• Rebecca Petch

Compulsive Eating and the Fight to be Seen

Binge eating is almost always left out of women's narratives in the media. So when will we finally stop pigeonholing them into restrictive roles?

Trigger warning: eating disorders and feelings of hopelessness.

Allow me to paint a picture for you: you’re reading a book or watching a show with a female main character. She has experienced some sort of trauma and each time she catches sight of herself in the mirror, she cradles her stomach - bigger than it has ever been before - and contemplates whether she is brave enough to leave the house today.

Sound familiar? I didn’t think so; you’re allowed to be fat, but heaven forbid you display actual unhealthy eating behaviours.

I am a person who has been thin because of trauma, watching women with bodies like mine be picked apart because they're too skinny, and I have also been fat, wondering why nobody on TV looks like me and if there’s something wrong with my soft tummy and stretch marks. Worse yet, I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time agonising over why any time I have seen or read about a fat character in mainstream media, weight loss or striving to alter their body must be a part of their storyline.

I have just started a book that I was convinced would get me out of my reading slump. It’s great, a really thrilling read, and I’m excited to finish it. But within the first page of the introductory chapter our female sleuth is described as “too thin” as a result of whatever traumatic experiences we will come to learn about.

I was furious and desperately sad, so I texted my friend: “Petition for books to start describing women who are fat because they’ve been compulsively eating as a result of trauma. Oh wait, that’s not glamorous" (insert multiple eye roll emojis here).

I’m fed up with constantly feeling like there’s something disgustingly wrong with me because I have never seen or read about a woman demolishing an entire packet of biscuits whilst she ugly cries about how ashamed she is that this is happening again. Yeah, that shit is real.

I feel comfortable discussing my experiences of restricting and over-exercising and, at a push, I can talk about the feeling of purging (making yourself sick). I’ll cry, for sure, but I don’t feel disgusting or ashamed. It happened and it was the worst time in my life. But it feels acceptable because it’s so clearly an eating disorder. I can tell people the date of the last day I purged, but I cannot discuss bingeing. My last binge was very recent, and that is as much as I am able to say - if I even think about disclosing any more my stomach begins to churn, and I feel like I should be hidden away from the world, because who could be so disgusting?

I’ll be honest, the entire debate about depictions of disordered eating in media is multifaceted and I don’t have any real answers, but I do know that I’m angry and I’m tired. I have been somebody who goes running and keeps working out because I’m afraid of being still - when you stop to take a breath all of the horrible thoughts can creep in. But can we stop pretending that this is the only way women deal with trauma?

On my awful mental health days, I’ve planned a trip to the supermarket and made a list of all the food I’m going to buy, knowing that I intend on eating most of it in my bedroom alone whilst I beat myself up over my lack of self-control. I think my previous experiences of disordered eating has shown how much I love being in control.

I feel more shame about bingeing than I do about the time I stole money from my dad’s wallet. Now, okay, I was young and wanted a new book from the school book fare, but how on earth does something that we acknowledge as morally wrong seem more acceptable than planning a trip to big Sainsbury’s for binge food?

I’m not fed up with seeing people dealing with trauma by becoming “too thin, with hollow cheekbones”: I’m tired of never seeing anybody dealing with it the way I do simply because it isn't pretty or romantic.

This is by no means attempting to discredit or invalidate the experiences of thin people or anybody who has had an eating disorder. Anybody can experience bad body image and eating disorders and I am absolutely not in the business of trauma gatekeeping or invalidating anybody.

I will finish that book and I will inevitably love it. I’m just waiting for the day I pick up a book and read about a different type of habitual, albeit equally damaging, pattern.


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