“It’s like being possessed,” is how 19-year-old Emily describes living with anorexia. Fresh out of hospital after almost five months of specialist care, she knows she needs to maintain a healthy weight if she wants to go to university. She’s a smart young woman and regrets the years she’s already lost to an all-consuming obsession with self-starvation. But there’s a voice in her head reminding her that not eating makes her feel “invincible”, that she gets a rush of “power, control” that she’s willing to risk her life for.
Emily is one of three young women who described their struggle with the potentially fatal eating disorder in Channel 5’s raw, feature-length documentary. Combining thoughtful interviews and video diaries, it was made by the team responsible for 2020’s award-winning Suicidal: In Our Own Words. That film did a great job of cutting through the psychological jargon and allowing distressed humans to explain their self-destructive urges in painfully relatable terms. Anorexic works in the same way, giving sufferers space to explain behaviour that can appear so illogical from the outside.
Emily, Lottie, also 19, and Hannah, 21, weren’t stupid or stubborn. All shared the frustrations of their friends, families and doctors. Prior to filming, they’d all starved themselves into a life-threatening condition. They knew they’d been at risk of organ failure and heart attack. They knew the risks of infertility and long-term bone damage. They had all sacrificed years of their youth to anorexia. And they all knew eating should be an easy and pleasurable route back to health. But they all described a loud “voice” in their heads that overrode their common sense. “I know what I’m doing is wrong,” sobbed Hannah, “but I don’t know why I can’t just turn around and stop it.”
The more they talked, the clearer it became that anorexia is an addiction. It usually starts in adolescence and offers young people an exhilarating (if fleeting) sense of control and an escape from their fears and responsibilities. It creates a secretive little world in which children outwit their adult carers. No wonder, though it wasn’t mentioned in this film, that a 2020 survey published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that 70 per cent of patients experienced worsening symptoms during the pandemic.
The women’s stories were balanced by those of their mothers. Pain and exhaustion was etched into the mums’ faces as they described their daughters as formerly happy, healthy, outgoing children. It had once been their job to feed those kids. Now they walked on eggshells as they struggled to support vulnerable adults who had to find their own way through a terrifying condition. I wondered why the three mothers were left to carry the emotional and practical load. Notably, no fathers were interviewed or shown helping. The only male voice we briefly heard in this programme was that of the doctor weighing and assessing Lottie. We didn’t hear from any male anorexics although – again – there was a brief encounter with the mother of a boy who stopped eating at the age of 12.
But then, 75 per cent of anorexics are women. Although the documentary makers didn’t draw conclusions, it seemed clear that if self-starvation is a response to powerlessness then maybe the cure is to create a society in which young girls are encouraged to feel they have power over more than just the numbers on their bathroom scales; where they feel their worth is unrelated to their weight. By the end of the film, Emily (who had taken up her university place) appeared to be on a (rocky) road to recovery, while Hannah, too weak to continue with her waitressing job, was back in hospital. She is such a passionate, articulate young woman. But, in the absence of occupation, her intelligence turned on her. Heartbreaking.
Anorexic is on Channel 5 at 10pm on Thursday 2 March; available to stream on My5 after