I recently spoke to a journalist who was interested in covering my row to London for Beat. Her first question, before she even asked about what I was doing or why, was “Do you have any images of yourself at a low weight?” As soon as I calmly explained Beat’s guidelines on the topic, which advise ambassadors not to provide these sorts of images, she launched into a heated speech about how she “simply couldn’t understand why that was necessary” because if I was “claiming to have been anorexic” I would “need to prove it”!
I thought to myself that that is precisely the problem with the current state of the media: too many people assume they understand eating disorders by sight alone, rather than stepping outside of their comfort zone to consider the reality that they run much deeper than skin level.
Given the recent controversy on Twitter surrounding the portrayal of eating disorders on popular TV programmes, it is important to recognise that their basis lies in the psychological symptoms, NOT the physical alone!
Displaying images of sufferers in their skin-and-bone state puts too much focus on weight loss, which is in fact just one of many symptoms of eating disorders – and actually only applies to anorexia which accounts for just 10% of cases under the umbrella term ‘eating disorders’.
As a result this feeds the common misconception that in order to have an eating disorder one must be drastically underweight. In fact, many people who are diagnosed as having an eating disorder never fall below a healthy weight!
In my own fight for treatment I was turned away because I was not underweight enough, even though I had already reached the stage of amenorrhoea. It seems so dismissive to believe that anorexia in particular is categorised by emaciation; in my last blog I explained how even after three years of maintaining a healthy weight – and therefore by the media’s definition being recovered – I can still encounter the distorted cognition associated with the illness. The weight is simply a by-product of the thoughts, and so the thoughts are just as much present once the weight has been gained, and take far longer to work through.
Another common justification is that seeing such graphic images of starvation will make an anorexic ‘think twice’ about ‘what they are doing to themselves’. Anorexia is NOT a lifestyle choice that can simply be opted out of! They are not doing anything to themselves, they are being dictated to by the malicious voice of a genuine illness.
Susan Ringwood, CEO of Beat, has said: “Eating disorders are more hard wired than was first known to be the case… people with anorexia can know they are at risk of dying and can find that less terrifying than gaining a few pounds in weight”.
The ‘shock factor’ which is experienced by the typical reader, and is exploited by the media, does not affect someone with an eating disorder. Susan continued: “These images do not shock them, they excite, encourage and motivate them to get as thin if not thinner than the person depicted”.
‘Triggering’ can sound like such a trivial word, but the truth is that presenting emaciation as a validation of anorexia not only promotes the denial of being ill because a sufferer will never feel like they look like the person in the picture – and so they can’t have the same illness – but also brings out the innately competitive side of the illness and drives the need to restrict food further because they take the image as evidence that they can (and in their mind should) be thinner!
It is understandably difficult to comprehend the danger of these graphic images when to most people they serve as a catalyst for disgust, but I would urge anyone viewing such an image to consider it from the point of view of a person who is caught in the deadly grasp of an eating disorder. To these people, opening that magazine in which they sought a momentary escape from their own reality only to be faced with a representation of the idol who they feel they can never replicate merely reinforces the feeling of inadequacy, self-hatred and depression.