Louise O'Neill: We live in a society which applauds weight loss, no matter what the cause

Every time we discuss fatness with both explicit and implicit disgust, we are contributing to a culture that is not only making people sick, it’s literally causing them to die.
Louise O'Neill: We live in a society which applauds weight loss, no matter what the cause

Louise O'Neill, author. Photograph Moya Nolan

It was October 2006 when I was hospitalised because of my anorexia. The nurse weighed me, rifled through my suitcase for contraband – laxatives, measuring tape etc – before she removed the belt from my dressing gown, my razor. I’d been given a menu, told to order what I would eat the next day. I picked porridge for breakfast but as I lay there that night, trying to fall asleep, I panicked. 

Why had I chosen porridge? They would make it with milk rather than water and dairy made me bloated, and would they expect me to have honey with it too? At 3am, I ran to the nurse’s station, begging them to change the form. I stood there in my pyjamas, weeping, all because the thought of eating a bowl of porridge filled me with abject fear.

I was 21 but had been struggling with food since I was 14. I’d lost a lot of weight after my uncle died and because we live in a society which applauds weight loss, no matter what the cause – grief, illness, trauma, addiction – I was told how ‘amazing’ I looked. It was only then I realised I must not have looked ‘amazing’ at my previous weight, and in a desperate attempt to maintain this new body, I restricted my food and exercised obsessively, before discovering bulimia. 

From the age of 15 to 32, I would move between anorexia and bulimia, but I preferred the former. It was easier to fool myself that I was getting ‘better’ (I didn’t purge this week, I once told a therapist proudly, before revealing I’d eaten a single grapefruit instead of dinner each evening) but there was also a social cache attached to that thinness. People make jokes about wishing they had your will-power, your ability to deny yourself. 

They want to see photos of you at your thinnest, they want to know what size your jeans are, how low the number on the scales has fallen. There is a morbid fascination with your body; they recoil at the sight of your bones but they sneak another look, too, like you’re an exhibition in a travelling freak show. 

The bulimia was easier to hide. 

There would be fewer comments, less interrogation from family and friends about what I had eaten that day, a side-eye if I excused myself to use the bathroom after dinner but maybe that was easier to ignore, too. But bulimia and its connotations of messiness, greediness, made me ashamed and desperate, too, in ways that are too terrible to recount in full here. 

Since I was a child, I had valued honesty above all else, yet in the grips of the eating disorder, I lied compulsively. I stole money from my parents, rifling through their pockets to find spare coins that I could use to buy food. I put myself in situations so dangerous, I shudder at the memory. Often, I would tell myself - I could die here. I could die. My parents begged me to get better and confronted with their pain, I felt nothing. In my mind, I didn’t have a choice in whether I would live or not because I couldn’t stop. 

That’s what people who have never had an eating disorder or an addiction don’t understand. They will never know the restlessness that hums in every cell, like your skin is infested with wasps. 

They will never know the feeling that your bones are too big for your body and you need something sharp to cut them out with. They will never understand that no matter how much you may want to stop, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t. You face death every single day and you know it and still, you cannot stop. Because if you stop, you think, you won’t survive that either.

I’m writing this column because Nikki Grahame, a former Big Brother contestant, died last week, reportedly due to complications arising from her battle with anorexia. She was 38. This is a tragedy but not an uncommon one because anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental health issue, estimated to be around 10%. 

Despite this, Ireland’s eating disorder treatment plan has been chronically underfunded. In 2018, €1.5m was allocated, but only €137k was spent. In 2019, €1.6m was allocated but €0 was spent. The mental health minister confirmed that there will be funding in 2021 to hire 47 specialist eating disorder staff which is a good start but it cannot end there. The rest of us have a part to play too. 

We need to interrogate the societal structures that perpetuate these diseases; namely, diet culture and fatphobia. Every time we share a meme about weight gain during lockdown, every time we gossip about how quickly a celebrity ‘snapped back’ post-pregnancy, every time we discuss calories over lunch with a work colleague, we are feeding the monster that breeds anorexia and bulimia. 

Every time we discuss fatness with both explicit and implicit disgust, we are contributing to a culture that is not only making people sick, it’s literally causing them to die.

Louise Says:

Read: Boys Don’t Cry by Fíona Scarlett is such a special novel. Told with compassion and empathy, it will break your heart in a million different ways.

Read: The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton. This fictional oral history of a rock & roll duo who shot in fame in 1970s New York is a dazzling debut.

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