My own serious experience with anorexia began way back in the 1970s when there was significantly less understanding and Anorexia was portrayed as an illness that was solely affected girls and young women, trying to be stick thin to emulate film stars and models of the time. 

Those big TV shows of the day: Dallas, Charlie’s Angels, Knots Landing – all portrayed women who were unfeasibly thin, yet who lived lifestyles that involved a lot of traditional ‘feminine’ preoccupations: maintaining a beautiful home, preparing wonderful, sumptuous family meals, eating out in fancy restaurants, enjoying cocktails by the pool.  The gap for me is between the reality of how they maintained essentially emaciated figures in this context, without becoming obsessive about dieting and exercise.  

This was the pre-lycra, zero calorie generation so everybody wearing jeans had been able to squeeze into them without any of these aids.  It was a time when a boyish, androgynous, ultra-lean figure was considered particularly desirable. 

As the 70s moved into the 80s, the epitome of desire seemed to be the Julia Robert’s look, the tousled, just out of bed hair, the oversize man’s shirt, the long tanned slim legs and the reckless eating of ice cream from the tub without ever putting on an ounce.  More unreality. 

Around this time various celebrities and tv personalities hit the headlines with their unrealistic thinness, which resulted in ultimate personal cost for Lena Zavaroni and Karen Carpenter, who both died of Anorexia at tragically young ages. 

At this time, when eating disorders were quite stigmatized, bulimia was barely spoken about, much less understood.  Resources for recovery were few.  Whilst Anorexia was widely portrayed as ‘fear of eating’ or ‘fear of getting fat’, for me, in my developing psyche, there was the difficult juxtaposition that emaciation somehow equalled prosperity, recognition, wealth, privilege and the esteem of peers. 

 Whilst I must have known that all those people being beamed into our living room weren’t really living any kind of dream, like many people, I was fooled and wanted to emulate them.  It was only recently that I learned that Jane Fonda, who was an icon of aerobics and fitness chic at the time, later admitted to a perfectionist streak and an eating disorder.  Princess Diana was another who, from looking healthy and beautiful at the time of her engagement, soon succumbed to bulimia under the tsunami of press attention.   The public validation for being skinny and glamorous apparently trumped the private psychological distress required to maintain it.  

When I recall my teenage years, there was a total absence of any role models with normal bodies, and with the prevailing fashions of tight jeans and Olivia Newton John satin trousers, Daisy Dukes and Bond girls, there didn’t seem to be any real women, who like me, had evolved with a backside to feed their babies in a famine, or a rounded stomach to protect their vital organs in a freezing winter.  When they did emerge, they were not revered in the same way as the skeletons with perfect blow-drys, driving round in convertibles in the pleasant Californian sunshine, that filled our TV screens. When a woman of a more normal size like Jo Brand or Dawn French hit the screens, they were accepted on the level that they were ‘funny’ and so they broke new ground. They seemed to transcend the space in which I at least felt trapped, where weight loss was congratulated, and appearance frequently commented on.  However, I don’t remember anyone of ‘plus’ or ‘normal’ size being held up as attractive or the epitome of anything; the prevailing trance was to be as thin as possible.  

I have spent some time here outlining the background to what is a personal inner story of how I against the odds survived a serious experience of anorexia in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Discussion of it is still taboo in my family and I confess to feeling mystified at one level as to how I recovered.  At the time, I received nothing more than bi-monthly family psychotherapy sessions with a psychiatrist whom I was never allowed to see alone, and a strange dietary programme of being forced to drink two milky ‘Build Up’ drinks a day, the justification for which I never quite understood. 

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I remember once having a sombre conversation in a hospital corridor with my psychiatrist, where I was told that 99% of girls my age had a higher BMI than me.  To which I thought, ‘Great! And your point is?’   Like all anorexia sufferers, I wanted to be the thinnest of all, so for me, it felt that I was succeeding.  Unfortunately, by this time, any image of myself was entirely distorted in my mind’s eye; I genuinely still thought I had a few pounds to shift, even as the scales were showing me to be about 5 ½ stone. 

This was not my lowest weight by far and I am amazed at how even the distance of years does not diminish some twisted pride in that, but such is this disturbance, such is the hold of the inner voices that dominate your every waking thought when you are living with an eating disorder. 

How do you slip out from the grip of these Voices, rebel by eating something you want to eat, without doing a ridiculous amount of extra exercise, or standing up while eating, or having to make eating an apple last an hour, or any of the other mindless practices the Voices may command you to do? 

My own recovery cannot be dealt with in this short piece; my treatment was insubstantial and didn’t help and I am sure my parents must have felt desperate at the time, as my weight fell and my behaviour became more and more bizarre.   

Anorexia isolates the individual on a quest for perfection; it is such an anti-relational disease and it keeps you at a place where you cannot live your life in the world, you cannot make decisions except related to your intake of food; it has been considered a disease with a Peter Pann-esque side to it, a way to delay and pause the horrors that come with puberty and further uncontrollable change. 

Arguably we’re worlds away from the 1970s; we have even more ways than dieting to try to overcome our physical selves to reach an ‘acceptable norm’.  If we choose to, we can all have hair extensions or false nails or lip fillers; we can work out in increasingly scientific ways, can change the colour of our skin and eyes, mask our complexions with the incredible make up ranges that are on offer today.  But what hasn’t changed is that for so many, the deep silent suffering of not feeling able to fit in because their bodies are not the ‘type’ that are most aspired to. 

Susie Orbach summarized this so brilliantly in the title of her seminal work, Fat is a Feminist Issue, but body issues do not just affect women; many men are affected by the apparent need to be ‘other’ than they are, and eating disorders and dysmorphic beliefs typically strike when people are at their most vulnerable with their self-image. That narrative of self-loathing and lack is intensely limiting and damaging when it persists over time. 

I offer you parts of my story here so that you may connect some of what I have said with aspects of your own life or struggles with eating and food, whether it be abstinence, binging, restrictive intake, purging, excessive exercise, eating in secret, or other behaviours that you began seeing as a solution but which you now cannot seem to put down. 

Constant and rigid dieting and rituals can keep you locked up and safe from living, if that is what you want or need right now.  I never suggest to clients that they abandon their safety net of evolved practices, but I do offer a safe space in which we can take out and examine these practices together and see what learning there is within them.  

I hold to the hope that recovery is possible from all of this; it happened for me and what I learned in that time both anecdotally and from my professional training I believe to be of value in an approach that meets the needs of clients stuck in these punishing spirals of self-hatred around food and body image. 

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