What Do People With Anorexia Eat?

Over a year ago I wrote a post about how people with eating disorders were misrepresented in the media via their use of skeletal pictures when interviewing or discussing someone with the disorders, yet lately I have noticed there is another stereotypical image being promoted that drives me equally round the bend, that being the idea that people with anorexia do not eat anything at all, and it is this myth I really want to tackle in this post as it is simply not true and is unhelpful to everyone.

You see when you come across articles in the paper interviewing someone with an eating disorder, they always make it sound as if the person has gone years without ever letting a morsel of food pass their lips. 

I am often reading pieces stating that someone lived on half a cornflake for three years or something ridiculous, a statement that is physically impossible and that must be taken with a pinch of salt as everyone knows journalists will often exaggerate or make things sound worse by picking and choosing details from an interview to make a good story. If an article makes it sounds like someone interviewed supposedly hasn’t eaten more than half a cornflake for three years, it is most definitely false and cannot be taken as a fact in general or by which other sufferers can be measured. 

Admittedly, people with anorexia frequently do not eat enough, it is after all one of the symptoms, the classic restricting of calories to lose or prevent weight gain. Indeed people with anorexia often eat very little, nowhere near as much as they need to keep themselves alive, but that still doesn’t mean they don’t eat anything at all and spend years living on air. In addition to those in relapse  who still eat at least something (regardless as to whether it be enough or not), when people are in recovery and on a weight gain meal plan they may actually eat more than some “normal” people. I know I have certainly followed meal plans that exceed the “government guidelines” irrelevant calorie limit, which have been prescribed to me both in and out of hospital. People in relapse and recovery are still considered as having “anorexia” if their mental state dictates that diagnosis, no matter how much they eat, and they should all be counted and taken seriously as a voice for people with eating disorders without being discriminated against for (brace yourselves)…having breakfast. What about the people who have severe anorexia but eat to keep their families off their back or to maintain a job? The ones who eat purely to stay out of hospital or the ones who are trying their best to eat to get better yet are still in as much mental pain as anyone else and hating every second? The ones who want to scream and shout every time they eat but force themselves on anyway because they don’t want their kids to see them worrying about food in fear that they may also pick up on the anxiety? That image, of people with anorexia eating, is never represented in the media, as equally valid or not it isn’t a dramatic image that would sell a story in a magazine. After all, headlines of “anorexic eats an appropriate number of calories, not because they are better but because they don’t want to scare the children” are never going to sell or create as much drama as “anorexic eats nothing and only licks a blade of grass once a month for 10 years”.

I am pretty sure that every member of my family is aware that I have anorexia and in a way I find this helpful. With them knowing, it means I don’t have to lie all the time, if I disappear for a few months to go into hospital it isn’t a big secret and I don’t have to pretend I have been off travelling, climbing Kilimanjaro or building schools for orphaned penguins in the Arctic, but in a way it actually makes things harder because I feel there is an expectation of the way I should behave at family gatherings. I am currently unable to eat outside of my house or with family anyway, but even if I were able to I would find attempting it incredibly intimidating as I imagine if I were to eat anything, people would be confused. If a person without an eating disorder goes out for a meal and eats, nobody raises an eyebrow, but if someone who is known to have an eating disorder goes out for a meal, when they eat people start to question whether there is anything actually wrong with that person in the first place. If you hear someone has to go into hospital for a new leg and then you see them prior to admission dancing the tango pretty happily using their old one, you might wonder why on earth the new leg is needed as clearly there is no problem. The issue is of course that though someone may appear to be eating happily on the surface, they could still be going through mental torture inside and may be just trying not to make a fuss and embarrass themselves or draw attention.

The dangers of this misconception that “anorexics don’t eat” are very similar to the ones created by the idea that people with anorexia are underweight. Again, family members or professionals may not be concerned about someone they suspected may have an eating disorder because the person often sits down for a family meal. Sufferers also might find themselves in situations where they don’t eat, not because of their disorder in particular, but because they feel they can’t incase people suspect that they are faking the whole thing. Much like images of skeletal bodies, people hearing the myth that people with anorexia don’t eat can cause people to think that they are not “that bad”, “not ill enough to warrant help” or even worse it can trigger them to restrict their intake further because they think there is some “anorexic standard” they have to live up to. You cannot compare the severity of a person’s illness with that of someone else’s just by looking at what they look like or how much they eat without having any idea of what is going on inside their heads. 

Overall I guess the message of this post is that when it comes to the portrayal of people with eating disorders in the media, take all the pictures and interviews as pieces of journalism to sell a paper with the nuggets of truth inside partially skewed or not representative of eating disorder patients as a whole. Making judgements based on accounts that are for the purpose of selling papers rather than truly giving a voice to people with no ulterior motive is never going to provide an unbiased piece that one can make conclusions from. Basically what I want to say is do not trust the media at all, instead you should trust strangers on the internet like me…actually don’t trust strangers on the internet…that isn’t the message I want to promote at all…. just don’t think that people with anorexia don’t eat. 

Take care everyone x

Sandwich

“I Wish I Had The Self Control To Be Anorexic”

Several times in my life I have heard the phrase “I wish I had the self control to be anorexic” and, considering I am now writing this blog post about this phrase, you can safely assume that I have a lot to say about it.
You may be thinking “Katie, you already wrote a post about people wanting anorexia and how silly that is, why are you repeating yourself?” (a post you can find at the link here: A Message To All The People Out There Who Are “Pro-Ana”), but please hold that thought as I actually think that the problem with this phrase is not about people wanting eating disorders.
Indeed, unlike people who are “pro-Ana”, in my experience, people who say this are not actually craving the bulging rib cage and hip bone images promoted on “pro-Ana” websites. The mistake these people make is not that of idolising a mental illness, rather it is of completely misunderstanding what an eating disorder actually is and what it is like to suffer from one.

I think when it comes to illnesses such as anorexia, there is a misconception that when people with the illness don’t eat, it is because of their will power or an extreme superhuman ability for self-control. They assume that sufferers feel hungry and want to eat but powerfully override the primal urge to seek food because they are strong, yet in my experience, it is the total opposite, and it is in the times that I am unable to follow this primal urge that I feel the weakest that I have ever felt in my entire life (even weaker than the time I was beaten in an arm wrestle by an rather arrogant and ambitious sloth I met drinking tequila in a bar a few years ago…that was a BAD evening.)

Whenever I miss a meal or don’t eat a free sample handed to me in a supermarket, it isn’t because I implement my ability to make decisions/affect my actions as the word “control” implies. Instead, it is because I am not in control at all, a point I think is easier to explain if we take a trip down memory lane and travel back in time to any birthday I have had over the course of the last decade.

Most years, when it gets near to my birthday, if I am out shopping in a supermarket with my mum, when we walk past the birthday cake section, she will look at the birthday cakes and sigh. Following this signal, we may have a wander over to look at all the intricately decorated creations topped with thick white icing and pictures of various Disney characters (I don’t look at the plain old boring cakes for “adults” that simply say “Happy Birthday”. Seriously who wants one of those when you can have an sponge shaped like a minion or a giant chocolate caterpillar with a cheeky grin?!), and then after five minutes of eye wandering my mum will turn to me and ask the question “can I get you a birthday cake this year?”.
Now, if I had any degree of “self-control” when it comes to food and my ability to nourish myself, I can honestly say I would turn to my mother in these moments and say something along the lines of:

“Can you buy me a birthday cake? Why of course! There is no question regarding such a matter! It is my birthday in two weeks and I simply cannot celebrate the occasion without a cake! Quick! Let’s go around all the supermarkets and bakeries in the area to try and find the biggest penguin shaped chocolate cake available. I want nothing more than to share such a delight with all of my nearest and dearest friends! Ooh can I please reserve the chocolate beak for me because it is my birthday? I do love a chocolate beak! Hurry mother, let us away to the automobile and get started on this quest immediately!”.
I would probably then insist we head to the candle area to pick the most garish, brightly coloured candles on offer to adorn my perfect penguin centrepiece, poised and ready for the moment when I am ready to blow out the flames and make a wish that Helena Bonham Carter hurries up and marries me already.

That is the response of a Katie who is in control. Unfortunately though, we haven’t seen “In Control Katie” around much lately. That Katie popped out for bread about ten years ago leaving an out of control mess in place, and since then we haven’t heard anything (better be picking up some damn good bread is all I can say…I’m talking a good quality ciabatta or we are going to have issues).
Therefore, with “In Control Katie” otherwise engaged on a mission to find a tasty source of carbohydrates, it is the “out of control” one that turns to Mum year on year with a dejected look and says: “I wish. Maybe next time”, at which point we agree to try again next year before repeating the annual routine in roughly 365 days time.
I know it would mean the world to my mum to buy me a giant penguin birthday cake to share with her/the family, and I desperately want to accept her offer each time mainly because I want to see her reaction. I want to see her face light up with the brightness of a birthday cake candle, filled with hope that for once she can do something that normal mothers do rather than having to come up with some kind of eating disorder friendly replacement for her neurotic offspring (e.g. the act of sticking a candle in a pink lady…the kind of apple I mean…not an unsuspecting blushing female who doesn’t know what’s coming).
When I do not accept the offer of a proper birthday cake then, it is not because I don’t want to, it is because my mind throws up barriers that make me feel that I physically can’t.
It is like a “normal” person standing in front of a bonfire and wanting to put their hand in it to retrieve a particularly nice log. They can look into those flames and want to put their hand in to get the log (this person really likes logs), but no matter what, they can’t. Of course they are physically capable of moving their arm into the vicinity of the fire, but the fear of pain stops them (no matter how much they like logs).
Saying “I wish I had the self-control to be anorexic” then, is basically like saying “I wish I had the self-control not to put my hand on a bonfire”. Of course eating and setting yourself aflame aren’t the same thing, one is vital for life whilst the other is downright ridiculous and not something I advise anyone to try at home or anywhere else for that matter, but the similarity exists in the sense that both the person who doesn’t put their hand in the fire and the person with the eating disorder do not carry out their actions because of self-control, rather it is because they are both scared and fear the pain that could result from their actions.

Whenever you hear yourself or anyone wishing they had the “self-control” and “will power” to eat like someone with an eating disorder then, please know that when it comes to eating disorders, self-control has absolutely nothing to do with any of it. When someone is unable to keep themselves healthy by eating enough, it is because they are not in control, and because the reins of decision are actually being held hostage by an evil dictator in their head who is trying to kill them.
If I had self-control and willpower over my life I could write a list of about a million things I would use it for. The ability to fill my mother’s eyes with disappointment, to refuse sharing a dessert with a friend or turn down the offer of a birthday cake would not be on there.

Take care everyone x

ControllingPea