When I first became anorexic, way back in the 1980s, we had to make our own thinspiration. Pro-ana websites and online communities didn’t exist. The best you could hope for was the odd Woman’s Own article on Lena Zavaroni or an ITV special on The Carpenters. Most of the time it was reading the same old recipe books and collecting newspaper cuttings of Nancy Reagan. Truly, today’s eating disorder sufferers don’t know they’re born.

By contrast, these days we cater to the needs of the most discerning anorexics, with starve-friendly websites packed with bonetastic images.  Nonetheless, there are concerns that it has gone too far. According to an article in The Daily Beast (helpfully illustrated by a photograph of an emaciated body – get a load of that, thinspo-lovers!), “Italy’s Parliament recently proposed a bill that would criminalize pro-anorexia site authors with a $67,000 fine and up to a year in jail”. Disaster! What if all such sites were banned? Where would your average “friend of Ana” have to go for her next fix? Well, I guess there’s always Closer, or Heat, or Now, or the Sidebar of Shame, or a million other media outlets that regularly concern troll women who are clearly desperately ill (body shock! Starve wars! Size zero hell!). But still, at least you wouldn’t have those sneaky anorexics going off and doing it behind people’s backs, denying the poor publishers some much-needed revenue. (more…)

A famous young woman has died and the Daily Mail launches straight into hand-wringing mode: “Like Paula, she longed to be loved, a perfect mother … and thin” wails the cover. Poor Peaches Geldof. Poor Paula Yates. It’s almost as though some women are cursed.

I see headlines like this and I think one thing: Fuck you, Daily Mail.

I don’t know how Peaches Geldof died. What’s more, it’s none of my business. As a former anorexic, I am of course tempted go all out hunting for ED innuendo, poring over photos of stick-thin arms and corrugated breastbones. I am curious, I admit, in a leering, self-centred way. I almost want certain things to be true and not others, purely in order to prove a point. But this has nothing to do with me. Furthermore, I’m not convinced the current coverage has anything to do with Peaches Geldof either.

Of the cultural forces out there wanting women to be thin, eternally young, perfect mothers, it’s safe to say the Daily Mail is right at the forefront. Projection, much? It’s not so long ago that the same publication was expressing dismay at Geldof’s inability to “learn” how to display her “curvy” body:

Just one day after she appeared to have redeemed herself by showing off her curves in a pretty floral bikini, Peaches Geldof has made yet another fashion blunder.

[…] Peaches, who is dating film director Eli Roth, seemed completely unaware of her faux pas as she enjoyed her leisurely meal – but the outfit drew attention to her for all the wrong reasons. However, despite receiving cruel internet comments about her weight, Peaches has allegedly told friends she is happy with her size.

Allegedly told friends she is happy? Yeah, right. You can’t be happy like that.

Since you can’t know the inside of someone else’s mind, it seems inappropriate to go too far in defining the social context of their suffering. Yet that’s what the Mail likes to do, all the time, only on its own warped terms. We’re meant to shift seamlessly from the usual disapproval of women – for being too fat, too thin, bad mothers, bad daughters, too old, too sexy, too loud – to pretending they inhabit a cultural vacuum, particularly when things go wrong. Nothing influences them at all, save the bad blood that’s already coursing through their veins. They’re not meant to hear the constant yelling from outside. They’re not meant to be bothered that they are, for want of a better word, hated by people they don’t know and who don’t know them.

And then there are the stories of redemption (precarious ones, all the same). Redemption is the only option you have since by being noticed at all you’ve already sinned. You lose weight. You become a domestic goddess. You lose even more weight. Ideally, you comes as close as you possibly can to disappearing without actually doing so. The Daily Mail likes women when there are less of them, both to mock and to ignore. Even if you’re “painfully thin” or “shockingly skinny” you know it’s a damn sight better than being seen to “love your curves.”

Finally we end up with the mawkish tale of a girl who redeemed herself through weight loss and self-abnegating motherhood, a doubling up of feminine virtues. Quite what this fictional girl had done wrong to begin with isn’t very clear. Yet what the Mail and other papers seem to be saying is “we forgive you. Now that you’re dead, we forgive. We’ll make up a story about cursed families, untouched by the outside world, and then we’ll seal off all the rest.” This seems to be the measure of what’s required of famous women, who aren’t permitted any privacy or reality of their own. They are never, ever real, even if they are redeemed.

The Daily Mail has no right to offer forgiveness or pity, or to speculate on the neuroses it ordinarily hopes to inspire in others. To feel an imperfect mother and to long to be thin is everyday life for millions of women. If the Mail really cared about that, it would do the decent thing and fade away rather than asking womankind to do so instead.

This evening I found out what a bikini bridge is. I wasn’t seeking out this knowledge; I was reading the news and it popped out at me, unbidden. The trouble is, now I can’t ever un-know it (to give you a chance, I’m not linking to the piece in question). Bikini bridges will henceforth be stored in my brain alongside thigh gaps, muffin tops, bingo wings, cankles and a million other terms which exist solely to make women hate their bodies a great deal and their minds even more.

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So, fellow mental patients, just how mad should we be getting about Asda’s Halloween “mental patient fancy dress costume,” complete with strait jacket, fake blood and cleaver? After all, the supermarket has now apologised for any upset caused, withdrawn the item from sale and promised to donate “a sizeable amount” to Mind. So no point going psycho now. Let’s all calm down, keep taking the tablets and leave the normal people alone.

Given the degree to which mental health stigma has seeped into our everyday language, it’s not all that surprising when retailers think it’s okay to make fancy dress costumes based on The Mad. You can see how it happens. The mentally ill, when they’re not being dismissed as everyday malingerers, tend to assume a mythical status. They’re lurking in the shadows, never to be seen in broad daylight. How can you offend a thing that isn’t even real? (more…)

Does this blog make me look fat? I only ask because, in a recent flurry of hostile comments from men’s rights activists, I’ve found several telling me I’m “fat and ugly” or “fat and bitter” or  – well, lots of things, but it’s always “fat and [something]”. So go on, give it to me straight — do these posts look plump to you? Are these the kind of opinions which might be caught celebrating their curves? Go on, I can take it.

It’s strange that, of all the things that could be used as an insult, “fat” comes up so often. Hell, I can think of a million things that are wrong with stuff I’ve written, but none of them have anything to do with the size of my thighs. When it comes to attacking women whose views you don’t like, “you’re fat” remains the weapon of choice. To be fair, I’m not surprised. It has two advantages: it doesn’t demand any intellectual effort yet it manages to convey female inferiority without even seeming to do so (yes, you can say “you’re fat” to a man but it won’t mean the same thing. Indeed, chances are he might actually be fat, which wouldn’t make you any less of a judgmental fuckwit, but a different kind thereof).
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Tonight I am writing about someone else who is writing about someone else who is writing about herself. So forgive me for going a bit meta. It probably makes more sense once you know that the second someone else – the one who’s being written about and who’s also writing about herself – is Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones. Right now, with the publication of Jones’s Girl Least Likely To memoir, everyone wants to write about Liz Jones, although it’s usually to say that the one person who shouldn’t be allowed to write about Liz Jones is Liz Jones herself (still, the fact that Jones is still writing about Jones gives the rest of us something to write about).

I, however, am going to write about Suzanne Moore, or rather Moore’s review of Girl Least Likely To. While I can’t work out whether Moore hates or loves to hate the book, it’s clear to me that Moore doesn’t like Jones. That seems fair enough. I don’t think I’m fond of her, either. Nevertheless, Moore’s attitude towards Jones’s anorexia shocks me far more than Jones’s own brand of deliberate, desperate provocation. (more…)

I’m pleased – well, not exactly pleased – that the death of Amy Winehouse has finally been linked to her suffering from an eating disorder. I’d always suspected that about her but then, having suffered from an eating disorder myself, I never trust my own opinions. I’ve been through phases of thinking that everyone in the entire world has an eating disorder, while at other times I’ve thought no one has, with all the super-skinny people just being bizarrely self-controlled. It’s hard to make sense of it all when the prevailing ideal for body shapes is always marginally underweight.

Between the releases of Frank and Back To Black, Winehouse clearly lost a dramatic amount of weight but the eating disorder rumours were quite never as newsworthy as those relating to booze and drugs. After all, having anorexia or bulimia is, on a day to day basis, decidedly lacking in drama. It’s far easier to tell someone’s off their face than it is to witness their miserable, brain-numbing hunger. Still, at least in the months before her death the Daily Mail pronounced her “healthy” enough to deserve mockery for having the dreaded “muffin top”. (more…)

As a child I always hated The Family Meal. Too many arbitrary rules and too much meat. I’d throw pieces of food under the table, thinking no one noticed, then watch as my brother got pudding while mine was withheld due to the scraps discovered around my chair.

Years later, anorexic, I avoided family meals altogether. I’d hide away with my homework while others ate, finally defrosting Lean Cuisine in the microwave at 10pm. It would take me an hour to eat the half-portion I dished out, then I’d retire to bed, barely having spoken to anyone. (more…)

Has any woman, in the history of anything, ever thought to herself “if only I could be more empowered“. Empowerment – that ambiguous, Oprah-esque substitute for genuine power – strikes me as pretty low on a woman’s list of priorities. Choice, freedom, respect, yes, empowerment, no. And yet we’re still being told that it’s exactly what we need.

Empowerment is liberation turned into victim-blaming. Once you’re “empowered” everything’s in your hands and privilege ceases to exist. Empowerment is part of the reason why no one believes in workplace discrimination any more. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we no longer entertain the idea that employers might still be sexist. These “empowered” women, well, they make their own beds and they can damn well lie in them.
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In 2004 Hilary Mantel wrote a piece for the LRB on saints, fasting girls and modern-day anorexia. I read it back then and was not overly impressed (when it comes to disagreeing with Mantel pieces in the LRB, I was way ahead of my time). Looking back on it now, I still find the piece disturbing. Dressed in clever language, it’s essentially a pro-ana piece based on the over-interpretation of what anorexia looks like from the outside (rather like Rachel Cusk’s more recent “anorexic statement” piece for the New Statesman). The arguments are wrong but they are finely crafted and seductive. Mantel, inhabiting a body she dislikes, presents the female anorexic as someone who is able to “opt out” of the restrictions placed on women because of their physical form:

Most anorexics do recover […]: somehow, and despite the violence visited on them in the name of therapy, the physical and psychological invasion, they recover, fatten, compromise. Anorexia can be an accommodation, a strategy for survival.

As a recovered anorexic, I want to say “no, it’s not like that, not like that at all”. And indeed it isn’t. All the same, I read Mantel’s words and feel that I, too, have “fattened, compromised”. As though anorexia gave me ownership of my body and now I’ve lost it, albeit not as dramatically as I lost it once.
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Yesterday I found myself in a room with a woman who was telling me that it was permissible to eat. She also told me that it was permissible to put on weight, and permissible to grow as you age, and permissible not to have rules about every single item of food that you buy. It was all very radical and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It felt a bit cultish, or rather un-cultish. It was as though I was being de-programmed, made to unlearn all that I’d come to believe. What she was saying made sense, yet it sounded so odd. I kept thinking “but that’s not what I’ve been told. How can you be right and everyone else be wrong?” (more…)

Dear Liz Jones

Today you wrote a column about women like me, that is, middle-class women who became mothers in our 30s. Thank you. Usually no one ever pontificates about our lives, motivations, shriveled eggs, outrageous sense of entitlement when we’re out and about pushing a buggy the size of a 4×4 etc., so it makes a pleasant change. Nevertheless, while listing all of our flaws — and heaven knows, we late breeders have got them — there’s one you missed out. Yes, we might be selfish, overly obsessed with our offspring, fussy, flabby and over-tired, but do you know what else we are? Really fucking patronising. Therefore allow me, Liz, to patronise you. (more…)

Today’s Observer includes a piece entitled “Women own up to guilt over eating habits”. It’s an interesting choice of wording – are women “owning up” to the eating itself or is this some kind of meta-guilt relating to their response to food? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s both. These days, not only is eating too much and being a porker a Bad Thing, but so too is failing to be a Real Woman who celebrates her curves. Hence regardless of whether you’re literally stuffed, metaphorically you are.

According to the piece “millions of British women have eating binges, lie about how much they weigh and have a negative relationship with food”. All pretty remarkable, when you consider that only 2,000 British women were interviewed. It’s amazing what wilful extrapolation can do:

Three-quarters of UK women – 24 million – say they often feel guilty about how much they eat. Women typically think about food 12 times a day and those under 25 have it on their minds twice as much as those over 55, the poll found. Six out of 10 told researchers they had lied about how much food they ate, almost half (43.74%) said they snacked in secret and more than a quarter (27.68%) confessed to binge eating – this rises to more than a third (36.72%) of those under 25.

Whether or not this really does affect 24 million women, it’s sad that anyone has these feelings at all. Eating ought to be a pleasurable and sociable experience. Still, at least the dieting industry is doing its best to raise awareness of all the lives it fucks up, albeit while taking the opportunity to persuade a few more people to fuck up their lives just that little bit more. (more…)

Tomorrow I must write down every single thing I eat and drink. Not just that, but also the time, place and how I feel about it. What’s more, all of it must be done as soon as possible after the eating and/or drinking event. To be frank, the whole thing is set to be a complete pain in the arse. All the same, I’ve got to do it. It’s the rules.

Next week I start my Last Ever Eating Disorder Treatment, in preparation for which I have to keep a food diary. My first treatment took place in 1987. Thus a whole quarter century later I’m still trying to rid myself of ideas that took hold when I was eleven years old. I can’t help thinking what a fucking idiot. How did I ever end up in such a position? I only started the sodding diet so I could end up perfect. Is that really so much to ask? (more…)

Equalities minister Jo Swinson, co-founder of the Campaign for Body Confidence, has written an open letter to magazine editors, asking them all to avoid “the reckless promotion of unhealthy solutions to losing weight”. I’ll be honest – this really annoys me, and not simply because I’ve got billions of unhealthy solutions to losing weight to promote, just in time for the new year. I mean, if you’re interested, I’ll have you know that all of mine work. Indeed, on several occasions I lost so much weight I ended up being hospitalised. Plus I can always think up more (it’s just a matter of getting the right combination of not eating enough and brainwashing yourself into thinking that feeling cold, miserable and obsessed with food is acceptable as a constant state). Anyhow, that’s not the thing that’s annoying me the most. The truth is, I don’t want Jo Swinson, or anyone else in a position of authority, telling women how to feel about their bodies. It’s just none of their business. (more…)

In 1993, over the Christmas break, a woman faked her own abduction and then falsely claimed to have been raped. Her reason for doing so? Publicity, perhaps. A misguided need for attention. But also an attempt to get away from the holidays. The woman, a bulimia sufferer, simply could not face this time of year.

When the news of the fake abduction broke, I remember most people, my family included, being scathing. What a waste of police time and money. What a great deal of worry caused to family and friends. As if an eating disorder can be an excuse! And yet, while I couldn’t exactly understand the woman’s actions – and still can’t – a bit of me wanted to try. As a sufferer of anorexia and bulimia, I recognised the panic that Christmas can cause and I recognised, too, the lack of comprehension that sufferers face. (more…)

So yesterday, 18 months after I decided to go for treatment, I finally attended my first “proper” session at the eating disorders clinic. It went well and I feel positive about it. Therefore, once it was over, I decided I ought to treat myself. Hell, I deserved it. Because obviously, walking into a health centre, sitting down with a black coffee and spending 90 minutes moaning about your messed-up life requires huge amounts of courage (although thankfully not too much in the way of stiff upper lip).

You may be wondering, as was I, what constitutes a suitable post-ED clinic attendance treat. Not food, obviously, because Food Is Not A Reward. But then what? Fags? Booze? Porn? No, because all that would lead to potential cross-addiction (or whatever being into everything bad is called these days). How about a nice, good book? No, because I’ve still not finished my current non-fiction (Delusions of Gender) nor my fiction (The Stranger’s Child) and besides, when I’m allowed something new, it’ll probably have to be something boring like How Not To Have A Totally Ridiculous Attitude Towards Food. (more…)

As a teenager, the actress Celia Imrie suffered from anorexia. Years later, in an interview with the Telegraph, she expresses regret at what she put her mother through:

I’m so angry with myself for putting her through that. Because it was my own fault. I had made myself ill [...] I get very angry now – and quite unsympathetic – because it’s such a terrible waste of time and energy.

Part of me feels sorry for Imrie; it’s sad that she bears this burden of guilt. All the same, another part of me wishes she’d keep her feelings to herself. These might be her personal sentiments, and as such they’re valid, but they also happen to chime in with a broader undercurrent of opinion about anorexia, and it’s one that causes real harm. (more…)

Here are some weird tips for achieving a tiny belly:

  • eat less food than you need in order to function as a healthy human being
  • think about all the food you’re not eating all the sodding time
  • feel cold, exhausted and miserable every minute of the day (and night, since hunger is giving you insomnia and when you do finally sleep, you dream of food you didn’t even like until all this started)

Eventually you will get a tiny belly, albeit one still covered in excess skin and stretch marks. By the time you get to this point, you won’t be able to stop shrinking, but you will no longer care. The person who would have had the capacity to enjoy being thin – or indeed being anything – will no longer exist. (more…)

Don’t you just hate it when you’re all set to have a grumpy, humourless feminist moment and you happen to find the thing that was meant to annoy you vaguely amusing instead? That totally pisses me off – but not enough to put me in the grumpy, humourless feminist mood I was aiming for to begin with. Pah! (That is about the level of it – a wry smile, then a “pah!”. Where’s the Sturm und Drang in that?)

In case you’re wondering I’m referring to that new “viral” ad for KFC. In It doesn’t count if… a young woman runs through various situations in which eating “forbidden” foods is permitted, all of them ridiculous (it doesn’t count if you drink green tea afterwards, it doesn’t count if you’re wearing gym gear etc. etc.). Ha, thought I, yet another food company making a massively unfunny joke out of women’s shitty relationship with food. I will not find this amusing. But then I did, a bit. It actually is what some women – myself included – do, and as such it’s very well-observed. I suspect the only thing some viewers might miss is that when women say these things, they already know it’s a lie; this is their sad, wry joke, not KFC”s. (more…)

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