Challenging perceptions: Leanne Waters

Here at See Change, we passionately believe in the power of story-sharing to foster a shared understanding of the mental health problems that can affect any one of us.

blogYou may remember an earlier blog from author Leanne Waters who  put pen to paper on her experience of sharing her personal story in her book “My Secret Life: A Memoir of Bulimia” and in the context of her relationships with others and with herself. Almost 5 months on, we checked back in with Leanne who has been busy bringing her message of openness and recovery to schools, universities, radio stations and TV studios.   This time she addresses the stereotyping and narrow preconceptions about mental health problems that she has come up against in the course of sharing her story.

 

Ending the stigma of mental health problems will not happen overnight.

Challenging perceptions around mental health problems is one crucial step.

Breaking these moulds is a job for all of us.


Feel free to post your reactions or comments at the end of this post.
Got an idea for an issue that should be teased out? Email the team

comma-leftThis blog is arguably the most personal I have ever written since the release of my memoir My Secret Life, which detailed the many horrid facets of my struggle against bulimia nervosa from 2008 to 2010. What marks this as different to everything else I have written is that I intend to tackle two of my biggest fears as openly as I possibly can on a public stage.
The first of these fears is being told I am not thin enough. You’re not thin enough to wear those clothes. Leanne_Waters_book_coverYou’re not thin enough to live this way, that way or whatever way it is you’re living. And God forbid, you’re not, nor have ever been, thin enough to have struggled with an eating disorder. The second fear, quite simply, is being accused of lying about my battle with bulimia; something I thought I couldn’t bear until today. The last seven months of my life have been a rollercoaster of publicity; newspaper, radio and television interviews in which I have spoken at length about bulimia and the impact it has had on my life. Due to this, I have been inundated for months now with scores of emails from people of all walks of life who have suffered in a similar fashion. Before we go further, let me say that your kind words of support and understanding have humbled me, comforted me and at times moved me to tears as I attempt to move away from my bulimic past and into what I can only hope is a healthy, happy and successful future. The courage you have given me to continue speaking about my illness has been paramount and you all have done more me than I daresay I could have every done for you. I am ever-grateful and with all my heart, I thank you.
I recently, however, received a very interesting email of a different kind altogether, which brings me to why I have chosen to write this blog today. The author of this particular message, among other things, informed me of the following:

I have recently come across your website and Facebook page. What troubles me is you seem extremely vocal about your ‘eating disorder’, yet I have not seen any pictures of you actually looking in any way thin.

I cannot appreciate your recovery unless I can understand what you came from… Genuinely, unless I see a photo of you thin, I cannot believe that you suffered from any form of eating disorder. It seems to me that you are capitalising on the extreme number of people that have suffered from an eating disorder in order to advance your own writing career. Please prove me wrong.

To begin, I ask that you, dear reader, allow me the opportunity to defend and clarify what has been asked of me in this excerpt and then, to address the wider issue that this has raised in my mind.

In all the truth I can muster, I was deeply hurt and disappointed by these words on a most personal level. Both my fears had been realized and put forward to me. The time to be professional about this was gone, because I had to tend to my now wounded feelings. Trying to find the appropriate way in which to respond and share this with readers has been the most difficult thing to do since I first wrote about my bulimia. But in the spirit of removing stigma, hiding nothing and continuing to speak candidly and honestly about all I have experienced with regards to my illness, I felt it only right to include this.

In answer to the above, yes I am attempting to pursue a writing career. This however, is not based on any kind of lie or at the expense of others. I’m seeking only to turn my own difficulties of the past into something positive for the future. Both personally and professionally. No, I cannot prove you wrong. I am unable to prove anything via pictures and photographs. This is because, even in the depths of bulimia, I was never that thin. I cannot offer images of my starved and emaciated body because I never was so. Sure, I lost weight; bouncing between over 12 and 9 stone for 2 years, which was far too low for me. But I have never hidden the reality that I have been a big girl my entire life, even while I was sick. Which begs me to ask the question: am I too fat for bulimia?
The very nature of an eating disorder is secretive. While sick, my goal was always to hide it, to appear as perfect as I could and to shield what was really going on from the eyes of all those around me and the world itself. But when you release a book about your private war against an eating disorder, let me tell you, hiding it becomes a little futile. And so, there was little point in being anything but honest. The more I started talking, the greater my sense of liberation. Speaking about my eating disorder has freed me from it. That is something I cannot regret or be sorry for.
I started writing this book for me and me alone. But when I took that first leap to publishing my experiences for all the world to see, I started looking outside my own little box; past my own little story and to the wider affliction of eating disorders in society. Suddenly, it wasn’t just about me anymore. My goals changed and I wanted people not only to know about bulimia, but to understand it. I wanted to challenge how we perceive eating disorders, how people perceived me as a sufferer and how we define them generally.
And so, to the wider issue I mentioned: How do we define them? By weight? By gender of the victim? Is thinness the definition of anorexia and bulimia, or is it a consequence? Having struggled for two years with my own bulimia and having spent another two trying to understand it, I’m inclined to believe the latter. Now, I’m not a professional, so I can’t give you the clinical limitations that define such things. But as someone who has lost two years of her life to misery, depression, starvation and purging, grant me the time to make my own conclusions:
An eating disorder is explained in its very title: it is when your eating habits or your relationship to food disorders your life in some way. My bulimia did just this. It disordered my life and who I was. It has changed me and how I see the world forever (though not entirely for the worst, might I add, for the sake of some positivity here!). I think what is important to remember here is that what we are discussing is a mental health issue and that the stereotypical image of starvation and thinness is merely a possible outcome, not the definition itself. For far too long, I was in denial about my bulimia (which probably explains why I’m so afraid of others not believing it, when it took so long to believe it myself). I was in denial because I told myself I wasn’t skinny enough. So, how far should I have gone to be deemed worthy of bulimia? I hope to God not too much further than I did go. Otherwise, I fear what I might have done at that time.
I have received messages from so many young girls, who tell me of the things they have subjected their bodies to. Like I once did, they starve, binge, purge, over exercise, take laxatives, obsess over images of emaciation and ruin their lives. And then the scariest part of the messages happen; they say, But I don’t know if I have an eating disorder because I’m too big. I felt the same way once too and my advice is always the same. If you feel in your heart of hearts that something is wrong, get professional help. Forget titles, definitions, what people perceive as an eating disorder and get to your GP, family, friends or even an organization like BodyWhys. Because there is nothing more dangerous than the threat of doubt.
Have we as society really gotten this bad in stereotyping? Not only is western culture demanding an unachievable and fantasy-based ideal of thin beauty, but must we now be of a similar ideal to even be considered as needing treatment for an eating disorder? Surely not. Surely that is the most dangerous and disturbing mentality we could have. Let us open our eyes and our minds a bit more to the complexity of mental health issues and leave behind such primitive ways of thinking and viewing them forever.
I am Leanne and I am a lot of things: young adult, student, aspiring author, ex-bulimic, curvy, recovered andcomma-right now very certain of myself. I am not ashamed of any of this. I do not doubt myself and most importantly, I am not too fat to have been bulimic. Stop the stigma. Stop the stereotyping.

 

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in raised here, or if you need to speak with someone, click through for a list of organisations that can help.

See Change understands that there is a complex multiplicity of perspectives on mental health problems and the experience of being unwell. See Change encourages the publication of material that promotes understanding of mental health problems, the experience of being unwell, and recovery. The opinions expressed by contributors to the Make a Ripple campaign are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of See Change, funders, or partner organisations.

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