Q&A | Angela Barnett is helping bulimics tell their stories

Angela Barnett runs a website called Fucking Awesome Bulimics I Know, featuring interviews with people who have or have had eating disorders. Sarah interviewed for the site last year, about her experience of anxiety and anorexia, and we thought we’d flip that around. Angela has a history of bulimia herself, and good reason for starting a site designed to bust shame around body image and related disorders. She explains a bit about that below.

What led you to start FABIK?
I was living in Mendocino, California recently and my dirty secret felt well behind me. Then, within the space of a couple of months and under the influence of a glass of wine, I confessed I had bulimia to a couple of women I had a lot of respect for. One was a fit, sassy Zumba teacher and the other a tough, savvy feminist. Assuming neither of them would ever have had any body issues, I felt ashamed to admit I had something I perceived to be so weak, but both women said, Really? You? Same. Then the real conversations began. A couple of months later I confessed to my dental hygienist and the same thing happened. Then again with someone I was working with, another shit-kicking strong woman and it made me wonder how many more there were like me.

Bulimics are in a secret society nobody admits to being in. I used to think my life would shatter into a million pieces if people knew my dirty secret – nobody would hire me, my friends would drop me, nobody would love me but it’s been the opposite. My connections with people have become more intimate and real and so far I have not not been invited to a dinner party because I was bulimic.

Part of healing is understanding the beast that takes over lives and we learn so much more about disordered anything talking to others. Many bulimics were chubby when young or didn’t feel right in their bodies, like they were different to everyone else in the class. Bulimia starts off being about weight and trying to control our bodies but then it morphs into a way to manage emotions, a crutch to deal with life. Whenever something terrible or frustrating or disappointing, or even something exciting or scary happens it brings on a binge, which numbs the emotions. Then the purge gets rid of it, flushing away the initial issue. That’s the cycle. It’s the same technique as drinking a problem away. Or binge shopping. Or cutting. Or getting high. The other thing that’s helped with the site is getting comfortable with having the word bulimia attached to my name – something I never aspired to. I would be happy to have fabulous! sharp! dazzling! pop up on Google, but not barfer.

A theme that comes up through the interviews on FABIK is the number of women that can have quite severe eating disorders without anyone knowing. Is that part of the motivation behind your desire to bust shame?
Yes. Unlike being an alcoholic or crack addict or even anorexic, where everyone can see your illness, no one sees bulimia. If it’s not combined with anorexia, then often a bulimic can end up putting on weight – the cruel irony of this disorder – or fluctuating up and down. And like I said before, it’s easy to hide from people outside of your immediate living situation. It can be monopolising your life, but in secret – a bit like cutting.

Why do you think it’s important to create space for women to both tell and hear these stories?
Shame steals our personal power, so when we get rid of shame we feel stronger. Sharing stories is an ancient way to bring people closer together. I thought if I felt better about sharing my story, then others would too. I wanted to create a place where secrets could be aired – anonymously or not – so others could come and read those stories and not feel alone. And show other bulimics there are a whole bunch of amazing people out there who also had it and that many still battle. That’s why the site is called Fucking Awesome Bulimics I Know – people who are brave enough to share, which is fucking awesome, but also they are awesome because of who they are, not their eating disorder. Plus nobody would click on ‘Awesome Bulimics I Know’.

There is so much awareness around eating disorders now, and everyone discusses healthy body image and how to have one – so you would think we would be getting better, and that EDs would be subsiding, but they aren’t. EDs are rising. One in five women engage in some sort of disordered eating. By the time a girl is 17 she has seen over 250,000 commercials. The three most common mental health disorders amongst girls – eating disorders, self-esteem and depression – are linked to the presentation of women in the media and it’s not changing, quickly enough. I went to a school recently to talk to Body Image Leaders from four schools in Auckland, part of a programme run by Women’s Health Action and one girl told me she knows 17 girls either starving or purging. And those are just the ones she knows about.

There’s increased rates of depression and addiction like no other generation has known. We use vices, tools, habits to control things in our lives that feel out of control and food is one of them – whether it’s eating too much or starving ourselves or somewhere in between. But it’s a modern affliction, ‘bulimia’ was only coined in 1979. My mother-in-law and late grandmother don’t understand bulimia as they went through two world wars and a major depression where food was scarce. They could never purge – oh the vaste!

Once upon a time you had to make a snack. You couldn’t reach for the muesli bars or order in pizza. Eating disorders rose alongside fast food, and then diets came along to manage it all. Parents were initially blamed, especially the mothers – dieting mothers being as popular as big hair in the 80s. But like most mental health issues, it’s not black and white. While bulimia thrives in countries where there is an excess of food, you can’t blame the food or diet industry – or parents. Studies show different factors contribute and are a combination of culture, family, personality, biology, genetics and trauma, which makes it hard to fix. This is why it’s important to share the truth about eating disorders. Raising children to eat healthily and never diet and to respect their bodies does not guarantee they won’t develop an eating disorder.

I don’t think it is widely understood how addictive bulimia is. If you are predisposed towards addiction then it’s dangerous to dabble. It sounds so simple and easy: Oops I ate too much, I’ll just quickly bring it all up. I would like mothers and fathers to warn daughters that sticking fingers down throats is not a little trick to lose weight or move that Big Mac, it can lead to a dangerous, dark, dark path. Like crack or cutting. It’s secretive and disgusting and steals your life away. You can end up lying, stealing, having no idea how to be in a relationship, hating yourself and then hating others for trying to help you. It’s lonely and a hard habit to break because it’s not usually life-threatening – so you can function with it, adding to the heavy, secretive shame.

A few years ago I lived in Zambia and there were no eating disorders as food was too scarce. I got to know a local chief who was concerned my bottom wasn’t big enough – he was worried I would never find a husband. Later I had put on weight, which I wasn’t happy about, but he and his comrades applauded me over lunch one day for my fatness. If only every women who has had an eating disorder could experience that. All I could do was laugh and get over myself.

Plus, there is so much discussion around food and ‘the right food’ to eat, and everyone is posting photos of their smoothies and sugar-free, dairy-free quinoa puddings on Instagram, but all this obsession has led to the rise of orthorexia. It’s still controlling food but we’ve disguised it as healthy and being good to our bodies – but any form of strict control is not healthy. I met women in California who were addicted to six-week cleanses. Whenever we put tight controls on anything in our lives: too much work, not enough sleep, too much partying, not enough relaxation, not enough sex, too much sex, not enough food, too much food, obsessive exercise, we get out of kilter and balance and find ourselves struggling. Binge is the best friend of denial and putting tight controls on our behaviour doesn’t bring joy, or freedom but the opposite. We become a slave to it and ourselves.

Every day I see magazine covers that say things like, Back to pre-baby weight in three months! How to get Blake Lively’s body! The diet that helped Kim keep her man! They’re full of advice on how to control and manage food to look good and feel good but from my experience the only way to feel good, and therefore look good is to not try to manage food so much. To not battle it but enjoy it. We put so much emphasis on weight and how that will bring us happiness, but if it comes with a war with the pantry then it’s not a happy time. It’s miserable.

I make sure the stories on FABIK are not triggering. There’s no tips for being bulimic or having an eating disorder, but real stories of people who have come through it or are past their darkest days. One ex-bulimic I interviewed said she liked it that the stories are not about being all fixed and shiny and new. Aside from being annoying, it’s also impossible. Nobody comes out the other side 100% perfect, as healing is an ongoing thing.

Nobody wants to talk about bulimia because it’s about something disgusting – vomiting. So nobody does. Being thin is seen as glamorous but vomiting to stay thin is not. Recently it’s been getting some air – AMY; My Fight/Your Fight; Alanis Morissette is working on a memoir that talks about her bulimia – but it’s often under the radar. As one bulimic said to me, Anorexics are seen to have the real disease and bulimics are thought of as attention-seeking nutjobs. So, this one nutjob is talking about it.

What has your own experience been of bulimia/eating disorders?
I started at 19, stopped at 30, and it was bad up until about 24 – every day was a battle and my binges would last for hours so I spent a lot of time hiding, wasting money and time, and then lying to cover up what I had been doing. It made me feel like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. By day I was a successful advertising person – oh the irony – and by night this dark creature in me came out. One who didn’t care about anybody, had no compassion, no feelings for anyone else, and wanted to do horrible things that only hurt me. During this time I felt like I was never myself, like the real me was over there in my future waving as she sped around corners. I didn’t know how to catch up. I married an alcoholic because addicts love to hook up with addicts as we don’t threaten each other. I looked for men who couldn’t love me because I couldn’t love myself – although it took months of therapy to figure this out, after the fact. It greatly affected my 20s. I wanted to travel like every other kiwi but couldn’t take bulimia with me, or felt I never could. Now I am at peace with it. I don’t wish it didn’t happen and accept it did. But I would love to bust open the truth more so others don’t go down the same path.

What, to you, is ‘disordered’ eating about?
Not knowing how to enjoy food, basing happiness and self-worth on how much you have eaten, counting way too much, thinking about food for a long time before and way after a meal, giving food so much more energy in our heads than it can ever provide our bodies with. Restricting, bingeing, battling it like it’s a beast, being at war with the fridge, being mean to ourselves if we eat the wrong thing. Using food to punish or love is also disordered.

I had to learn to eat again – and cook. Quite a few bulimics I’ve spoken to are terrible cooks as we unconsciously sabotage meals. Meh, perfection’s overrated. Like I said, healing is an ongoing thing.

Has your experience of bulimia affected how you are around your children regarding food?
Yes. I have two. I was terrified of getting pregnant – the dreaded fatness – but it was the final step in forgiving and accepting my body. Plus I had to listen to it like never before as your body shouts at you from the inside and it’s impossible not to listen. Mine said, No coffee, no wine, and lots of fried rice. Having children forced me to let go. We’re lucky there are no allergies or food issues, so food is never about not having, it’s about having the right mix of goodness, a balance. And it’s ok to have treats every now and then. We have sugar and salt in our house, not a huge amount but it’s there. I grew up around diets and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food from a fattening perspective so I make sure I don’t do that with my kids. It’s about taste and nutrition and energy and celebration. Having had bulimia, something I would never want my children to go through, I am very conscious of the messages I put out around food and bodies. I only ever talk about how strong and amazing our bodies are and what they do – they get us places, up trees, on the dancefloor – and never about what they look like. Of course I am petrified somehow I will mess up, and there will be something my children will moan to a therapist about in their futures I’m sure, but hopefully it’s not because of how I behaved around food.

How do you find the people you interview?
Sometimes they come to me – they have found the site and email me – other times I find them online and approach them. Usually if somebody is already open about their eating disorder in some other forum they are happy to chat. Sharing your story and being open and honest about what happened is part of healing and that’s different for everyone. Some people would never want to share their story. I’m always looking for more people, especially men.

You sometimes do talks with teenage girls about body image. What are some general thoughts about what girls are thinking/talking about/struggling with these days?
No matter the generation, females have always been evaluated by their looks, as have males to a lesser extent. This is ancient. It’s ingrained in us to consider the shell we’ve been given and then compare it to others’, which means others are comparing the shell we’ve been given too. But what’s different for girls these days is that the comparison is not just in the schoolyard, or from a teenage magazine, it’s online. Big time. We’ve seen the rise of the social media celebrity and often their photos are not just snaps. Like advertising, they are well thought through, planned and manipulated. And, also like advertising they show us this ideal of beauty – slim, not too tanned, not too white, great smile, no obvious flaws. So, while we’re all so aware of the importance of a positive body image and eating disorders there is even more pressure on girls because it’s coming at them through their devices that they carry around all the time. Guys are posting photos of their conquests online like trophies too.

The millions of girls looking are not seeing a true representation of the diversity of people in the real world. For a young mind, not fully developed or aware of the tricks of photo manipulation – or knowing a model with a 700k Instagram following probably has a semi-professional photographer who follows her to the beach to get that snap of her looking relaxed by the waves in a $1000 bikini with perfect makeup – then comparing themselves to these images will make them feel inadequate. Then, rather than asking friends they trust at a slumber party, Do you think I’m pretty? girls are doing it online and it opens them up to ridicule and bullying. You wouldn’t stand up in the mall with a microphone and ask, Do you think I’m pretty? But doing it online can feel like it’s not really real, yet real people respond. And judge harshly. A friend of mine’s daughter, 11, was getting bullied at school for a while and she dived into Pinterest, posting a lot and she said to her mum, I can be somebody online. It broke her mother’s heart. And it didn’t make turning up to school any easier. Kids are growing up in the like generation and it can be addictive.

Any other thoughts or comments?
I had an epiphany in therapy a few years ago. After much gnashing of teeth and plundering the tissue box, I admitted that bulimia is actually quite violent. What we put our bodies through – teeth scars on knuckles, popped blood vessels in eyes and cheeks, ripped oesophagus, confused colon. It’s intense. As children, especially girls, we are often raised to control our negative emotions – anger, frustration, sadness, hurt, disappointment – and so we learn to suppress them. Then as an adult, when we feel those emotions – because we all still feel them – we don’t know what to do with them. For me, when I felt those feelings I turned them on myself with a violent binge and purge, which had a terrible effect on my self-esteem. The greatest lesson for me was to understand that all things pass. Happiness, sadness. Rather than fight or swallow uncomfortable feelings I now know they too, in time, will pass.

Angela Barnett is a New Zealand-based writer and commercial storyteller. She is Editor at Fucking Awesome Bulimics I Know.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.