I have anorexia. I have done for quite a long time. I go to therapy. I take anti-depressants. I am mentally ill. What’s your reaction? Shock? Embarrassment? Disgust? What do you think of me? Am I vain? Am I an attention seeker? A liar even?
I wouldn’t be surprised if your mind immediately jumped to any of these conclusions; they’re all responses I’ve come across on multiple occasions since I started speaking openly about my condition.
For a long time I was ashamed of my eating disorder. I had an intense fear of how people might react, so I kept quiet about it and made up excuses as to why I wasn’t in school. I’d rather say I had a stomach bug than admit I had anorexia.
When push comes to shove, no one will criticise you for having a physical ailment, you might even get a bit of sympathy if you’re lucky. When, however, it comes to an illness of the mind, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
I’d heard the way people spoke about others with my condition. I’d sat and listened to the comments that they were attention seeking by “ramming their illness down our throats”, the remarks that, “if she were genuinely ill, she wouldn’t want us to know” and the claims of both vanity and weakness. Knowing this was the case, how could I have dared to speak out, even if I knew that would make things better for me in the long run?
Then, one day, I had a realisation. By staying quiet I was letting them win. I was allowing their ignorance to get the better of me and in doing that, I was almost saying people were right to stigmatise sufferers of the illness. And that was something I knew I just could not do.
I believe that this stigmatisation of anorexia and other eating disorders is mostly due to ignorance, primarily caused by the way we portray anorexia. By glamourising the condition in the media, we make people see it is as something ‘special’ and ‘exclusive’, something from which only beautiful, rich, popular girls and women suffer. Admitting to having the illness starts to be perceived as vanity.
Equally, the way the illness is taught in school plays a role in leading to stigma. In my experience, lessons on anorexia primarily consisted of showing students images of highly underweight models, leading people to believe that you can only be ‘anorexic’ if you resemble this. Thus, when someone with a slightly healthier BMI opens up, they’re accused of being a liar.
I truly believe that we can defeat the stigma surrounding anorexia. No one passes judgement because they are a bad person, but simply because they don’t understand. If they knew the reality of what anorexia is, most people wouldn’t react in the way they do. And that’s why it’s so important to speak out. Being vocal about your illness and your experiences is not begging for sympathy or attention seeking, you’re showing people what eating disorders truly are. You’re showing them that sufferers are just normal people who are going through the hardest battle of their lives. And above all, you’re showing other sufferers that it’s okay; their problems are legitimate, they are not alone, and people will recognise their suffering and help them.
And what if you’re not a sufferer? What can you do? Well, that’s simple: just don’t judge. Rather than criticising them, acknowledge the courage it’s taking the person who’s just told you they have anorexia to fight their demons, and try your best to support them.
Don’t make it harder than it already is. You wouldn’t be critical of someone with a physical illness – mental illness sufferers deserve exactly the same.