Something happened this week that really made angry. This doesn't happen often but when it comes to my history with my eating disorder and what I see in the media in relation to eating disorders, I find myself getting increasingly exasperated.
Back in the summer I joined the campaign Hungry for Change, which aims to raise awareness of eating disorders, educate people on the complexities of them and obtain funding to provide support for sufferers and carers. All of us Hungry for Change representatives are working incredibly hard to spread the word. Something that does seem to get in the way - particularly when approaching some of the more mainstream newspapers and magazines, is that they all insist on images to accompany the story. Fair enough. I have no objection to sending over a headshot - face to a name and all that. But no, they want images - and I quote "to really shock people of the drastic change between how you were when you were ill and how you are now".
It's no lie that in my many stages of anorexia (the eating disorder I am in recovery from) I was of a low weight, but eating disorders are a gazillion times more complex than numbers on a scale. I can genuinely admit that at one point I was far less healthy than I should be in my mind despite being a healthy weight on the scale. I expressed this to the person from the media agency and although she said she understood where I was coming from, she would unfortunately, not be able to proceed with the story if I wasn't willing to provide some of those images.
Whilst the route of anorexia nervosa is not all about weight and 'diets gone wrong', on the flip side, I do know that the illness can get very competitive. Yes, it's twisted like that! Once you get sucked in, food intake, exercise and obsession with your weight becomes all consuming (though it is usually a coping mechanism to deal with what's really going on). Shock tactics including horrifying images of half naked emaciated sufferers, weight specifications and details of restricted diets ("anorexic survives on two celery sticks a day!" anyone?) only serve to spur those trapped in an eating disorder further into the illness or, if the reader is susceptible, potentially trigger the beginnings of an eating disorder. Plus, these images are basically the same as what you may find on thinspiration websites.
Such articles are more damaging and have far more detrimental impact than airbrushed celebrities and models, which relentlessly get blamed for the rise in eating disorders. Most people know these images aren't real. It's advertising. A picture of a severely undernourished anorexia sufferer in a hospital - that's real and will be far more triggering than an airbrushed Victoria's Secret model frolicking about in a bikini.
And so this begs the question why do people provide these sorts of images to the media and allow them to publish them? Well, it probably comes down to money. The more 'horrific' the images the more money someone will get for their story. And some may say well why not make a bit of cash out of something that caused an individual so much distress and torment? My passion is to raise awareness about eating disorders so to me this seems grossly irresponsible, but if that person needs the money, then sure, the offers would be tempting. It's just a shame that words on a page aren't enough to tell a story of anorexia recovery. Pictures can highlight a physical difference of course, but not much more.
It's also a shame that you read far less about other eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and EDNOS because in many cases these illness don't physically present themselves as dramatically as anorexia and therefore can't be as nicely illustrated. That's why you only usually read about anorexia nervosa. It's the star of the show. And consequently why people often aren't aware that other forms of just as serious eating disorders exist.
The way that all eating disorders are portrayed in the media is something that Hungry for Change is fighting to change. Us and charities such as B-eat have very strict guidelines about what content we publish including no images of emaciation, no details on diet and no details on weight. Maybe to some that seems quite extreme but it's simply because we know that such details are triggering and have no real value except to shock. One person will look at an image, gasp in horror, not read the actual story, turn the page and forget about it whilst for another person, the consequence of seeing that image may sadly be very different.