I have been reading your articles about Anorexia for a while. You know the ones I mean, they have shocking headlines like ‘Girl nearly dies after living on just X calories a day’. The first picture is always a very thin girl, or guy. They’ll be dressed in clothes that looks about ready to fall off them. A picture that is designed to shock the reader and hook them into reading on, to find out how someone can survive being that thin.
I have read these stories from different places in my life. I read them when I myself was ill with Anorexia, trying to feel less alone. I read them now, from a place of recovery, wondering when the stigma will disappear. On the surface your articles look like a simple story of Eating Disorder recovery, a much needed exercise in raising awareness. But every time you focus on weight and calories, I fear you may be telling a more dangerous story.
I wish you would stop showing us before and after pictures. Displaying the skeletal form of him or her, just to prove they were really ill. As if the severity of a mental illness is directly linked to the amount they weigh. Please don’t describe to me their diet, just how many calories they ate. I don’t want to know what they allowed themselves to eat for breakfast lunch and dinner. I also don’t need to know what they are eating now they’re better. Please don’t make this about food as though this is just a diet gone wrong.
Tell me about them. Tell me who they are. Tell me the things they loved to do before they got sick. Tell me the stresses and factors that brought them to this place, where this need for control came from. Help me to understand that Anorexia does not discriminate, happening to anyone for a vast number of reasons. Show your readers that anorexia is not really about food or weight. That deep down it is not about wanting to look like the most fashionable model or celebrity. Don’t paint the sufferers as selfish and narcissistic. This isn’t a diet or a self-obsession. This is a mental illness.
Tell me what it felt like for them, what this mental illness felt like. Not what it looked like from the outside, but the agony of living through it. The torture of watching yourself fade away and be replaced by someone you do not recognise. To become a person who will lie in a heartbeat as though it’s second nature. Someone who feels utterly powerless to stop the heartache they are causing their family. Tell me what it was like to no longer be able to feel anything but the elation of not eating and the guilt of eating. Tell me how you live with the contradiction of being absolutely terrified and completely unwilling to stop what your doing.
Maybe the shocking photos will scare some sufferers into asking for help. But for others your photos become triggers with darker results.
There are people who are reading your article backwards. They start at the ‘recovered’ picture and believe themselves to be much bigger and fatter than the girl or boy in the photo. And then they work back to the anorexic shots, they see that skeletal figure and see how far they can go. They take note of the weight they were and the calories they were consuming, and see this as a recipe to follow and a challenge to take up. In their mind maybe they believe they’ll be able to stop before it gets that bad.
By printing their weight you are showing them how thin they could get without dying. You have told them the exact weight loss that deems your illness worthy of a newspaper article. They are reading your article and believing that whatever weight they are now doesn’t qualify them for help. That, by comparison, they aren’t really sick.
These people are likely already in the grips of the eating disorder, so you could say they are not your problem. Leave them to doctors and stretched eating disorder services. But you see Mr Editor, you have a chance to draw them in. Not with shocking photos and calorie intake, but with hope.
Instead of telling me what dress size or weight your subject is now they have recovered, tell me what recovery feels like to them.I want to hear about the first time they enjoyed food again with friends, the freedom that brought. I would love to hear more about the things they are able to do now, that they couldn’t when they were sick. The dreams they are now able to chase. Tell me that life in recovery is worth the battle to get there. Show me what inspires them to keep going on the difficult days. Paint a picture of life after Anorexia, not just another diet or meal plan, but a fulfilled and rich life. I need to hear that they can and will be so much more than the person who had an eating disorder.
You see, the truly beautiful thing about recovery is that your life can stop being about food or weight. That wonderful moment when you have gone your first hour, day or week without worrying about food. When you realise you can harness those traits and tendencies that made you ill, and use them to succeed in life. Recovery means that your life can tell a different story. A story that may have had some dark chapters but can continue on into the light.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that you are publishing stories about Anorexia and raising awareness. You are helping to start conversations and end the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
But there is power in how you tell a story.
Is it perhaps time that we tell our story differently?