Writer, journalist and TV presenter, Emma Woolf dedicates much of her work to helping those struggling with eating disorders. Having battled anorexia herself for over a decade, she now co-presents Channel 4’s Supersize vs Superskinny and is the author of six books on the subject of mental health. Ahead of her latest release, The A to Z of Eating Disorders, we sat down with Emma to learn more about her experience with anorexia and why eating disorders are so misunderstood...
What’s the story behind your anorexia?
My story is captured in my first book, An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia. In it I explain how, following a painful relationship break-up, I stopped eating. I was aged 19 and just starting at Oxford University – almost instantly I found myself in the grip of anorexia nervosa. Over the next three years my life began to fall apart and I almost lost my mind.
Many writers find writing therapeutic. Personally, writing my memoir was both painful and therapeutic. It forced me to go back over some very dark times during my twenties, times of depression and severe illness, which wasn’t easy. A year after the book was published, I narrated the audiobook too, which was surprisingly difficult. Did it help me in some way? I don’t know – but hearing from others about how An Apple a Day has helped them to recover from their own eating disorders has been the most healing aspect.
Was there a turning point in your recovery?
The turning point didn’t come for many years, aged nearly 30, realising that I couldn’t go on like this; I had a good career in publishing, I was outwardly functioning, socialising, dating – but not really living a full life. I existed in a state of constant hunger and anxiety; I couldn’t eat with others and couldn’t enjoy food in a normal way. My health was starting to suffer from a decade of chronic under-eating and over-exercising; I simply couldn’t go on policing my entire life in such a strict way.
Did you have any coping mechanisms?
Recovery was the hardest battle of my life, but I kept reminding myself that I needed to save myself. For all the therapy and medication in the world, in the end you have to save yourself: you have to start eating. I had to accept that my body – like all bodies – needed food, and that eating wasn’t greedy and resting wasn’t lazy. This makes sense to ‘normal’ people, but when you’re locked in the anorexic mindset, the concept of eating and resting can feel threatening.
Any advice for those recovering from an eating disorder?
Get help immediately. It’s well documented that the earlier you intervene in the development of an eating disorder, the quicker and easier recovery will be. The longer an eating disorder goes on, the more entrenched and habitual the starvation habits and rigid thinking become. Trust me, after more than a decade of anorexia, it was astoundingly hard to recover.
But of course it’s not that easy, because treatment isn’t always available. We need to make sure everyone can access help and support early, no matter what they weigh. I know eating disorder sufferers who have been on waiting lists for months, or have been told they’re not thin enough, that their BMI is too high. It’s shocking that anyone who takes the decision to want to recover should be turned away.
What’s the biggest myth about eating disorders?
That they only affect young, narcissistic, super-slim teenage girls – this is complete nonsense. I have spoken to thousands of readers around the world, sufferers can be older ladies, younger men (eating disorders are on the increase among males), mums and widows – they can be overweight, underweight or anything in between. Remember, eating disorders are mental illnesses: the struggle is on the inside.
How can we help a friend who we think might have an eating disorder?
If you or someone close to you has a problem – whether that’s undereating or overeating – please try to talk to them about it. They may not be ready but they’ll know you’re there and ready to listen. Signs of eating disorders are varied and not always easy to detect – it’s not just about people losing weight or looking skinny. Perhaps they avoid eating with others, or make excuses at mealtimes, or disappear to the bathroom after food, or just seem anxious.
Try to raise the issue in a non-judgemental way and let them know you’re there. Don’t gossip or talk behind their back and certainly don’t ignore the problem. Even if they seem to want to isolate themselves, keep being a good friend, and keep calling and visiting – eating disorders can be very lonely.
What’s the story behind your latest book?
I wrote The A-Z of Eating Disorders because I kept hearing from readers that they wanted a reliable source of information about eating disorders and the countless issues which relate to these complex conditions. The book covers bulimia, binge-eating disorder, night-eating syndrome and orthorexia – not just anorexia. It looks at the social aspects, relationships, sex, families, guilt, recovery, and clean eating – issues which relate to eating disorders but are rarely covered in medical dictionaries.
Do you think women can ever fully get over food and body demons?
Yes – everyone can recover. But there’s no ignoring the fact that the outlook for women in the 21st century is pretty sad – the pressures placed upon us are overwhelming, spanning not just weight but also aspects like detoxing, sex, fashion, hair and beauty. There’s this assumption we all have to be super-toned and tanned with zero cellulite and no body hair to be successful, and consequently many women hate their bodies. Surveys show girls as young as three say they ‘feel fat’ – this is an inner monologue of self-hatred, which is terribly damaging.
Could eating disorders be genetic?
Quite possibly – the research surrounding this is fascinating and there is evidence eating disorders do have neurobiological roots. Sometimes people blame the person with the eating disorder and tell them just to eat more, or eat less, but that’s not right – you don’t blame someone who has schizophrenia or epilepsy or eczema, you know they didn’t bring it upon themselves. For too long, anorexia has been treated as a choice and it’s not a choice, it may actually be a genetic condition, a sort of brain disease.
What’s the simplest thing we can do to have a healthier relationship with food?
It’s about being determined and focused on your health and on good nutrition, and to some extent ignoring the clamour of diet nonsense and weight obsession in society around us now. Remember that advertisers, manufacturers and celebrities are trying to sell you something – and that 99% of diets never work. Ignore the clean eating mantras – every human being has different energy needs and a different body shape. Stay active, stay healthy, trust your own appetite and your instincts.
Emma Woolf’s new book, The A-Z of Eating Disorders, is out now with Sheldon Press. All her books can be found on Amazon. You can follow Emma on Twitter @EJWoolf and her website.