OK, here it goes. A story I've been meaning to tell for a long time. A story I've slowly been sharing on social media, to friends and family, and now to you. A story I'm no longer afraid or ashamed to share. A story some of you may know all too well yourself. At the age of 18 I was gripped by the claws of anorexia.
Anorexia manifests itself in many different ways and everyone who has suffered with it will have a different story to tell. My story is a culmination of fighting off depression, working as a model and my desperate attempt to be skinny. I can't pinpoint exactly when it began. It happened overtime with a combination of things said, things read, things believed, things perceived. All of which I will explain.
I struggled with the illness for almost six years. Six years of meticulous planning, of calorie counting, of timed eating schedules, of eating on my own, of denial, of obsessions, of carefully selected food groups, of illogical, irrational thinking. It was tiresome and lonely and I hated every minute of being trapped by something that I believed I was in control of but as I look back it is clear that it had complete control of me. Your thoughts are consumed by it, there is no exit door, no emergency alarm but the worst part? You don't want to find the exit door or the emergency alarm. As trapped as you may feel it is also your safe place. Sounds confusing right? Finding the sense in it is half the battle. The fact that it doesn't always follow logic makes it all the more scary.
Let me try and explain it like this.
Phoebe, me, my personality, who I am, that is my soul, hidden away inside the shell of my body. Anorexia is not me, it's not Phoebe.
Anorexia is the "good guy", my friend, it only wants the best for me. It becomes my thoughts, my eyes, my ears, my conscience. It encompasses my entire being, it overrides my soul, it overrides Phoebe.
My body is the enemy, it wants me to be fat, to be ugly, it won't do what anorexia wants it to do therefore it needs to be punished.
It sounds extreme but that gives you an idea of how an anorexic might think. Anorexia does not become me but it squashes everything that is me. Not fun.
So here I am laying it all out on the table. Some of it won't be pretty, a lot of it won't make much sense but all of it will be a true and honest account of my experiences.
Growing up I was a healthy, active child. I had an amazing childhood, a great group of friends, I loved my school and I had a good relationship with food. I didn't think too much about what I ate, I just ate what I enjoyed. My mum of course instilled some good habits in me and made sure I predominantly snacked on fruit, nuts, yoghurt, cheese etc. Dinners were varied and healthy and four nights a week I would have a pre-packaged serving of profiteroles with chocolate sauce. On Saturdays I'd have McDonalds with friends at my local shopping centre and once a week my dad and I would get take out. I wasn't a fussy eater, there wasn't many things I didn't like. Apart from peas and mushrooms (both of which I love now). Eating was a part of life, something to be enjoyed, not analysed, something to be celebrated, not criticised.
I began modelling at 14, so I was relatively young and my parents did everything in their power to guide and protect me through an industry that doesn't always have the best reputation or intention. I could only work on weekends and during school holidays and they would always chaperone me to London for castings and shoots. When I hit 16 I was old enough, confident enough and street wise enough to head into London on my own. I remember one occasion when I visited my agency, my booker at the time started to ask me questions about my exercise routine, if I was a member at a gym, what sort of food I was eating. I was 16, of course I wasn't going to the gym, of course I didn't have an exercise routine. I played netball at school and ran around with my friends, that was the extent of my "exercise routine". As the conversation progressed it was obvious that my booker was hinting at me to start taking exercise more seriously and to start watching my weight. Now I'm not knocking exercise, I think it's important to keep fit and healthy but to tell an impressionable, pubescent, 16 year old girl who's already going through a lot of bodily changes to start watching her weight, that's just asking for trouble.
I remember feeling slightly embarrassed and also a bit ashamed of myself. I told her that I would look at joining a gym. Which I did. About two months after that conversation I made the decision to put modelling on the back seat for the next year to focus on my final year at school. During that year I was happy in myself and I didn't give much thought to what my booker had discussed with me. Or so I thought.
Then around the age of 17 and a half years something triggered. I really couldn't tell you what it was was. Whether that's because I've forgotten or because there wasn't one defining moment I can't say. It was a mixture of things I'm sure. I guess you hit a certain age where fashion and make up become important, beauty and celebrities start making their way into your daily conversations, you buy magazines with stunning women gracing the covers, I had my first serious boyfriend, my body was changing, I was growing boobs and a waist and a bum. Then all of a sudden I had a new best friend and it's name was anorexia. In that same year I started at University. I moved away from home and was living in a Unilet accommodation, not my first choice. I lived with three boys, who were nice enough but not people I would chose to live with, I was far away from the University and halls of residence so I felt extremely isolated. I grew quite depressed, I was homesick and I felt lost and unsure of myself. Food became my comfort but not in the way you might think. Instead of finding comfort in eating lots or eating "bad" food I comforted myself through control. It gave me a routine, something to focus on, something that was "mine". I remember taking hours to eat my meals, it was like I was trying to fill the empty, lonely times with something positive. The theory I guess was the longer it took me to eat, the longer my enjoyment would last and the happier I would be but this was clearly not a healthy approach and was the beginning of some very bad habits. I started modelling again to help pay for my tuition fees and I believe it was a combination of this decision and my unhealthy obsession with food that really sent me spiralling.
At 19 I was sent to a casting for agent provocateur. One of the worlds biggest and most recognised lingerie brands. I had never looked better I thought. Skinnier than I'd ever been. This job was mine. That same afternoon my agency at the time called me and said "the client loved you....". I knew it, I'd booked it! "But......they thought you were too skinny. The job is in 2 weeks and they said if you can gain a stone in weight then they will seriously consider you for the job." My heart sank, not because the job wasn't mine but because I was being forced onto the battle ground with my biggest contender. I was advised to drink weight gaining shakes twice a day. Chocolate cookie flavour. My initial reaction to this was, "you mean, I could eat this rich, yummy, indulgent food and it could land me a job?" The strange thing is, is that I was really quite excited. For the first time in a long time I could hand over the power to something on the outside. As funny as it may sound anorexics actually really love and enjoy food. It's a bit of a contradiction I know but they love cooking and they love eating. That I guess is the other half of the battle. So being told I could eat, that I HAD to eat and something positive could result in me doing so meant I could put my mind into auto and just do as I was told. For a small moment in time I felt free.
So at first this chocolate shake sounded like heaven but after two days the novelty began to wear off and I began to resist. Needless to say I didn't put on enough weight and I didn't get the job. My first thought was it's because I'm too fat. I couldn't comprehend being turned down for being too skinny. Even though that's exactly what it was. Which is exactly why this illness is so dangerous. It makes absolutely no sense. There is no logic or reason to the thought process. It tells us what it wants us to hear.
Food, any food, became a treat. Not a crucial, everyday, nutritional necessity to survive. A treat, something I needed to earn. Had I walked enough steps that day to deserve a slice of ham with my baked beans on toast? Not even anything remotely exciting, a bloody slice of ham!!!
I love food because it is a necessity that can also be enjoyed. And it should be enjoyed every single day. Food is not a punishment but that is exactly what it turned into. If heaven forbid I had a dessert after dinner, tomorrow would be a day to repent my sins. Denying myself food was my punishment. This pattern slowly developed into another element of my illness, binging. If I knew I was going to a dinner party or going out to a restaurant, I would make sure I had earned the privilege to eat. Starving myself for days and "banking" my calories then eating as much as I could fit in my tummy until I felt physically sick. Once the flood gates opened that was it. One tiny piece of chocolate would be enough to set me off. My mentality was, "well you've started now so what difference does it make?". A shit load of difference, that's what! How is one piece of chocolate the same as a family size serving? But as I've said before there is no logic. I thank God that I never dived into the bulimia box, I know the consequences and repercussions of bulimia and it is not nice. Instead of throwing up what I ate I just wouldn't eat for a day or two. Simple maths really.......
The constant conversations gave me a headache. Why did choosing a yoghurt at the supermarket have to take 15 minutes? Why did a fun and social get together at a restaurant suddenly become my worst nightmare? Here's a condensed insight into the thought process of someone with anorexia.
- I was only "allowed" to eat a minimum of four hours after my previous meal. And that was four hours after my last mouthful not when I started eating.
- The less food groups I consumed in a day the less weight I would put on. For example if I ate rice at lunch I could have no other carbohydrate for dinner other than rice. This went for all food types and groups.
- I compared myself to the people I loved and gave an internal cheer when I could see how much skinnier I was compared to my friends. Visible bones were like a currency. The more I had the happier I was but as the saying goes, money doesn't buy you happiness.
- I had to weigh myself every morning and stand in front of the mirror naked inspecting every part of my body.
- If we went out to eat I needed to know which restaurant we were going to so I could inspect the menu online and chose the least "threatening" meal. Sometimes it would go as far as researching the least fattening type of food within a food group. For example if we went to an Asian restaurant I had to know which noodle, ramen, soba, udon etc was "the best one for you".
- As I mentioned earlier if I did have a day where I decided to "let go" then I would seriously let go. The thinking behind it was that I would never eat a chocolate, or sweet, or a dessert, or an ice cream, or anything "bad" for me ever again so why not just pig out now as it would be the last time? It was never the last time.
Reading back on this and how I saw myself through such different eyes, I feel embarrassed and ashamed but at the same time I know that it was not me, anorexia was not me and I was not defined by this illness.
I was incredibly thin, I would weigh myself daily and if I had put on any weight it would destroy me. My agency kept telling me how good I was looking, how gorgeous and beautiful I was which only fuelled the fire and confirmed to me that what I was doing was the right thing to do. I did not look good. I looked like a giant, walking lollipop. I looked frail and tired, the whites of my eyes were dull, my hair was incredibly thin, my skin was dry and covered in excess hair, my ribs were protruding both front and back, I was constantly exhausted, my muscles ached, I suffered with back pain, I couldn't concentrate. I was a slave to myself.
One of the scariest things about anorexia is that it doesn't choose who it wants to "befriend" based on a set of criteria, it will quite literally invade the mind of anyone. Be it boy or girl, rich or poor, smart or simple, model or not.
Being anorexic is hard work. It is mentally draining, physically damaging and emotionally exhausting. All I thought about was food and how not to eat it. How fucking insane is that? My parents and friends endured so much, watching me suffer, yet they could not say anything. If my mum so much as suggested another portion or helping of food at dinner I would shut down, get angry with her, make her feel bad and deflect the focus and attention away from me. My boyfriend at the time could see me withering away but anytime he mentioned it I would snap. He could tell me how beautiful I was but I wouldn't listen. I was pushing people away. Anorexia really brought out the worst in me. And of course if I told anyone about it, it wouldn't be my "friend" anymore. It would leave me behind to get fat, to turn ugly, to be chewed up and spat out by society. I am nothing without it. Anorexia was my friend now so I didn't need them anymore. As long as I was in "control" I was safe. Until one day, completely out of the blue I broke. I opened up to my mum and told her what I had been going through. She burst into tears with relief. She knew all along, it was obvious, it usually always is. Finally she could help me. But it didn't end there. Admitting it is just one step of many.
I'll mention here that my mum also suffered from anorexia bulimia of which she's happy for me to share with you. She confessed to me once I had the courage to open up about my own battle. Her first reaction was to think it was her fault. That I had somehow picked up on her bad habits and subconsciously decided to follow suit. I do not blame my mum one single bit. Looking back I recognise now that my mum did have some strange rituals including weighing her cereal to make sure it was exactly 30g as the packaging suggests. Looking at photos of her she was clearly much skinnier than she should have been but at the time she was just mum and I loved her, flaws and all.
It is so difficult to approach someone with an eating disorder even if it is bluntly obvious. The more you try to encourage them to admit it or open up about it the more they will shut you out and that's the one thing you really don't wan them to do. Then again how do you just sit their and watch them go through this? I'm no therapist or professional when it comes to helping someone, I can only go by my own experiences but if you can see someone really struggling then I advise you to get professional, medical help. They will resist trust me, but if they can't find the strength to ask for help then you need to be that strength for them.
I attempted going to counselling. I think I had about three sessions before I told my mum I was better and refused to go back. Of course this was the anorexia talking. I wasn't better by any means and I knew I had to fight this one myself.
For those of you who have been down this long and agonizing road I believe that we all experience it differently and for different reasons. I also believe that once you've suffered with anorexia it never really leaves you. It's about a level of control and understanding. I still have days where I think if I skip breakfast I'll be skinnier, I still have days where I look at my friend and think how beautifully slim she is and why aren't I like that, I still have days when I look in the mirror and all I see is a fat lump. I look back at photos of myself and my initial thoughts are how sick I looked, how unhealthy and malnourished I was, how tired and frail I was. But there is another side to how I feel, one I hate to admit, and that is wishing I could be that skinny again. Maybe life would be easier. After all, all anorexia wants is for you to feel beautiful, to be skinny, to be loved and adored by the fashion industry, to feel validated. I hate acknowledging the weakness in myself, wanting to succumb to the life I had with anorexia, for even thinking that there is an ounce of positive to having anorexia. But I guess that's all part of the fight.
In saying all of this I am extremely grateful for the opportunities and experiences I've had as a result of my career in the fashion industry but it has left a dirty mark on the rest of my life. One which I don’t think I'll ever be able to erase but one which I must learn to live with.
The purpose of this post is not to make you feel sorry for me or take pity on me. I'm not trying to be a hero in opening up about this, I'm not the first one to share my experiences about anorexia but I do think that the more we talk about it and talk about it honestly and the more we can relate it to people we know, to "real" people, as in not just the ones we see on TV, hopefully it will help those suffering feel less alone. Anorexia is a very lonely existence.
Finally, this message is to anyone reading who might be fighting this very same battle. I know that what you're going through is hard. I know it is shit scary. I also know that you don't want to be "cured". I know that the thought of not being anorexic is far more terrifying than being anorexic. Another twisted aspect of this horrible illness. But try this. Talk to one person about it. Don't ask them for help, don't ask them for counselling, don't ask them to share it with anyone. Just ask them to listen. Ask them to be your safe place, to not judge, to not have answers. Just listen. If you can find safety somewhere other than anorexia then maybe, just maybe, that might be the stepping stone you need. It probably won't be a short road, then again it might be and I hope it is but it probably won't. If living with it and only talking to someone about it is all you can handle for now then that's good enough. It's a step in the right direction.
A motto I tell myself regularly is - you only live once. Please don't waste your precious time on something that won't care or appreciate the pain you've put yourself through. Anorexia does not care about you. It does not want the best for you. Also remember that it is not your fault, you didn't choose this. Sadly anorexia chose you. The good news........you still have time to choose.
On a side note I wanted to post this photo of me below. This is me on a photoshoot in Istanbul in 2012, 2 years after I arrived in Australia. I was still battling with an eating disorder but definitely on the mend and doing much, much better. During the shoot I was told by the client that I was too big. He then went on to complain to my London agency about my size and told them that I was too big for the clothes and he wasn't happy with my size. I was a size 8.......A SIZE 8!!!!! Needless to say in my fragile state his comments were all it took for me to spiral back into my unhealthy eating habits. The weeks that followed pretty much threw everything I had been working towards out of the window.
It doesn't take much to tip a sufferer over the edge. The really scary thing is that even a compliment can help fuel the fire. Tell a sufferer that he or she is looking good, meaning genuinely healthy and well, and that might be all it takes to make them think they are fat. Telling a sufferer that they look like they've lost weight is enough to encourage them to keep going. As a person on the outside it is an extremely delicate and touchy situation and I feel for anyone who is friends with, living with or in a relationship with a sufferer. I know you are suffering too, watching the person you care about essentially destroying themselves. But whatever you do don't stop caring and don't stop helping. They need you more than they know. I've been on the other side too, I've seen many friends suffer with it but having had it myself it doesn't make it any easier to try to help them. I'm almost more cautious because I know how fine that line is and how damaging it can be if the wrong thing is said.
The fashion industry still has a lot to answer for and is the direct cause of a lot of sick boys and girls and men and women. I really hope that one day the industry and society can see past a persons size and wake the fuck up. People's lives are on the line. Girls have fallen down dead because of it. Of course the fashion industry is not completely to blame but it plays a large part and I look forward to the day that the agencies and brands take responsibility and start to place value on people on the things that really matter.
Now I should let you know that I am well. I no longer suffer with anorexia. I sometimes struggle with tendencies of the illness if I'm having a bad day or put pressure on myself before a photoshoot. Thankfully 98% of the time I am happy, healthy and strong both physically and mentally and I count my lucky stars that I got out when I did. Sending love and good vibes to those who are still in on the battle ground. Please feel free to reach out if you need someone to talk to.
P.S Kate Moss, everything tastes better then being skinny feels. You clearly haven't tried my blueberry and sour cream sponge cake.