By Louisa Keight.
tw: Eating disorders
The Shakespeare’s Head, Holborn. Stood by the fruities with a pint of Blue Moon and an orange slice affected from three late-teenage whirls at the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s Autumn 2018, pubs are legal and I’m drinking with the coworkers from my first job out of university. It’s Friday night, I’m 21 years old and I haven’t had dinner. We’re talking about Cassie from Skins.
“All I’m saying is I looked at that character and wanted to be her. All damaged and delicate. I know so many girls who say the same thing. We copied her, and girls like her on TV and in films.”
My boss blinks. “I remember watching those episodes of Skins and thinking how bleak anorexia is. It really felt more like a warning than a glamorisation.”
Enter Ana and Mia, my old friends from hours of scrolling Tumblr in 2013 for tips and tricks on how to look like the girls in the 9x9 black and white photos, who drank their coffee without milk and smoked cigarettes to a soundtrack of Marina and the Diamonds, Lana Del Rey, the women who taught us that sadness was beautiful, who never thought we’d take that and run, run, run until our bodies ached. Because with anorexia, every warning is a glamorisation, every NHS pamphlet another reminder to keep going, to let it in.
We’re doing better with mental health, aren’t we? We’re urging the 1 in 4 of us who’ll suffer from ill mental health each year to reach out, to talk, to normalise. We’re seeing public figures open up; Prince Harry, Jade Thirwall, Chrissy Teigan pour out their struggles to a sea of flashing cameras and double-tapped love-hearts. And in the comedy industry, we’re following the long-standing tradition of the sad clown by making art about our sickness. Hannah Gadsby and John Robins scooped a double-win of the Edinburgh Comedy award in 2017 with shows touching on trauma and depression, whilst home-grown TV series like Flowers, Pure and to an extent Fleabag are paving the way with blackly comic depictions of less-discussed illnesses, such as OCD and bipolar disorder.
But anorexia competes. It listens to the struggles of another sufferer and it nods, and smiles, and files the worst of their experience away for future use. It clocks your body, it sizes it up, it compares it to the body of its own host to see how well you’re doing, how well we’re doing, how long we have left to go before we reach that unattainable goal that gets smaller with every passing day. What a good idea, it thinks, as it reads the list of symptoms and smiles defiantly at the well-meaning friend, the baffled parent.
People seem to think that revealing the worst parts of anorexia is the best way to depict it as the unglamorous monster it is. But the truth is it’s a parasite. An addiction. It takes the horror and the pain and spins it into beauty every time, every single time. There’s no way of creating art about anorexia that doesn’t feed the monster. Sometimes, with some things, we don’t need to talk about it.
I don’t think I’ve succeeded in this, by the way. Whatever you think of my writing, I know there’s someone out there, huddled in an oversized sweatshirt, who’d read this and think, yes. This is correct, and pure, and beautiful. So if that’s you, reading this, I’d like to show you the beauty of the other side. I’m going to come over all BBC in the interests of impartiality. Indulge me for a moment:
It’s warm here. That ice that runs through your veins and stops you sleeping even in the summer is gone, and it’s warm, my darling. There’s laughter here, and when you open your mouth to speak the words flow like honey and don’t stop until you’re finished. You always know what to say, here. You’re glowing, brighter than you ever thought possible. You are loved, and you feel love, and sex doesn’t hurt and kisses feel like supernovas.
And your future stretches out ahead of you like beacons along the coast.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, here are a variety of resources that could help -
Helpline: 0808 801 0677
Student line: 0808 801 0811
Youth line: 0808 801 0711