Why is it that so many people believe that only young, beautiful, rich white women suffer from eating disorders? As someone who suffers from bulimia, I claim many of these adjectives as my own. The stereotypical bulimic looks a lot like me: she is high-achieving; pearly white; wealthy; smiling on the outside but crippled by a self-loathing which manifests itself over the toilet bowls of five star hotels.
However, not all bulimics resemble this Princess Diana daguerreotype. In fact, eating disorders can affect anybody, of any gender, at any time in their life. Although research into those things which cause and maintain eating disorders remains in its infancy, we now know with some certainty that a range of factors including genetics, environment and trauma all make people more vulnerable to these illnesses. Wealth, whiteness and other forms of privilege are not the exclusive factors that lead individuals into the rabid, rampant chaos of an eating disorder. It is estimated that in the UK today, 1.6 million people live with an eating disorder. Not all of these people are slender young women: 11% of sufferers are male, 40% are bulimics and 50% cope with Eating Disorders Non-Specified (EDNOS) and binge-eating disorders. The pervasive image of a skeletal girl-child is thus fallacious. Many people who suffer from eating disorders are not what women’s magazines would term ‘skinny’ or ‘thin’ but instead occupy a healthy weight range.
Last week was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and now seems like as good a time as any to endeavour to help dispel the many, many myths which surround eating disorders today.
I want to explain my own understanding of the prevalent ‘wealthy white anorexic’ fiction. I would pin this narrative on two main things. Firstly, these women are those whose stories are most likely to be heard in a media and society which refuses to listen to those who do not fit into its white, wealthy, able-bodied, heteronormative narrative. Secondly, and most calamitously, the people who are most likely to speak out about their experiences with eating disorders are those who survive and recover. Eating disorders are often characterised by secrecy and shame: most sufferers struggle to admit even to themselves that their penchant for vomiting is a problem, let alone speak out about their disorders. Recovery from an eating disorder cannot be romanticised. It is difficult, emotionally exhausting, physically strenuous and often socially isolating. Significantly, it is also nigh on impossible without specialist medical attention.
My parents’ wealth has allowed me to access immediate treatment with private psychologists, nutritionists and other health professionals. My attendance at an NHS group therapy course was delayed by a three-month waiting list, but in the intervening time I was still able to initiate my recovery thanks to private treatment. Most people are not so lucky. They cannot rely on private wealth to ease the hellish torture of a disordered mind. Three months is a long time to await treatment that is often desperately needed, especially when every meal represents a potential return down a rabbit hole of shame and self-loathing.
I have come to believe that perhaps the reason that we only hear stories of eating disorders from wealthy white women is because these are the people most likely to recover. Private wealth undoubtedly hugely increases your chances of recuperation under a government that continues to slash funding to mental health services. An eating disorder does not need to be a life sentence. People can and do recover. Although my own journey of recovery continues to peak and trough, I do not doubt that I can reassemble the life that my eating disorder has tried its best to shake apart. But those who lack my immense financial and social privilege may not be so lucky. We are all worthy of a life free from mental illness.
We all deserve health, peace and joy. But does our government agree?
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