Content warning: Discussion of eating disorders and strong language.
For Friday, March 15, WellComm at King’s and Sexpression Edinburgh have teamed up to host a panel they called Eat, Fuck, Love. The event is a safe space to talk about eating disorders and the impact they have on relationships. The Student got the opportunity to chat with the panellists before the event.
“I think it was mainly a 3 AM brainchild. Last year I went to some eating disorder awareness events and it was shit. I think as well I also am so tired of the privileged white people from normal backgrounds with not very diverse identities just recounting what happened to them. It’s not helpful. It’s not adding anything that you don’t already know. Actually what it’s doing most of the time is it’s validating the disorder, like that’s the way it should have been and well done for doing it in this cookie cutter, like this is the eating disorder you had and it actually fits into the image of what an eating disorder should be,” explained Rosie, one of the organisers.
Understandably, she was angry that the conversations that were being had weren’t interesting and didn’t break any boundaries. Angry that there wasn’t anyone she could speak to about what she was going through. From this anger came the panel.
“I think the panel is really important because for me my eating disorder has never not been linked to my sexuality. And then again I was always seeking validation through relationships. It was never for me…And not only did I want to avoid sex because I was ashamed of my body but also I went through periods where I was using sex as an unhealthy coping mechanism for various feelings of insecurity. There are a lot of different ways that sexuality and gender can relate to eating disorders and I think that’s an important discussion that’s not being had,” said Ruby, another one of the organisers.
“And no one ever talks about the hormonal changes that you go through when you’re fucking with your body and not giving it the right food. Sometimes it was just like I didn’t even wanna be touched, like that’s not something I wanted to do. It was partly a mental block and partly physical and emotional trauma I was dealing with that was so impossible to separate from my eating disorder and my body. So I think no one ever talks about the physiological changes that you go through when you’re binging or restricting or not giving the right stuff to your body,” added Rosie.
There is an eating disorder ideal, a single story being recounted over and over again as if there is a ‘right’ way to have an eating disorder. The panel agreed that such discussions serve only to validate that experience. They are detailed and graphic and are meant to shock people. The shocking element can be positive, but in the context of an eating disorder, which is competitive by nature, it’s a way of getting that attention and even to teach other unhealthy behaviours to people who are currently also struggling.
“I feel like a lot of the conversations we have are about personal experience are only helpful from like an anecdotal level when you’re sitting down with a friend and you’re like “I went through this horrible thing” and “so did I” so you can empathise with each other. I think when we have big public discussions about personal experience all it does is play into that narrative of your experience only being valuable through your body and all that focus on what you put your body through and how much weight you lost and what you looked like,” said Lucy.
“All the institutions that you exist in once you’re diagnosed depend on these numbers. Like that is your access to treatment, that is your access to getting better, it’s through that. When we then have discussions outside that environment they are just the same thing regurgitated. We are not helping anyone – all we’re doing is perpetuating that idea that the physical symptoms and how bad it got is all that matters,” she added.
The panellists wanted to challenge the assumption that illness is not real unless physically manifested. Why is the word of a person ill with an eating disorder not enough? Especially in the context of race, BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people are rarely believed by healthcare professionals, which may lead to the conversation being neglected within BME communities.
“I think there is definitely a lack of awareness of eating disorders in BME communities but especially in black communities. A part of me being mixed race, obviously I have a lot of privilege in the way that I’m hued but there is that divide that I wanna look like all my white friends like very skinny and all that but then people are wanting something of me that is more black, like being curvy and thick and having like thick thighs. Basically, I’m fetishised – that’s a whole other thing. There are so many different sides of what people want me to be and then I also have an eating disorder that wants something else of me as well. There are so many different avenues that I’m pulled in,” commented Bella.
“I think that kind of personal story is really valuable. Like what’s not valuable is saying all the things to prove that you had an eating disorder. Like great, I trust you and what you’re saying. I don’t need to know all the details,” added Rosie.
Ruby believes that gender and sexual identity is one of those gaps. “For me in relationships, I’ve dated people who were supportive and loving partners who loved and appreciated my body, and then there were times where something was off. Where I was too skinny, and then too fat, and then my body was loved because it was feminine and still that killed me. It really killed me, because even though my body was loved by another person, it wasn’t validated, because their perception of me didn’t line up with my own,” said Ruby.
The impact relationships have on our self-esteem and perception of self is certainly complex. Although unintentionally, partners can become perpetrators triggering a relapse, “the stories portrayed [in a Fringe show], and these were true stories, was that people got into a relationship and everything was then better, and that’s not true. Well I was in a relationship and nothing got better, it just got worse. I feel there’s such a saviour complex, especially in minority groups, a pressure to live out a narrative where you need someone else to complete you or make your life worthwhile,” commented Rosie.
They can also be our largest source of validation, “especially if it happens at home, before you come to uni, or if it happens when you’re young and all the relationships you’ve had during that period, you only know through your disorder. How are you supposed to draw that line, between a carer and a healthy partner, when your only relationships have been that kind of caring aspect when you haven’t had that kind of experience before?” added Lucy.
Either way, relationships are just something many people navigate while being ill. Illness or disability does not mean that someone is unlovable or incapable of being in a healthy relationship.
“I’ve always hated that phrase, that you’re not worth a relationship until you can love yourself. Because so many people have mental health issues and loving yourself may never come easily or it may never come at all. I think saying that makes people feel really worthless, that they can’t do anything or love anyone,” said Ruby.
Eat, Fuck, Love is just the beginning of the conversation. It is meant to be a safe space to learn and find people with similar experiences, but not validate unhealthy behaviours. If you would like to hear more of what Rosie, Ruby, Bella and Lucy have to say, mark your calendars for this Friday.
Illustration: Karolina Zięba