Shades of Anorexia: it is a mental illness, not a statement

An eating disorder made Lucy Britton "want to disappear". Here, she responds to Rachel Cusk's article on the "anorexic statement".

This is going to be a hard post to write but I’m so upset by Rachel Cusk's article on anorexia in the New Statesman, and the way in which it conveys eating disorders.  In her article, Cusk represents those who suffer from anorexia as attention seekers: people who wish to become highly visible. She also paints anorexia as a purely female phenomenon. At one point she goes so far as to describe an anorexic person as a “68lb tyrant” who seemingly demands someone must feed her as a means of controlling her support team.

I’ve suffered from remitting and relapsing eating disorders since I was 14 years old. A close family member also suffered from a severe eating disorder and almost died as a result. I do not recognise the descriptions provided by Cusk at all.

There are many reasons why people become ill with eating disorders. Sexual assault is one such cause. Many people wish to desexualise themselves and disappear. The last time I was ill two years ago followed a rape and subsequent period of severe ill-health, possibly aggravated by complications with Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. I felt out of control and vulnerable. Not eating was a secret. I did not wish for it to make me more visible. I wanted to disappear. I was not even scared of the thought of dying, highlighting the extent of my desire to just stop existing. It is true that not eating made me feel a sense of achievement.  I had controlled my body, rather than had that control taken away from me as I had experienced. It was fuelled by self-hatred rather than self-promotion as Cusk seems to imply. Palpitations, constantly feeling cold and light-headed, and the inability to sleep were simply the physical manifestations of the pain I felt emotionally.

I was hospitalised in a psychiatric unit. My attitude towards food was not one of calorie counting. I was scared of eating. Food petrified me. It was quite literally a phobia. They wanted me to drink something called Fortisip/ Fortijuice which are incredibly sweet calorie- and nutrition-laden supplement drinks. Because my mind was aware it was the alternative to food I couldn’t face letting it pass my lips. Even passing the dining hall filled me with panic, the smell disgusted me and made me feel nauseous. They wanted me to drink the food replacement drinks in front of them in my room. The idea of them watching me made the whole situation worse.

Eventually, after weeks of wrangling with my care team, my husband convinced them to allow me to drink them in my room alone. I was supposed to drink four bottles a day minimum. At most I managed to drink half a bottle three times a day, I believe this was the equivalent of 300 calories, and I cried after each one. Once they took me to the eating hall to try an apple. I wouldn’t enter until everyone else had left. It was just me and one nurse. The smell from the previous mealtime overwhelmed me. Before the plate with the apple was put in front of me my legs were shaking in uncontrollable terror. I managed with shaking hand to cut a slither of apple. This was the most contact I had had with food in weeks. The feel of it in my mouth was grainy, like sand or powder. After just a few seconds I broke down. I couldn’t go on. Not eating made me feel like a failure. This was not a tantrum, it was panic. It was not petulant or controlling behaviour. I did not demand attention, I deplored attention. It was the manifestation of a traumatised mind.

Of course my story is only one of many. There are numerous reasons why people suffer from eating disorders, and it is by no means gender-specific. The causes and the experiences are many and should not, as Cusk has attempted, be reduced and universalised. The real life experiences of people with eating disorders far exceed Cusk’s monolithic and seemingly psychoanalytical, and overtly poetic, descriptions. Many eating disorder sufferers cannot neatly be compartmentalised as only possessing a simple diagnosis. Categorisation can be anorexia nervosa, bullimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS (which means eating disorder not otherwise specified, this could be because the person with the ED suffers from both anorexia and bullimia symptoms or does not fulfill the weight criteria of the anorexia nervosa category). These shades of grey seem to become very lost in Cusk’s representation.

The Minnesota Experiment under controlled conditions studied the effects of malnutrion upon a group of 36 physically and psychologically healthy young men. It was found that many of the symptoms and behaviours which are associated with anorexia and/ or bullimia, such as a preoccupation with food, collecting recipes and a fixation with the eating habits of others; hoarding (which has been seen in anorexia patients); ritualistic behaviour around food (Cusk’s “feed me” springs to mind); bingeing; self-induced vomitting; feelings of guilt and shame; anger; and self-disgust inter alia were the result of malnutrition. Cusk’s poetic descriptions of anorexia may look pretty on the page, but clearly many of the behaviours she sees as resultant from a seemingly petulant, controlling and diva-like mind are infact the psychological symptoms of starvation.

Please do not believe Cusk’s thickly worded and damning descriptions of people with eating disorders. “We” are not one-size fits all. We are not all women. We are not all attention seekers and we do not wish to lash out and harm everyone around us. There are so many nuances it is impossible for Cusk or I to come up with a universal “Anorexia Statement”. Many people with anorexia aren’t trying to say anything at all. I had no message for the world. Anorexia is a mental illness not a “statement”.

For Lucy, even trying to eat an apple had her legs shaking in uncontrollable terror. Photo: By vauvau on Flickr, via Creative Commons
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA