Driven to starvation by desire for 'perfect' body


Rhian Waller

EMMERDALE fans following Priya’s ‘pregorexia’ storyline will already be aware that anorexia is not an illness confined to teenage girls.

Tonight Priya Sharman, played by Fiona Wade, will go into labour seven weeks early after battling anorexia while carrying her child.

It’s a plight that will strike a chord with the thousands of people affected by eating disorders.

In response, staff at Chrysalis, a Mold-based counselling service which specialises in eating disorders, is calling for residents of any age, sex or circumstances to ask for help if they fear they are struggling with their relationship with food and their body.

Angela Fox, 47, of Buckley, is a counsellor at Chrysalis with personal experience of the effects of anorexia.

She said: “I have mostly dealt with younger girls but I’m aware that, although girls aged 15 to 19 are in the highest risk bracket for anorexia nervosa and bulimia, there are other people out there who will be affected.

“There’s an estimated 1.6 million people in the UK with an eating disorder.

“That covers anorexia, where people will severely limit what they eat, bulimia where they will binge and purge, compulsive eating and EDNOS (Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified) which is a mix of all of those.

“In this case, the sufferer will go through phases of two or more of these, perhaps restricting their intake for a while and then bingeing.”

Angela, who has extensively studied the subject of eating disorders, has not yet encountered cases of ‘pregorexia’ – anorexia during pregnancy – for herself.

In fact, she credits pregnancy with being her “saving point”, although she acknowledges that eating disorders affect each sufferer differently, and to a different degree of severity.

She said: “Part of the reason I went into counselling for eating disorders is because I did suffer from anorexia myself for a short part of my life. I was 18 and I went to the GP because I’d gone down to six stone 10 pounds.

“I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to see the GP and I had no interest in putting on weight – but my family were concerned.”

At the time, the advice she recieved didn’t strike her as odd but, retrospectively, she is “horrified” by what the doctor told her.

She said: “I was asked ‘do you have a dog? If you want to be healthy, go and take the dog out for a walk’.

“Things have improved, 30 years on. But I don’t think they have improved enough.

“There is very little support out there for people with chronic eating disorders.

“Until the patient has reached a critically low BMI (Body Mass Index), there’s not much doctors can or will do.

“You have to be really bad in order to get help. Those who are not yet at that level are risk of being left to struggle alone.”

Unlike the fictional Priya Sharman, Angela’s life took a turn for the better when she became pregnant.

She said: “I was 19 when I realised I was carrying my child. I didn’t want to put my baby through what I was doing to myself. That was the saving point for me.”

Others, may not be as able to wrench themselves out of the grip of the illness without help.

Angela said: “For one of my clients, her entire life is a struggle with food. She will go through the day trying to put off eating an apple for a few more hours.

“She will think about the apple all day, trying to find ways of avoiding it. She’ll carry it with her and not eat it for breakfast and make sure she is too busy to eat it for lunch.

“Her goal is to reach the end of the day without eating anything.

“For her, anorexia is constantly there. It’s a battle to eat and a battle trying not to eat. It totally dominates her day.”

The mortality rate for anorexics is in the region is one in five sufferers.

Long-term malnutrition affects the heart and vascular system, placing those with anorexia in danger of heart attacks.

The illness comes with a raft of physical complications, including headaches, skin problems, tiredness, abdominal pain, excess hair growth.

Treatment, according to Angela, has to concentrate not just on the mind but also on the body.

She said: “People with anorexia or any eating disorder tend to have low self-esteem and will often have a distorted view of their body or how other people perceive their bodies.

“What we find most effective is to offer counselling, but also to have a targeted, holistic approach, where we talk about nutrition, how to look after the body and set up a targeted plan.”

There is, of course, no guarantee.

Angela said: “People do relapse. Unfortunately, for some people, their poor relationship with food becomes the default setting, so if something happens, such as a bereavement or another crisis, they may fall back into unhealthy behaviours.

“I’m doing an MA researching eating disorders and I’m aware that a lot of things also act as triggers, including bullying at work or at school, childhood issues and domestic abuse.

“A lot of it is about control and some of it is about having an idealised image of yourself. If you don’t have self-esteem, then you can fall into the trap of thinking that if only you look this way or behave this way then people will love and value you.”

Angela works alongside Sally Griffiths, 50, of Buckley, who conducts group workshop sessions and helps put together the health plans for people with eating disorders.

She said: “I think awareness is growing, but I don’t think it’s growing fast enough to match the progress of eating disorders in the UK.

“Eating disorders are secretive illnesses.

“There are people out there who don’t fall into what is perceived to be the ‘typical’ bracket.

“Help should be available whatever stage of life you are, for whatever body-image issue or eating disorder you have.

“It’s hard enough to admit there’s a problem in the first place and even harder to ask for help.”

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