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Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Struggling with Stigma


In line with Eating Disorders Awareness Week, an Exeter student confronts the misconceptions associated with Anorexia Nervosa and asks why there is such a stigma attached to the illness. Some readers may find this article distressing.


As someone who suffered from severe anorexia in my teens, I feel it is really important to break down the stigma attached to the illness. Interestingly, I recently met someone who openly told me they had taken time off from university as a result of depression; it was not until I got to know them significantly better that they revealed it was anorexia and depression which had caused their sabbatical.

It made me think: why is it that anorexia has such a stigma attached to it?

I do feel that there are numerous reasons for the way in which the disease is seen in society; the media glorify it by naming any thin celebrity as a potential victim and in television programmes, the delicate and ethereal girl is suffering from it. This, mixed with the fact that the term is thrown around so trivially; ‘you look anorexic’ or people suggesting they are suffering from said illness after not eating for a day – means that the disease is not taken as seriously as it should be. With eating disorders having the highest death rate of a mental illness with 20% of sufferers dying and a 1.6 million people in the UK suffering from them, an estimated 10% of whom suffer from anorexia.

Please can we take it seriously and reconstruct the thinking which exists around it.

I was 16 when I started becoming obsessive about my eating habits and it took a year until I was so weak I couldn’t walk and felt like I would collapse at any given moment. I remember dreaming about food, reading articles about anorexia religiously, reading menus for restaurants and recipes and watching other people eat but never allowing food to pass my lips.

I remember my skin crawling at the smell of chocolate for fear I would absorb the fat within it through osmosis, I remember hiding food under my bed and up my sleeves, I remember the lack of guilt I felt for lying and the growing sense that the ‘me’ I knew was being squashed. It was like a monster was growing and I was, literally and figuratively, shrinking.

Sure, people say – Just eat, how hard is it?” And now, I do wonder why or how it was so impossible, but it was.

It had moved from my control of eating allowing me to feel in control of other things, (it was never about the way I looked but if it had been, it had moved well beyond that point now too), it was no longer me who was in control but a much larger and more dangerous force. The disease is near impossible to understand and I was shouted at by people who loved me but could not understand why I was doing this to myself; but they did not seem to understand that I wasn’t really; it was something much stronger than me.

This is not a self inflicted problem, this is a mental illness.

It took a while but one day, I woke up and was just too tired to be in this battle any-more, physically and mentally. I can’t explain it but one day, I just couldn’t do it any-more. This was the day I went to hospital.

It still took ages for me to recover properly and to be able to eat things again without guilt, but this day was the beginning of the end of the disease for me. The recovery process was painful; I don’t mean just emotionally but physically; I have never been in so much pain from starting to eat food that my body was so unused to. It took years for me to get back to a regular eating pattern and I still find eating in front of people problematic, I still recoil in horror if someone comments on the quantity of food I have eaten or am going to eat. I still have good days and bad days but I would say that I am, for the most part, recovered.

What happened to me is happening, in some capacity, to people all across the UK. It was one of the most difficult things; it took so much strength to overcome. Being told you are going to die is not something many people can recover from but I could and if you know someone who is suffering, or you yourself are suffering, you can too.

But they may never admit to it and you may never realise the severity of it if this illness is not taken seriously.


If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, contact the Wellbeing Centre or the NHS. The Charity Student Minds have information about support for body image issues and eating disorders here

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