We began our walk through the woods with model and eating disorder educator, L E N N I E, by focusing on her experiences as a model, and this week, we’re resuming our conversation with a closer focus on her experiences battling eating disorders. In addition to providing a glimpse into her own struggles over the years and describing some of her coping mechanisms, Lennie explains to us why she has a brand new attitude which argues that regardless of how you look, the way you feel is always more important.
In part one of our interview, posted last week, we started our conversation with Lennie by discussing her extensive modelling experiences and looking back on some of the challenges presented by this line of work – and Lennie candidly shared details of how eating disorders have had an adverse impact on her not only as a model, but on her everyday life away from the limelight also.
This week, we’re resuming our in-depth conversation with a closer focus on this ever-important topic, and exploring exactly what an individual suffering from an eating disorder might be going through. Lennie provides a great level of insight into the mindset of those suffering from this type of disease, and explains the mental and physical toll these disorders can wreak across many aspects of an individual’s life – including her own. We also discuss how you might be able to spot someone suffering from a disorder and the ways you might be able to intervene and help, and Lennie rounds-off our dialogue by explaining why greater education is needed to help avoid people falling prey to these debilitating illnesses.
This was an extremely eye-opening discussion, and I’d like to thank Lennie once again for being so open and honest about her experiences, many of which have been extremely challenging. I hope you enjoy reading through this week’s interview, and please feel free to contact Lennie via her Instagram if you’d like to discuss any of these topics further.
Britain Uncovered: Picking up where we left off earlier in the discussion, what advice do you think you might offer to people struggling with eating disorders, irrespective of whether or not they’re aspiring models?
Lennie: Get help when you can. So a lot of people say, “Get help, she needs to eat, do this, that and the other” – but an eating order is a lot like depression and anxiety. It doesn’t go away and you can’t just fix it or think yourself out of it. It’s a mental illness. It’s a disease that infects your brain and everything you do, and it affects everyday life.
People think it’s just about food, but it’s not. It’s so much more than that. It influences everything around you, the way you look at yourself, the way you look at other people, the way you view food, your relationship with food and with being generally healthy. The idea of becoming healthy is almost so off-putting and disgusting to somebody with an eating disorder because, in turn, that means giving your body the nutrients that you know it needs; but you’ve got such a warped idea of reality of what you should and what you actually do look like. It’s almost detestable for somebody to even suggest that you should treat your body with respect, whether that be with food or water or mental health, exercise, anything like that. It’s really, really evil, and it’s quite hard to explain how it wiggles its way in. You’ll find yourself comparing your size to other people out in the street, and wondering, “Am I as big as her”? And you’ll probably always think you are, and you never will be.
You’ll find yourself – I mean, me in particular – I used to measure my arms with my fingers and if my arm wasn’t as small as a certain size I wanted, I wouldn’t eat for three days. And you get tips and you get habits and dependencies that nestle into your brain that just amplify this eating disorder. So as much as you try and get better – and this is the hardest part – the recovery is almost the most painful part. Because you’re fighting essentially another persona that you’ve built inside your head. It’s very, very hard. You’ve got this person that you know is completely wrong and is completely sick, but you’ve trained her (or him) to be this way, to think this way, to think ‘this is beautiful, this is acceptable and this is the only way you should ever be’. And it’s really, really hard to get rid of that.
Even now, I’m not happy with my size or how I look. I’m happier because I’m not a size zero and I’m eating and I’m happy and I can go out and eat with friends and have fun and wear clothes that don’t hang off me. But in the same breath, my eating disorder is very much there. I’ve just learned to build up a coping mechanism and strength to – not so much push it aside, because you can’t ignore it – but to try and slowly come to terms with the fact that regardless of how you look, how you feel is always more important.
As I say, I’m still not happy. If I had looked like this three years ago, I would have had a massive episode. I would have stopped eating for days; every time I did eat I’d have made myself puke; I’d count how much I’d puke; I used to go out for three walks a day; and I used to wear extra clothes so I’d sweat more just on the off-chance I’d lose a bit more weight. It was so obsessive and detrimental to my health. It’s very hard, and it’s still hard even now. We’ve just been taking pictures and I almost recoil at the sight of myself looking like that, but I just remember that actually, I’m so much better off and happier now than I ever would have been living with ‘Anna’, as I used to call her (i.e. anorexia).
A lot of people don’t realise this, but there’s a whole community when it comes to anorexia and bulimia; you can go on Instagram and lots of different apps and you can find forums of people that are like-minded, and that’s just even more evil. Because then you’re actually relying on people. I had a lady that I used to ask to message me every day and remind me not to eat, and remind me that I’m disgusting, and things like that. There’s this whole community of these people that instead of getting help, because they’re so depressed and because they think they’re so disgusting, they’ll lean on other people that have these same thoughts, and that’s when it becomes a downward spiral, and that’s when rehab and rehabilitation becomes almost impossible. Because you’re always going to be seeking out these different ways to sabotage yourself, effectively.
There’s a lot to it, and I think it’s a lot more common than people realise. I think a lot of people think, “If you’re anorexic or have bulimia you have to be stick thin”. That is not the case. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s what is almost so scary about it. It’s so hard to detect, and if somebody doesn’t want you to know, you won’t know. Unless you’re clued up on these things and you study their behaviour, it’s very hard to detect – and that’s also why it’s hard to get help, hard to accept help, and hard to even accept to yourself that you’ve got something going on that probably needs to be addressed.
Britain Uncovered: So what would you say are some of the tell-tale signs of people suffering from eating disorders that might indicate someone is struggling? Are there any particular traits to look out for?
Lennie: Sure. From my experience, people with eating disorders have anxiety or some form of depression to go along with it. I’m not saying that’s exclusive, because everybody’s different. I wouldn’t want to tarnish everyone with the same brush. But in my experience, personally and from people I know, these have generally been the main contributing factors to their eating disorders.
Another thing is obsessing over how you look. A lot of people with eating disorders do body checking (self-checking), and are constantly looking in the mirror or feeling their waistband to make sure everything’s flat, nothing’s popping out, and that nothing looks out of order or out of proportion.
Another tell-tale (that’s not for everyone) is measuring your wrists and seeing how small your arms are. They might weigh themselves a couple of times a day. When they’re eating, they’ll cut food up into miniscule pieces and push it around their plate so it almost looks like there’s half the food there. And you won’t notice that they haven’t taken a bite because they’re talking to you the whole time.
Britain Uncovered: Almost like a child who doesn’t want to eat their food, and just mushes it around to give the illusion that they have?
Lennie: Basically. But at this point, you’re an adult and you’re more clued up, and you realise people will notice.
Another thing is – and this sounds quite gross – but when I went through my stint with bulimia, I was purging. So quite often, if people in the family have cottoned on and you’re being monitored, or if like me you live somewhere that’s close to other people and you don’t really have the space to go and throw up and be loud and have other people notice, people will often hide vomit under their bed, and use a box or a bowl they’ll keep that under their bed, purely out of fear of being caught. Also, to some it’s a little bit like a trophy. That’s their accomplishment. That’s all the food they’ve stopped their body consuming, and stopped themselves being ‘poisoned’ by this fat.
Another tell-tale sign is fast-food packets in people’s cars. A lot of girls I know who had concerned parents would drive to McDonald’s, order a big meal, throw the meal away, and keep the wrappers and the card so it looks like they’ve eaten when they haven’t.
Britain Uncovered: And do you think parents can detect this behaviour, or not necessarily?
Lennie: I think that back in our parents’ generation, it really wasn’t talked about. It wasn’t something that was well-known. The signs weren’t there and it wasn’t understood. So generally, I’d say no.
If anything, as I said before, they start picking up on the depression, teenage angst and the anxiety. They know something’s wrong, and it’s only a matter of time when they start realising that he or she is getting really, really thin. Or they will notice at dinner time, they’ve got more scraps on their plate than anyone else and it’s becoming a pattern. But to be honest, it’s not one size fits all, and everybody has different ways of coping. These are just the things that I, and some people I knew, used to do. It’s a very tricky situation.
Britain Uncovered: Was there a moment in the midst of all this where you kind of thought, ‘I’m going to be okay after all’ – or is it still an ongoing battle that you have to fight on a daily basis?
Lennie: It’s still ongoing. I think I’ve come to the point now where I’m older and more grown up, and I’ve had two miscarriages recently. And that has made me think about my life from a different perspective. I know now what I want from the future, and there’s no room for my disorder in that future to be healthy and to one day start a family.
Having goals like that does help, but as I say, it’s a mental illness. It’s not something that goes away, as it takes time and work. I still have some days where I wake up and I eat all day – but it’s very rare that happens. But there will be a turning point, but it’s getting the help that’s the hardest part. You can’t help somebody if they don’t want to help themselves.
Generally with eating disorders, it’s such an obsession – you don’t want to help yourself, because you think you’re helping yourself by having the disorder. I want to say I was in denial but I knew I wasn’t. I’d deny it but I knew full well what I was doing.
Britain Uncovered: But it’s hard to dig yourself out once you had got to that stage.
Lennie: That’s the thing. And actually, the scary part was that I enjoyed it. That was what was so addictive about it and that’s why it became such a pattern and such an issue for me personally. I enjoyed it.
I felt good when I’d be sick, I felt good when I weighed myself and I’d lost a pound, I felt good when I hid my food, or managed to give it to the dog without my Mum seeing. It was like a personal reward. And that in itself becomes habitual and addictive, because you’ve got feel-good feelings and it’s natural for humans, when they’re rewarded, to want to chase that reward.
Britain Uncovered: I work with someone in the office (at my day job) who may well be suffering from an eating order. She is regularly crash dieting, skipping meals entirely and referring to herself and her body in a very derogatory way, but I think it’s hard for people who aren’t close friends or family to intervene. You want to be supportive, but you don’t always feel like it’s your place to make a stand, and you also don’t want to cross a line or cause offence in any way.
Lennie: Well this is the thing and that’s why it’s such a taboo, but I think that’s probably the same with anxiety and depression. There’s a fine line, and it was ignored and brushed off by the government for such a long time. We’re not even taught about it in schools for god’s sake. Nobody knows how to handle it. And people are so quick to be defensive that it almost becomes normal just to completely ignore people that are crying for help – because you’re so worried that you’re over-stepping the mark.
But actually, if they get offended then they get offended. The worst they’re going to say is “No”, and the best you can do is apologise. But at least you’ve tried. But I realise it’s not just as easy as saying, “Oh, just ask her if she’s okay.” That doesn’t always work.
Britain Uncovered: So it definitely seems like more education is required, and from a younger age I think.
Lennie: Absolutely. We’re taught things in school (the basic English, Maths, Science etc.) but I was never taught how to have a job interview or what to wear or what my CV actually meant, or how to handle social situations. I was never taught how to defend myself, and I was never taught how to watch out for people that were going to try to take advantage of me – and these are the things that really, we should be instilling in children, so that when they get to our age, they’re equipped with the mental stability to not fall victim to these things like eating disorders and bullying and depression and anxiety. Because it’s all a social construct that’s been forced upon us, and all we need to do is start teaching our children differently so that they’ve got the tools to disengage with this type of behaviour.
I’m not saying it’s the answer to everything, but it’s a bloody good start.