Content warning: This article discusses eating disorders in a way that some readers may find distressing.
Chantel was sitting down at a restaurant when they suddenly burst into tears. It was the moment they realised something was wrong. “I had this realisation that I wouldn't be able to control how much oil they were going to put on my grilled chicken breast. That was kind of the point where I was like, ‘oh yeah, that's not normal,’” they tell Refinery29 Australia.
The 31-year-old Sydneysider mustered up the courage to talk to their GP about their concerning behaviour, but instead of receiving the help they desperately needed, they were cruelly shut down.
“It’s just unfair to have to go [see] a doctor to talk about concerns surrounding your eating habits, your attitudes towards your body, and to have them take one look at you and deem that you aren’t thin enough to be worthy of help,” they share with Butterfly Foundation.
“So I have never been able to get treatment under the guise of an eating disorder… even though I've been in hospitals where in the room next to me were a bunch of people with eating disorders,” they explain over the phone.
We’ve been conditioned to equate eating disorders with thinness — which invalidates the majority of people’s experience. Here in Australia, anorexia nervosa counts for 3% of eating disorders, while binge eating disorder is the most common (47%).
"Many people feel [like] they are not “sick enough” or don’t have a serious problem worthy of medical and psychological help. This can often prolong an eating disorder and can result in potentially life-threatening health complications,” Melissa Wilton, Head of Communications & Engagement at Butterfly Foundation, tells us. "No matter someone’s weight, any eating disorder is a severe psychological illness.”
This is advice Bella wish she heard back when she was 17 [years old] and struggling under the pressure of the HSC and school formal. Her heavy dieting (“I tried every single diet under the sun”), her commitment to a boot camp, and her parents’ involvement in diet culture didn’t feel like troublesome behaviour. Instead, she was actually praised for her weight loss. “I was extremely unwell but this validation made me feel so good,” she recalls.
Someone doesn't have to look sick to be sick. It's not the case that you have to look fragile or broken to have an eating disorder.
Even when her period stopped, she wasn’t fazed by it, thinking it was normal. “I thought it had to be extreme, like you had to look completely different to have an eating disorder,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
In a similar vein to Chantel, the perception of eating disorder sufferers as incredibly thin and visibly unwell hindered Bella’s recovery. “I think often people think [eating disorders are] all looks based and body image based but a lot of the time, that's not the case. Someone doesn't have to look sick to be sick,” she says. “It's not the case that you have to look fragile or broken to have an eating disorder.”
Butterfly Foundation’s Wilton points to how eating disorder rhetoric is around 10 years behind that of depression and anxiety. “We’ve come so far in dismantling stigma around the latter but we’re not quite there as a society when it comes to eating disorders. The stereotype of what someone with an eating disorder looks like is so intrinsic that for many of us we couldn’t possibly consider that someone who is not white, female, adolescent and affluent could have [one].”
She points to how this can lead to misdiagnosis and under-diagnosis — like the GP who failed to give Chantel the proper treatment they needed. In particular, people who are LGBTQIA+ are at greater risk of developing eating disorders — two-thirds of trans people report that they’ve limited their eating because of their gender identity.
“Partaking in disordered eating habits can be linked to control or trauma or, in my case, it was quite heavily linked to gender as well,” Chantel says. “It was never about being thin enough or looking a certain way. It was always about trying to escape my body and what it was doing and how it was growing and changing and how people were receiving it.”
For the past eight years, they’ve been navigating their non-binary gender identity. “That's a long part of my life having to navigate feelings and experiences around my body and being assigned female at birth, and living in a body that is received as a woman,” they say.
But being part of the LGBTQIA+ community has also been Chantel’s saving grace. "When you feel so alone and when you feel like everyone in the world is telling you that you shouldn't exist and you shouldn't have access to health care or human rights, knowing that someone fought for you to be here and for you to be who you are is just vital knowledge for me personally.”
For Bella, healing has come through her work as a body positivity advocate, where she's garnered a community of over 169,000 followers. It’s here, with her close-up body shots and impactful one-liners, that she’s becoming the person she wanted to be for her younger self.
“There’s a life outside of dieting is a life outside of excessive exercise; you can move your body in ways you love. You don't have to move it for punishment. You know you can eat what you like, you can find food freedom. It's ok to gain weight. It's ok for your body to change,” she says.
“I still have my down days, my lower body image moments, but now I don't spend those days in bed. Now I don't spend those days letting my body insecurities control my life and control my happiness… I don't have flaws. I just have a body.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673. Support and information are available 7 days a week.