Looking-Glass House

The charity Mind, postulates:

‘Food plays an important part in our lives and most of us will spend time thinking about what we eat. Sometimes we may try to eat more healthily, have cravings, eat more than usual or lose our appetite. Changing your eating habits every now and again is normal.
But if food and eating feels like it’s taking over your life then it may become a problem.
Anyone, regardless of age, gender or weight, can be affected by eating problems.’

Last week I decided to watch Louis Theroux’s ‘Talking To Anorexia’, I’ve watched all of his documentaries, from his infamous encounters with the Westboro Baptist Church and Jimmy Saville, to his dealings with porn stars, brothels and plastic surgery addicts. However, this episode really struck a chord.

I’ll be honest, I have no first-hand experience with eating problems or disorders. Yes – there is a difference, and, sadly, before watching the show I was part of the many who saw anorexia nervosa as predominantly caused by the media and its constant emphasis on a particular body type.

In the episode, Louis visits two of London’s biggest adult eating disorder treatment centres: St Anne’s Hospital and Vincent Square Clinic, immersing himself into their day-to-day life of regimental meals, therapy and weigh-ins.

For me, the production presented a very raw and honest insight into the mental illness. I now understand that it has a far more widespread presence than we are led to believe, as Clinical Director of St Anne’s, Francis Connor, explained it has the highest mortality of any psychiatric illness. Indeed, the NHS website concludes around 1 in 250 women and 1 in 2,000 men will experience it at some point in their lives. In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of people admitted to hospital, due to their condition being so delipidating.
Moreover, it shed light on the plethora of culminating factors which can cause it, ranging from: biological makeup, personality type (apparently you are more susceptible if you have OCD traits or are a perfectionist), life experiences and the pressures of society on appearance. One of the women he spoke to, Jess, incessantly walked and did around 2,000 star-jumps a day. She argued, however, that it wasn’t about being attractive or a size zero; instead, it was her way of having control and it was also part of her self-punishment as she felt like a ‘fat greedy pig’ if she ate, because she felt she didn’t deserve to eat.

It also made me understand the longevity of the psychosis on its sufferers, on average, recovery time is seven years, however, the documentary’s interviewees revealed this median timescale was not the widespread norm. Janet, another woman he spent time with, allowed herself one piece of chocolate a month and ate a ¼ of a cracker for lunch, which was always followed by an hour walk. And yet, Janet was not the late teens, or early twenties woman most people picture in the anorexic imagination. Instead, she is 63 and has been dealing with it since she was 17! I think sometimes people, including myself, don’t appreciate that like every other mental health problem, anorexia can stay with a person their entire lives, rather than a couple of ‘bad’ years.

I also understood fuller the genuine denial some people had about how severely ill they were. Ifzana was an in-patient at St Anne’s, where she had been involuntarily sectioned. She was so persistent with walking and exercise, that on days she was allowed home they got her to sit in a wheelchair to reduce her movement, and in turn, the number of calories she burnt.

The only criticism of the show was that, despite demonstrating women of any age, background and religion are affected by the illness, it did not highlight its prevalence among men. Tom Quinn, Director of External Affairs at Beat, the UK’s largest charity helping those affected by eating disorders, pointed out that in fact some studies show ‘that up to 25% of all people with an eating disorder are male.’
So, to sum up, I highly recommend watching it on BBC iPlayer, I believe it will help those who experience this problem first-hand to maybe feel as though they aren’t so alone, and also a relief that for once, an accurate picture has been painted. It’s also for those who, realistically, have no idea about the illness – a little look through the glass house.

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