It’s that time of year again when the adverts start popping up: Slimming World, Noom “we’re-definitely-not-a-diet” diet scammers, and various other teas, pills, workouts, gyms and all the other money-grabbing companies trying to shame you. There are a lot of expectations and pressure to make changes, be better, fitter, healthier, more successful… BUY MORE STUFF!
So here’s your friendly reminder…you don’t have to do any of that. If you choose to, that’s up to you, but you don’t have to. Sometimes the kindest thing to do for yourself is to not do anything at all. Maybe you don’t need to change yourself, and the effort of trying to do so is stressful in itself.
Many people see Christmas time as a “free pass” to eat what they want – and good for you! BUT…what happens in January then? This time of year can bring about feelings of guilt and shame, and negative thoughts about yourself and your body. For some people, this can lead to disordered eating. Whether you have an eating disorder, or you struggle with food a bit, or it’s more about not liking your body – all of these concerns are valid. Instead of punishing yourself, you deserve help and support. People can be in a vulnerable place to be lured into the diet-scammers territory when they’re not feeling good about themselves. Trust me – they don’t care about your health, they are just about making money.
If you like to make New Years Resolutions, how about trying to make them without weight loss in mind? Maybe your resolution could be to be kind to yourself and work on self-acceptance. Maybe you don’t need to make resolutions at all! I remember at school going back after Christmas and being asked to share our New Years Resolutions. I never felt like I fit in so of course I jumped on the bandwagon, and what’s the thing I knew I was expected to say? To lose weight. It was the only acceptable answer as a fat girl. There’s an expectation for fat people to constantly strive to be thin. We’re expected to dedicate our lives to worrying about our bodies, trying different diets til we find “the one” that works (spoiler alert – none of them work!) Eventually, I decided I wasn’t going to stand for that anymore. I could have spent my whole life trying to change my body, but instead I chose to work on accepting it. I’ll be honest and say I don’t think I “love” my body, but it’s a life-long work in progress. I just know I’m glad I made the choice to put my wellbeing first instead of paying money-making diet scammers with empty promises.
Body acceptance isn’t easy but neither is dieting. If you’ve spent a long time dieting, I get it. It’s got such a pull and a strong hold over so many people. But you deserve help and support, not to continue to be body shamed by companies, adverts, people on the internet, medical professionals or anyone else. Sometimes, the best way to priorize your health is to start by being compassionate to yourself (but also health isn’t a moral obligation and you don’t owe anyone!)
My tips for being kinder to yourself in 2023:
I’ll be running more body acceptance workshops and will be opening my counselling practice later this year, please get in touch or join my mailing list for more info.
“Eating disorders can affect anyone of any shape or size.”
“Eating disorders don’t discriminate.”
You may have seen these statements online and most people would agree, right? But in reality, is this ethos really working in practice?
When plus-size model Tess Holliday spoke out about having anorexia, people on social media lost their minds. It seemed impossible for people to comprehend someone in a larger body restricting their eating. After all, our society teaches “eat less, move more” as the simple equation for weight loss, so there was an assumption that she must be lying because if she was really restricting, how could she possibly still be fat? Of course this resulted in a lot of online trolling for Tess, and in turn the underlying reinforcement of the idea that only thin people can have restrictive eating disorders.
When I say restrictive eating disorders, I’m referring to Anorexia and Bulimia. I think many people automatically picture a thin person, usually white, young and female, associated with these eating disorders. Often, fat people are associated with binge eating, but in reality thin people can binge and fat people can restrict. Many people aren’t familiar with the term OSFED - Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder – which is actually the most prevalent diagnostic category, because eating disorders don’t fit into tidy boxes like we expect them to. They are complex and nuanced; there’s no one reason someone develops an eating disorder (and all the many reasons are way too long to go into here!) Atypical Anorexia can come under this category, which is anorexia but at a “healthy” weight or above. The issue here is what is deemed as “healthy” is based on a flawed BMI system, created for white European men only, so it has been recognised as not an accurate predictor of health.
There are also biases and assumptions of medical professionals, plus the limited resources on offer for eating disorder treatment, which often results in the “sickest” people getting help (i.e. thinnest). It’s a reactionary system, based on restoring someone's weight, though of course as eating disorders are to do with mental health, having a “healthy” weight does not mean the person has recovered. The short version of this is, the entire system is broken and people are not getting the help they need. (No disrespect to anyone working in the NHS, you’re just trying your best and I thank you for that.)
My focus is usually on the societal and cultural aspects of eating disorders and disordered eating. I use the term “disordered eating” as that includes people struggling with eating who don’t fit the diagnosis criteria too – of which there are a lot! I’ve worked for eating disorder charities for about 5 years now and I continue learning more every day. I’ve heard more and more stories over the years from people who are frustrated, unheard, not believed, passed off, sent to weight management services or Slimming World, and judged because they don’t fit what an eating disorder “should” look like. All of this is causing an incredible amount of harm, discouraging people from seeking help. Even writing this here, I’m concerned about creating more fear. Do we warn people of this and risk putting them off asking for help? Or is warning them needed so they can be prepared?
If you’re reading this and you’re considering reaching out for help with an eating problem, please still do – there are good people out there who can help you. If you don’t find one initially, see someone else. If you’re at a higher weight, a focus on anything to do with intentional weight loss will NOT be helpful so do set boundaries around this. You can refuse to be weighed too, or if they say they need to, tell them you do not want to know it. I tell healthcare providers that I do not want to know my BMI every time I visit and they are fine about that. I used to feel awkward about setting those boundaries, but with practice I now definitely don’t! Boundaries are self-care!
My work has led me to learn so much about people’s relationship with food, and to continue reflecting on my own. Everyone has a body, and everyone needs to eat, so it’s really important for professionals to consider their own relationship with food and their body. Sadly there is a lot of weight stigma, bias and discrimination in the medical world, in the therapy world, and…well, THE WORLD. Nobody is immune to weight stigma and fatphobia. When I talk about weight biases in the medical profession I don’t blame individuals but rather recognise that we’ve all grown up in a society that tells us thin is good and fat is bad. This is why unpacking and challenging weight stigma and fatphobia is so important.
On an individual basis, the fear people hold about being fat is both deeply understandable and so saddening to me. There is no shame in holding these views, there is no shame in chaotic eating, or having tried every diet in the world, or having purged, and there is certainly no shame in having difficult emotions around food and your body. We live in a world where this is created and normalised.
If you’re in a larger body and you’re embarrassed or ashamed that you just can’t seem to lose weight or keep it off, please know that this is not your fault. Many people’s bodies just aren’t naturally made to be thin, and the focus on thinness often drives disordered eating. Sadly, this focus on trying to do something which supposedly makes you “healthy” is likely the very thing negatively impacting your physical and mental health.
The fear driven by narratives such as “the ob*sity epidemic” is very real and can make some people terrified that being fat will kill them. It will not; fat is not the killer but rather associated illnesses, plus the stress and trauma of living in a world that terrifies people into unhealthy behaviours such as yo-yo dieting, disordered eating, eating disorders, compulsive exercise, self-harm and more. This fear is not driving change, it’s only making things much, much worse. Fat is not an evil thing to be eradicated, but weight stigma, fatphobia and discrimination is extremely harmful and needs to stop.
Many professionals will say that not all eating disorders are about body image and weight, which is true, however dieting is the biggest risk factor for an eating disorder. Dieting is often a result of wanting to lose weight to fit with the societal narrative of thinner equals healthier (not true), so it’s all rooted in weight stigma and fatphobia. Eating disorder professionals, medical professionals, therapists/counsellors, and other professionals working with anyone who may struggle with eating (which is A LOT of people) need to understand weight stigma and fatphobia for this reason. Many people are avoiding reaching out for help, being refused help, being wrongly diagnosed, and being judged for not being “thin enough” to have an eating disorder (sadly this is very common) so things need to change now.
When I see statements like “eating disorders don’t discriminate” it makes me think about how eating disorders can often be seen as a disease that suddenly grips people, as if in a bubble from the rest of the world. Eating disorders are created from, and influenced by, a world full of inequality and discrimination. We cannot separate the person from the society and culture that has shaped them. The eating disorder treatment world is largely white, middle-class and able-bodied (professionals and researchers, and well as patients) which means this is the centred experience and everyone else is potentially left out. Also, recognising that fatphobia has roots in racism (see Sabrina Springs' work) and the impact of transphobia too, in the wider context of a capitalist system… the people who need help the most are sadly so often the ones being failed.
Until we as a society can get our heads around the fact that most with people eating disorders are fat, AND that those people may also be black, trans, disabled, and/or a mix of identities, we will continue not to meet people’s needs. Saying “eating disorders don’t discriminate” is all well and good but sadly the systems designed to help and treat people often DO discriminate.
I offer training for professionals on weight stigma and disordered eating, and I run Body Acceptance Workshops for people wanting to improve their body image. Find out more here.
I am in the final stages of training as an Integrative Counsellor and I will be taking on clients in 2023. Please contact me to find out more.
Bristol Waste are running a “slim my waste” campaign to encourage people to use separate food waste bins. On every wheelie bin, bright yellow stickers read “I’m on a no food diet” and tape measure style “slim my waste” stickers are wrapped around the middle section. A funny play on words? Not for the 1.6 million people affected by eating disorders in the UK. I’m all for food composting, but there must be better ways to do it than supporting toxic diet culture.
In a world where one in four 7-year-old girls have tried to lose weight at least once, it’s imperative that companies promote themselves responsibly. It’s reported that 70% of women have felt pressure from TV and magazines to have the perfect body. And it’s not just girls - 60% of people say they feel ashamed of how they look. Imagine having to walk past a line of wheelie bins, all decorated with tape measures, and having the words “slim my waste” stuck in your mind for the rest of the day.
After spotting a full page Bristol Waste advert on the back of The Spark (now run by Bristol 247) with the slogan “have you slimmed your waste yet?’ I decided to tweet Bristol Waste.
Their reply suggested other people had flagged it up as an issue too, and this was a copy-and-paste response. What they're effectively saying is “that wasn’t what we intended” and dismissing it as a problem because they don't think it affects people. Well, it does. Multiple people are telling them this. It is arrogant, irresponsible and unprofessional to dismiss it.
These bins are yet another thing people have to walk past every day demanding them to be thinner. Britain’s diet industry is worth billions of pounds - they profit off making people feel ashamed of their bodies. They tell us that beauty and health means being thin, which is simply not true. Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. The diet industry need us to hate our bodies and aspire to be ‘perfect’ otherwise they wouldn’t make any money.
“Being sold the message of dieting can produce drastic dieting which can lead to eating disorders. Getting rid of dieting could wipe out at least 70% of eating disorders.” Dr Adrienne Key, Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Many people live with guilt and shame around food every day. Many struggle to feel worthy as a person because they’re not thin. They’re bombarded with digitally altered images, Slimming World leaflets through their front doors, adverts for gym memberships and diet pills, the voices of bullies on the street or on the bus. Every time they walk past one of these wheelie bins they’ll be reminded of how they’re not good enough. Bristol Waste is only a tiny part of this bigger cultural problem, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do something about it. To say these slogans are just a bit of fun is to completely deny somebody else’s struggle.
It’s never just a funny play on words. Slimming world use “syns” to describe treat foods because they know, psychologically, it won’t make any difference how the word is spelled. The word has the same effect in the mind - guilt and shame - the very thing that brings them more money.
I appreciate that Bristol Waste are trying to help us recycle and help save the environment. The funny face stickers for the food waste bins are fun and a great idea. However, the unwillingness to recognize the potential damage of the “slim my waist” stickers shows a complete lack of empathy towards another (large) group of people’s perspective. To deny the problem is to sit in a position of privilege and say “well, it doesn’t affect me”. Positive body image is integral to emotional and mental well-being and it’s crucial that companies and advertisers think carefully and take responsibility for their actions to help make a positive change for the future.
Disclaimer: I wrote these blogs a long time ago! I'm leaving them up as I don't want to delete my journey and I think showing growth is important. But it means that some of my views, and some language I use, is now different. Please be mindful of this, and that the content might be triggering, if you choose to read on.
Content warning: eating disorders
To The Bone is somehow listed as a 'comedy drama' on IMDB. It's certainly not a comedy. Writer/director Marti Noxon was apparently influenced by her own eating disorder experiences and wanted to help raise awareness of the illness. Whether it does this in the right way is up for debate, and I’m still not entirely sure myself. As much as I’ve had a very weird relationship with food and a rather negative relationship with my body in general, but I’ve not had anorexia so it’s not fair for me to question if the film portrays it well. Though of course it’s also subjective, so To The Bone may have been Noxon’s experience of anorexia but other people may have a very different reality of it.
Writing about mental health is tricky, especially for films. From my own experience of learning to write screenplays, it’s all about the three act structure and there’s an expectation to resolve all issues in the final act. This might be something relatively easy to do in a blockbuster action film (there's usually just a big fight and then the guy gets the hot girl) but when there are characters with complex mental health issues it’s hard to realistically resolve these in such a short time. In real life, unpicking trauma can take years. This, for me, was where To The Bone went wrong. There was a lot of focus on the illness (which is always risky as it can end up being a "how to" of eating disorders) and the recovery seemed to be done by way of a rather strange, quite rushed, epiphany sequence. And of course there was a boy involved too…uh oh….
There are only two notable male characters in this film and they hardly speak to each other. Technically you could say it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. The Bechdel test asks if two women talk to each other about something other than a man, and although this was originally a useful test, it doesn’t stop women being overruled by men in films. In To The Bone, both men talk to her like crap, and their behaviour is never justified as such. It’s a particular gripe of mine when women are saved by men in films, but especially when it involves a mental illness. Often there just is no cure, another reason why it’s so hard to make a film which tells these stories in a satisfying, believable, responsible way. My first screenplay was about a young woman with depression and anxiety, and I’ve spent so long working on the ending to find that balance of it being hopeful but realistic. There are many ways people cope with having a mental illness but meeting someone and falling in love is often not the solution. This only puts pressure on another person to have to ‘fix’ them. Strength comes from inside yourself, not from Prince Charming. This is obviously why I don't write romance!
Lilly Collins, who plays Ellen in To The Bone, apparently had an eating disorder herself. It’s no surprise then that she was brilliant in the role, but she did lose weight for it. We can’t say this was a bad choice on her part, because she’s a grown women and is responsible for her own body, but there’s no denying it was a risky move which might have potentially triggered her ED (eating disorder) again.
Whilst we’re on the topic of triggers, the film does have calorie counting, weight loss tricks, disordered eating etc, and there are triggering images. We can’t tell people with ED not to watch this film, it’s their choice and many of them will choose to because it’s relevant to them. As with 13 Reasons Why, all Netflix can do is make sure their audience is warned about the content, otherwise the responsibility lies with the audience. We also can’t say these kinds of films and TV shows shouldn’t be made, because otherwise how would we start a dialogue around them? If this film was banned, where would the line be drawn when it comes to other films?
On the other hand, there are dangerous images of thin women everywhere. For someone to play an anorexic woman in a film, she needs to be noticeably thinner than other women in films, and the ‘normal’ level is pretty bloody thin. It’s not hard to find ‘thinspiration’ in this world.
Some people with anorexia might want to be triggered. You only need to step into the world of ‘pro-ana’ (pro anorexia) websites and thinspiration (sometimes called ‘thinspo’, or even ‘bonespo’) to see that being triggered can be a good thing for them. Ultimately there might be a horrible irony to Lilly Collin’s choice to lose weight for the role in that she may become an unintentional thinspo idol.
In short, maybe this film is made for people who don’t know very much about eating disorders. There could be many benefits to parents or teachers, for instance, watching this to help recognise some things that people with anorexia may do. In this sense of raising awareness, maybe it works.
But let’s talk about Keanu Reeves. Keanu fucking Reeves. Personally, I think he has the screen presence of a lamppost. Apart from in the Bill and Ted films of course. (#NotAllKeanuReevesFilms)
But maybe it’s not all his fault in To The Bone. It’s a mix of:
a) the annoyingly privileged setting (they clearly got her into that residence ‘cos they’re loaded)
b) patriarchal bullshit
c) therapists always* being shit in films
*Okay, so therapists in films are not all shit (#NotAllTherapists) but they need to be recognised in the script as being shit if they are. Take, for example, Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. He’s not set up to automatically be the one we should trust because he’s working through his own issues. This works. What doesn’t work is when you get a weird, creepy therapist like Keanu Reeve’s character in To The Bone, who is treated like some kind of cult leader. His behaviour is then validated at the end when she returns to the house, and we’re supposed to believe that it’s a positive outcome for her. It’s great that she chooses to take steps towards her recovery, but to go back to a place run by such a weird creepy bloke is simply bonkers.
Keanu/doctor/therapist/perv/cult leader is seen as radical because he says the word ‘fuck’ a few times. ‘Tell those negative thoughts to fuck off’ he says. So insightful and professional. Then he basically tells her to grow up and get over it, she goes away and has her little epiphany and then realises he’s right. The guy who thinks he can cure eating disorders by taking them to dance in some fake rain, is ‘right’ all along. She should’ve reported him, or at least gone to another clinic.
But then, the boy was there. Prince Charming. The pompous British twat who came on to her but then instantly body shamed her when she said no. The one who tried to force-feed her chocolate. The one who sat on a tree branch in her epiphany dream – the bit where she was dressed up like some kind of born again Christian angel virgin and he made everything all better by telling her she was pretty. Couldn’t the stepsister have been sitting on that branch with her, Ellen wearing her usual clothes? Can she not take steps to recovery without there being a man there to help, and without having to wear less eyeliner?
Then there was the mother and the moon. That strange, inappropriate feeding bit where her mother cradled her like a baby. I can see the theory behind that and it was nice to have a slight resolution to their seemingly turbulent relationship, but…really? And the moon…God knows. For a character who didn’t seem remotely spiritual, this ending was a little bit of a stretch for me. But the point is, she reaches the stage where she decides to follow the path to recovery. The intentions are good overall, and above all it’s a dialogue opener.
The strength of the film was certainly in it’s strong female characters and family dynamic, showing how eating disorders effect the whole family. I hope this movie helps people learn a little more about an under-represented topic in film and will open conversations about eating disorders and how we can help people and families affected.
If you or someone you know is affected by an eating disorder, here are some recommended websites:
A note about triggering
FEELING TRIGGERED IS NOT A WEAKNESS. If you’re the sort of person who mocks people for being triggered by things they watch or read, or uses the term ‘snowflakes’, you need to take a serious look at what kind of person you are. You wouldn’t laugh if that person was a relapsed drug addict, or if somebody had an injury which flared up. It proves how we don’t take mental health seriously enough as a society. Many people have had difficult experiences in their lives which can be easily triggered, bringing up difficult emotions. If you’re lucky enough not to have this problem then please recognise that not everyone is the same. It is not cool to laugh at somebody who is upset about something. It shows a lack of empathy, and that frankly you’re just a d*ck.
Be excellent to each other!