“Would you have known I was anorexic if you saw me in the street”
“I don’t know how to judge that, am I supposed to say yes or no?”
“I want you to say yes. If you said I didn’t, well, I would just stop eating again until you say yes”
“So that’s why Im not going to answer that, I don’t want to play that game… just by having this fleeting encounter I’ve sort of been sucked into this psychodrama, things that would be ordinary conversations suddenly are charged. You know, I might say something that could make your illness worse…”
“You could stop me eating for a week, you could say something that would stop me from going out for a week and not realise that you said it…”
I had the great privilege of watching the recently released documentary “Talking to Anorexia” by Louis Theroux.
Firstly, huge thanks to Theroux for bringing salience to this issue by producing a documentary that attempts to exhibit anorexia, in all its complexity, as accurately as possible. I am a big fan of Theroux’s work in tackling difficult subject matters and providing insight into narratives that would otherwise go unheard.
Secondly, and as importantly, many thanks to the brave sufferers and supportive family members who participated in this filming. You were willing to make yourselves vulnerable for the benefit of increasing understanding about this insidious illness. At BodyMatters we believe in the importance of documenting and sharing the lived experience. It provides a powerful and much needed discourse on such a misunderstood topic. It provides a platform for shared understanding and education.
In Talking to Anorexia, Theroux showcases a number of women in the grips of anorexia who are accessing treatment through the British National Health Service. Theroux participates in case reviews, therapy sessions and meal times in an earnest attempt to understand the illness. Women are aged from their late teens to their 60s, with illness durations ranging from one to 40+ years. I think it is fair to say the documentary show cases anorexia accurately, though the examples are somewhat stereotypical. My thoughts on the documentary are as follows:
- Theroux seems to have “got it” in terms of understanding the way an anorexic mind works
- Anorexia is profiled as a serious and preoccupying mental illness that is about far more than body image and “control”- the complexity and toxicity of the illness, which is so often oversimplified, was abundantly clear
- Though examples were somewhat stereotyped (largely white, all female sufferer cohort with similar presentations, similar age of onset etc) the documentary did showcase a more typical/ common presentation of anorexia- which in some respects is good to facilitate a basic understanding of this complex illness
- The heartbreaking cost of anorexia- the illusion of control at the cost of family, career, years of quality life – was confronting and very real
- The cases were not only stereotypical they were all chronic, painting a grim picture of the severity of the illness and potentially perpetuating the myths “Im not sick enough to have anorexia” or “I will never recover”
- Despite the integrity of the journalism, there were a number of images that sensationalise the illness- particularly images of anorexic “bodies” or limbs” with the heads not visible, dehuminising the sufferers
- The concept of recovery was lacking. Recovery as a real possibility was not clear, nor was there an active voice of recovery throughout the documentary. Although this lack did facilitate highlighting how serious anorexia is, it would have been helpful to have the voices of some people who had recovered to provide a vital message: recovery is possible.
Image source: DailyMotion