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Image: Emma Woolf

Eating disorders can affect anyone, across any age or gender. Many of us have been affected by them at some point in our lives, whether through supporting a friend or experiencing it ourselves. However, discussing eating disorders openly still seems to be taboo. It almost seems as though these struggles have been pushed behind closed doors. This is what has driven Emma Woolf, a successful writer and journalist, to write and campaign to increase the discussion about eating disorders.

“I had hidden my eating disorder] for so long, all through university”

As a writer, critic and journalist, Emma Woolf has had a distinguished career. She has not only worked for The Times, the BBC and Channel 4, but has also written four bestselling books. The main focus of her writing has been on her  struggle with an eating disorder, with the aim of inspiring others to be more open about their mental health. I managed to chat to her before she spoke to Exeter University students during BEAT week, leaving me inspired by her confidence, openness and strength. The aims of her talk and her writing was our first topic of discussion.

“The aim of the talk today is to tell the truth about eating disorders, and to de-mystify it for people who are going through it”, she explained. “You often think they are serious illnesses, but you also have to remember they are incredibly common. What I found with writing my first book An Apple a Day, in 2012, and since then travelling around the country and the world talking about this, is that so many people are affected by it. It doesn’t need to be that you are dying or have serious anorexia, it can  just be every day guilt or anxiety about food. It is a lot more common than we think. It’s not just teenage girls or beautiful women. It’s men, people of all ages, middle-aged women, grandparents, teachers, professionals, scientists, I have met so many people in so many walks of life who have struggled.” She emphasised the importance of her argument that it is  “the more we talk about it, and debunk the myths and misconceptions” the easier it will be for people to be open, and explained how “these illnesses can look very physical, but we have to remember they are mental illnesses.”

“On the female body there are so many expectations of perfection”

Noticing her confidence, I asked how she had built up the courage to be so open and brave in talking about her experiences. “Oh God, I had hidden it for so long, all through university and all through my 20s I just hid it. You get to the point where you’re just tired of it, and I’ve now realised, what is there to be ashamed about? It is just a problem that so many people have. I have always found I am a writer and that’s how I deal with everything, and I suppose I tried to write my way out of another problem.”

Thinking back to a moment where she could tell her work had made an influence, Emma described how “when my first column came out in The Times back in 2010, it was the first time I had said, “Oh I have anorexia.” The first week I was so terrified that I actually fled the country, because I couldn’t believe it had come out. I had told everyone this really private shame, and I had gotten so many letters and emails and online messages in response, so I would say that is the moment.”

Emma also discussed her views on how social media can affect our own perceptions of health and our bodies. She recognised that social media does have its positive side as “it’s amazing that BEAT are doing all of this, that we can tweet about events like this and that everyone can find out about it, and that we have amazing support groups and people can talk.” However, the dark side of social media and its effect on body image are clear. “There is so much more visibility around bodies now, so much more body scrutiny, so much more junk online that includes retouching of images, unbelievably posed selfies. Especially on the female body, there has been so much more scrutiny. I will be talking about men and women, but on the female body there are so many expectations of perfection. When you look back at the 1940s or ‘50s you just didn’t see thousands of bodies every day. We are just used to it now. Looking at The Daily Mail website on the train, I probably saw about a hundred women’s bodies being criticised for how they looked at the Oscars.”

With the recent trend for girls to use fitness apps, or health campaigns to get ‘bikini body ready’ I thought it would be interesting to see if Emma thought they were positive, or just another way to evaluate our bodies. “They’re all meant to be really positive, like they say strong not skinny, but when you look at it its just another version of get the perfect body. I don’t want women’s bodies to be commodified in this way. This season its all about being curvy, next season its about being strong, we’re people. We are not just bodies. In a way it just annoys me, and winds me up that yet again women’s bodies are being used to sell something, and if you don’t have that body you are meant to feel bad, and you do feel bad.”

When you’re wanting to see a friend who is ill… arrange a coffee

University can be a challenging time for people suffering from eating disorders. Being away from home and in charge of your diet and health can be difficult, and having good support from friends really makes a difference. I asked Emma about what advice she would give to students trying to support friends that they know or think may have an eating disorder.

“Try and get them to be open about it,” she advised. “Be really, really sensitive and remember that it doesn’t change them as a person. Remember that they might not be ready to talk about it, just let them know that you’re there when they do want to talk about it. But also this is something that I tell people a lot. When you’re wanting to see a friend who is ill or you think might have an eating disorder, arrange a coffee. I found that everyone would say do you want to come for lunch, and I wouldn’t be able to do that, so I lost friendships because everything was about food. I know when you’re ill you need to eat, but don’t let that get in the way of friendships. If someone isn’t comfortable or isn’t at the stage where they’re ready to get better yet, ask them for a coke or a coffee or a walk, and don’t let food get in the way of everything. They still need friends, in fact they need friends even more.”

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