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Coming Out About Eating Disorders Might Not Be Cathartic, But It's Important

Girls' Zosia Mamet became the latest celebrity to share her struggle with an eating disorder this week. Author and previous anorexia sufferer Emma Woolf explains how important this public "coming out" is.

by Emma Woolf
Aug 14 2014, 10:40am

Photo via Flickr user Benjamin Watson

Girls' actress Zosia Mamet became the latest celebrity to share her struggle with an eating disorder this week.

"I've struggled with an eating disorder since I was a child," she wrote in a column for Glamour magazine. "This struggle has been mostly a private one, a war nobody knew was raging inside me. I tried to fight it alone for a long time. And I nearly died."

The list of celebrities who have admitted to eating disorders—Victoria Beckham, John Prescott, Lily Allen, Mary-Kate Olsen, Kate Winslet and Lindsay Lohan—is growing. It's all-too-easy to dismiss them, to roll our eyes and think oh please, just get on with your model-acting-whatever career. But here's the thing: when these women speak out they're not just getting the urgent issue of eating disorders into public discourse —which can only be a good thing—they're also admitting that being super-slim doesn't come naturally.

There is a risk, of course, that beautiful, successful celebrities could inadvertently glamorise eating disorders to vulnerable fans. It's the same risk any role model takes when they discuss their demons, be it drink or drug addiction or any kind of mental illness. A few years ago, both Kerry Katona and Catherine Zeta-Jones were accused of jumping on the bipolar bandwagon. As if such a debilitating condition were a carousel one could hop on and off at their whim.

I believe these celebrity revelations have a huge impact on younger women (and men) who are struggling with food and eating, body dysmorphia or low self-esteem. I remember, aged 19, feeling very alone with the terrible secret of anorexia. I was at university, had just been through my first serious relationship break-up and simply stopped eating. What started as straightforward heartbreak spiralled out of control. My weight plummeted from a healthy nine-and-a-half stone to five-and-a- half.

I knew something was badly wrong, but I didn't know who to talk to. Or how.

In the depths of this nightmare, I read a magazine interview with Mel C talking about her eating disorder. I'm no die-hard Spice Girls fan (honest) but, finally, here was someone "normal" who had been through what I was going through. In that moment, I felt less isolated.

When Zosia Mamet writes "I nearly died", she's not being a drama queen. Eating disorders kill. They have the highest mortality rate of all mental illness—20 percent of those with anorexia nervosa will die, either from suicide or physical complications. In recent years we've seen several tragic deaths—Amy Winehouse, Brittany Murphy and Peaches Geldof—where eating disorders are suspected to have played a part.

Starvation, vomiting and death are not glamorous. At all. Bulimia nervosa is often the most shameful and hidden of eating disorders and is very dangerous. Repeated purging after meals puts immense strain on the organs and can lead to cardiac arrest, while prolonged use of laxatives causes chronic constipation and other internal damage.

In the warped hierarchy of eating disorders, anorexia is seen as disciplined and superior. Bulimia is disgusting and dirty. Hence the flourishing of those horrible "thinspiration" websites, preferring to depict the ethereal hip-bones and shoulder-blades of waif-like anorexics.

The reality of bulimia is the stench of vomit and rotting teeth.

This is why someone like Nicole Scherzinger deserves respect. Last month, she spoke to Cosmopolitan about her long struggle with bulimia. For a woman whose career is dependent on image, sass and a constant projection of a glamorous, enviable lifestyle, it can't have been easy to discuss this far-from-sophisticated illness.

Of course, there are risks that come with publicising eating disorders. I worked on the show Supersize vs Superskinny and received an alarming tweet once. "I am anorexic and I want to be just like Emma Woolf. She's skinny, pretty, successful and on TV. Just proves that skinny is good," she said.

I was appalled. Everything I've ever tried to do, in sharing my ten-year fight with anorexia, is to show other sufferers that it's a terrible waste of life; that recovery is possible. That life after anorexia, or any eating disorder, can, truly, be amazing. But you can see how it gets twisted.

Is "coming out" cathartic? Not in my experience. In writing about anorexia I've paid a high cost in terms of personal relationships and my own privacy. Recalling the worst decade of my life isn't therapeutic. It's painful. But this isn't about me. When I write or speak about eating disorders, I'm amazed at the number of "normal" people, female and male, who say, "I feel this way too." Most of these people do not have an actual eating disorder—they simply recognise that they have disordered eating patterns, feel guilty about their hunger, unhappy with their body weight or shape, or generally out of control around food.

Disordered eating comes in all shapes and sizes. It's not just the severe, much-publicised image of binging, purging and starving. Many of us calorie restrict or obsess over the "goodness" in our diet to the point of orthorexia. You don't need to be skinny to have a disordered relationship with food. I know women who use food as a reward or punishment—a "good" day is one where we eat salad and go to the gym, a "bad" day is one where we don't move much and eat a lot of chocolate or chips. We calculate in advance what we will and will not eat, ricocheting between self-loathing and self-control. As one woman asked me once, "If I eat when I'm hungry, will I ever be able to stop?"

Eating disorders are a profound struggle between body and soul. They are mental illnesses. From the outside, though, the struggle often makes zero sense. Why would a starving, skeletal person say they look fat? Why can't they just eat? To external observers—even the psychologists and medical professionals who provide treatment—the illness is very hard to understand. The mental barriers, patterns and neurosis of eating disorders aren't tangible to anyone but the sufferer, which is why they are secretive, feeding on shame and fear.

This is why the honesty has to come from sufferers. It took me years to admit to myself that I had a problem, let alone say the word "anorexia" out loud. I don't care whether you're high-profile or no-profile—coming out is brave, and the first step on the road to recovery.

Tagged:
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Emma Woolf