Once one of the internet’s darkest secrets, scores of websites now celebrate anorexia and worship thin stars such as Eugenia Cooney and Mary-Kate Olsen.
It’s certainly a sign that eating disorders are on the rise amongst ambitious young women who are driven to excel and want to get lighter and slimmer. So in a relentless crusade to lose weight, they starve themselves.
But these women are not on a diet; they have a disease. It’s called anorexia nervosa.
Ask any woman out there if they think they have the perfect body, the answer will always be the same. “I hate my hips/legs/bum/thighs/stomach (insert body part here)”. We all have our body issues and hang-ups; no one is ever really 100% comfortable in their skin?
Laura Lewis Barbie’s Diet at Flickr
As if our body image problems weren’t painful enough, the pressure to be “camera-ready” in this social media age may be adding to our body dissatisfaction – and leading to self-destructive behaviour. It’s difficult because what you see in the mirror can have a serious result on your health.
But what happens when the fear of gaining weight can take over your life?
While I’m pondering this question, I do a quick internet search. A few clicks, and the screen flashes up an image of a young woman, pretty, fully made-up – and frighteningly emaciated. Her name is Eugenia Cooney, and she is currently at the middle of a social media storm.
Eugenia Cooney Instagram
If you haven’t heard of her, Eugenia is a 22 year old American Youtuber who has swiftly gained a following of 800,000 subscribers since starting her Youtube channel only three years ago.She rose to prominence for her ‘Emo’ look and makeup videos, but she quickly gained thousands of followers as people became more interested in her skeletal physique.
It is claimed that Eugenia weighs a worrying 60lbs and many believe that her emaciated frame is glamorising Anorexia.Over 14,000 people have signed a petition to have her removed from the internet because they feel she is setting a dangerous example for young girls.
One signee of the petition has even claimed that her sister lost 20lbs so that she could look like her.
Youtube fans have posted comments under her most recent videos saying she will “die soon” if she doesn’t start eating, with many imploring the star to seek help. But, Eugenia, who maintains that she does not have an eating disorder, says: “I have never told anyone to try to lose weight or to try to change the way they look or to look like me.”
Eugenia Cooney Instagram
The most alarming thing about this is that her face is now shown regularly on “Pro-ana” sites under the“thinspo” label.
These sites encourage their readers to pursue perilously low weights, insisting that starvation diets are a lifestyle choice. Many contain “thinspo” galleries featuring heavily edited images of starved girls above captions such as “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels”.
To more fully understand anorexia and the journey that it takes a person on, I spoke to 29-year-old Roseanne O’Driscoll from Schull in West Cork. She set up her LivingWithRoxy Tumblr page to “let people with eating disorders know that they are not alone and encourage them to get counseling.”
It all started when Roseanne was 8, and the girls in her class had begun to notice and talk about weight, and that’s when she first started to restrict her food intake.
“I knew I was bigger than everybody else and I began to diet from a very young age. It started off small when I would read all sorts of diet magazines, and all of the advice was about restriction. They don’t really encourage healthy eating; they don’t explain that one calorie is different to another calorie. All I knew was that if I ate less, I would be smaller.”
But as the years progressed, what started as a simple diet soon snowballed for the teenager. She says: “I started hiding food when I was about 12. My parents would have been worried about my weight at that time. I was bullied, and my parents separated when I was young. I was also a very quiet child and I blamed myself for everything.”
Roseanne goes on to say that her confidence was at an all-time low and she believed that ‘Only pretty and popular people deserved to eat food’. For many years she struggled with restricting the food and then going on food binges as she battled her emotional distress.
By the time she was 23, Roseanne was a ghost. Her skin was broken and grey, her eyes stuck out unnaturally, and her arms and legs looked like bones with skin on. She had a number of health scares including fainting and feeling as if her body was shutting down at night. On one occasion she had to drag herself out of the bath and call for help as she was struggling to breathe.
Freestocks.org Skin and bones Flickr
The turning point came on a fairly unremarkable day when she preparing a small meal.“I had a partner at the time, and I had measured out a portion of pineapple. He came over and took a piece of pineapple from the bowl. I absolutely lost it.I weighed out all food at that time, and I had no idea what the amount he had taken weighed.”
Distraught, Roseanne then jumped on the elliptical machine and exercised furiously until she had burned off 800 calories.Afterwards, she sat down and put a piece of fish in the oven, the idea being that she would pretend to eat it in front of her partner.
“I sat down to eat the little piece of fish on its own, and I saw how small it looked on the plate. I just said to myself ok between thinking you’re going to die at night, freaking out at someone you love over a piece of pineapple, and now you are sitting down to this tiny piece of fish after spending two and a half hours on a machine burning calories. Something has to change. You will die if you keep this up”.
Horrace Strict diet Flickr
Roseanne had run out of options. Aged 23, she had been suffering from anorexia nervosa for more than a decade, and her weight had plummeted to that of a small child, an all-time low for her.
Everyone’s turning point is different. For Roseanne that one incident put things into perspective, for others things can go a lot further before they realise that there is something that they need to change. Something is making them choose to live this way, and that is what they have to face.
About one in 150 girls of 15 has anorexia nervosa, and in extreme cases, it can be fatal – but there’s no “one size fits all” solution to recovery from an eating disorder. Some people choose to enter a treatment centre, some choose to go to the family doctor, and for some people, they make their personal road to recovery. Roseanne was one of those who forged her own path.
“I started following an exercise programme that I saw from the States. The girls there looked thin but healthy; they had muscles and abs. So I thought I could either be super skinny or healthy like them. I spoke to my partner and he agreed to do it with me. I went to counselling as well”
Roseanne followed the diet and rationalised it with herself by saying that if she ate and worked out this way, she wouldn’t gain weight. This combined with the counselling set her off on a healthy journey to recovery.
Too many people, medical staff included, still trivialise anorexia as “the slimmer’s disease”, says Rosanne, and treatment centres are the Cinderella of the Health Service. But anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental disorder – and 20% to 40% of those fatalities are because of suicide.This makes it the deadliest of all psychiatric disorders.
mahmoud99725 diet Flickr
While Roseanne herself didn’t choose to go down the road of using a facility to aid her recovery, she does mention that in order to be checked into hospital for treatment, her BMI would have to have been 13. She had a BMI of 15.4 at her thinnest weighing 6 stone 11lbs. At that time she could fit into her partner’s nieces clothes she was so small.
This raises a question about Ireland and the type of treatment available. Waiting until someone reaches a BMI of 13, is , in my view, unacceptable. By the time they get to this point, a lot of damage has already been done emotionally, mentally and physically.
Now, aged 29, Rosanne is happy, healthy and a normal weight. She has a job, a wide circle of friends, above all, a life. So how does it feel to be out the other side?
“I can understand why I went through it. It was a coping mechanism at the time because there was just so much going on in my life. There were things that I couldn’t control. But I could control how much or how little I ate.”
Anorexia is by many estimates the most lethal of all mental disorders. Studies show that those with anorexia are over five times more likely to die than the normal population. What advice does Rosanne give to people looking to make the first step towards recovery?
“Counselling is the first step, even if at the beginning its just general talk, something will come up. The big issue of what you look like isn’t really that big in the end. At the same time, you can’t go from not liking who you are to self-love tomorrow. If hating yourself is A and loving yourself is Z, you have to go through the entire alphabet to get there”.
Her point hits home, we all want to love. But it’s difficult to do that if you don’t love yourself. We spend too much time beating ourselves up about appearance, mistakes we’ve made, or things we have said. Let it go.
If you are experiencing problems with an eating disorder, you will not feel better until you look at yourself. And that means looking at the inside before you worry about the outside. Rosanne has been there and has lived to tell the tale, so can you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If you are struggling with depression or mental health problems, or know someone who is, contact Bodywhys (www.bodywhys.ie)
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