. This epitomises the prevalence of a disturbing "seeing is believing" culture, regarding eating disorders. Just the other day I saw a Mail Online headline: "Emmerdale star Gemma Oaten reveals how bullying led to eating disorder which saw her weight fall to FOUR-and-a-half-stone". Read on and you learn that she was around 11 years old at this time. Of course, that is still a shockingly low weight, by no means am I lessening the severity. But the headline does distort. 

I will be the first to admit that, when I read the headline, I did drew comparisons, if only for a fleeting moment. Needless to say, relative to Diabetes numbers, weight is not as overwhelming a preoccupation for me as it is for many struggling with an eating disorder; if I felt this way, how must countless of others? When you are focusing on health, you cannot cling to sickness. At least not at the beginning; too much of your mind will still be dominated by a voice that, however perversely, craves it. 

The skeletal stereotype only exacerbates this.
photo credit: nedaawareness.org

Perhaps I am doing a disservice to many people who, like I said at the start, had only the best intentions this week, in raising awareness. Nonetheless, if there is one thing I have learnt, it is that no part of you should stay attached to a number.

When you die, what would you have your epitaph read? Name. 90 lbs. Or: Name. 90 life achievements. 

Things that were only possible to achieve, because you had the health to do so. That number will mean nothing, and it cannot give you anything now. It is something I remind myself of daily - sometimes multiple times a day - because the illness can so easily overwrite reason, in favour of ritualistic counting, comparing and self-criticising. 

Eating disorders can wreak havoc at any weight. Their severity is not measured in pounds. It hurts you mentally, and yes this can a dangerous physical impact, but attaching everything to a visual appearence is a misconception that needs to be challenged. 


  1. I think this post is brilliant and I'm so glad to see your photos with smiling, healthy eyes. Our attitude towards eating disorders is such a strange one because, as you say, it's so focused around actually seeing the evidence and this unwittingly creates an environment where some people are classed as having 'proper' eating disorders and others aren't, which is just completely wrong. Your point about not being attached to numbers and instead focusing on the health that allows to have actual life experiences instead is a great one. Really well thought out post - I've pinned you! xx

    1. Thank-you for your response and the pin! For me it has always come down to the eyes - sadly they are not quite as alive right now as the photos in the post, but they act as a real incentive to get back to that; unlike bodies, the media cannot glamorise sunken eyes. Malnourishment in your face is never distorted into beauty xxx

  2. I love this post and I am thankful for it. Eating disorders remind me of (other) mental illness: if you can't see it, it's not there. It's sad and it's wrong. It's like being gaslighted by the entire world, because it makes you think you're crazy and that just makes everything worse.

    My worth is not in my weight. It's actually pretty amazing (unhappily) how many times a week I have to repeat that to myself.

    1. Completely agree - the misconceptions infuriate me so much. Keep repeating it to yourself and I hope for you that one day you need to ask it less and less. The two truly do not correlate - self-worth is found in YOU. You are not your body, you are your wonderful mind :) x


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