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Body image

Rod McKenzie Rod McKenzie | 10:35 UK time, Friday, 20 February 2009

"I have been making myself sick since I was 13, I am now controls my life and I can't stop. I don't want help. It's my life."

Radio 1 logoYou have to be a very hard hearted editor not to be deeply moved by the Radio 1 audience's struggle with eating disorders and body image. No-one who has any contact with teenagers or early 20-somethings can fail to understand how large this looms as an issue: it destroys lives - and frankly, it doesn't get much news coverage.

The number of young people being admitted to hospitals for problems related to Anorexia has gone up 80% in 10 years, according to NHS figures for England. Three times as many 12-year-olds are now getting help for the condition.

Newsbeat spoke to Heather Youell who lives in Northampton. She's now 22 and her problems started when she was 15: she cut out breakfast, then lunch, then dinner. She collapsed while out jogging and doctors told her she had just days to live. She's better now but no thanks, she says, to her GP surgery. Their advice was simple: "you should eat more". In hospital, nurses discussed their diets while trying to get her to eat.

Girl with anorexia"We thought it was time the prime minister was asked about this, so our politics reporter Dave Howard put him on the spot at his monthly press conference. Doesn't late diagnosis put lives at risk? Gordon Brown agreed: "I think the more the Health Service can do to help particularly teenage girls the better. I assure you that's one of the issues Alan Johnson is looking at very seriously in his health service plan."

We contacted Susan Ringwood, from the eating disorders charity, Beat, who said: "What Gordon Brown said to Newsbeat today was the first time a prime minister has ever made a statement about eating disorders."

So far, so good, but then - suspicion from the charity: it has been pleading with the government to find out more about eating disorders, particularly simple facts like, how many people in the UK suffer? They think the Department of Health is rather less keen on doing the hard work on this than the prime minister might suggest, and claim that anorexia - and similar eating disorders - cause more deaths in young people than any other medical condition.

Our text response after the story might be persuasive. Emily - who's 17 - went from being a nine stone (57kg), 5ft 9in to just five stone (31kg). And again, as with so many of our stories on Radio 1, it's not just the girls who suffer. We heard about one young man who wanted to be a male model: his quest for the body beautiful nearly killed him - at one point, he was given three days to live.

And to be fair - there are people who blame the media too. Helen in Cumbria spoke for many others when she tapped out this text to us: "The problem is down to the media. Girls being airbrushed and promoting size zero is becoming more and more acceptable. We need to stop promoting this image of a perfect body which is unachievable."


  • Comment number 1.

    Dear Rod McKenzie,

    I think society, the media, family, friends have a big impact regarding this problem.

    Only since I have learnt not to give anything about what I hear by people including my partner! - I am a healthy individual.

    I am not overweight, I am not underweight. Am I happy with my body image? Well, it is okay. Maybe 5 kilograms less would be nice - but I am not counting the calories.

    I try to eat healthy food, eat what I enjoy - on a nicely decorated plate (slow food) - I like eating with a candle by the table. I think eating food on your lap is bad for you.

    The media is not to be blamed. Every individual has a responsibility to look after oneself. I would love a delicious fruit salad - and this afternoon a thick chocolate cup cake to enjoy - I exercise so I will be fine and won't put on any weight.
    Kind regards from Machynlleth, Annette

  • Comment number 2.

    Ask any person who has struggled with their weight in any way, and at the least they will be aware of media influences; at most, they will find that they have a substantial impact on their eating habits/disorder.

    I'm glad to see men with eating disorders being mentioned, as they are too often left off in the focus on anorexic teenage girls. The spectrum of eating disorders and those who suffer from them is far wider than that. I used to know a young man who had suffered from anorexia from childhood, including being hospitalised at the age of eight. The triggering factors in were probably his parents' abusive relationship and painful divorce in earlier childhood, and years of homophobic bullying in secondary school. By the time he was an adult he was set in a variety of self-harming patterns, include sexual risk-taking (however they begin, I think eating disorders and sexuality are very commonly interwoven). It's not all about teenage girls wanting to look like models.

    #1 Annette from Machynllth, I'm glad to hear that you don't have any problems with eating and have retained a healthy attitude in the face of all the strange messages we get from the media, but you sound a smigden smug about it. Eating disorders are genuine and serious illnesses, they're not the sufferer's fault, and they're not caused by lack of will-power, common sense or the ability to pull one's socks up. They're as real and as dangerous as depression and other mental illnesses. If you don't suffer from a mental illness, please do not make assumptions about what may or may not set it off in other people who do.

  • Comment number 3.

    its better to eat healthily and exercise regularly, without overdoing it. beginners should do girlie exercise like yoga swimming cycling walking skipping etc.

    most people's image of their self is psychologically more negative than reality
    eg too fat too skinny too black when they are fine and just need more confidence in them self

    hapiness is attractive

  • Comment number 4.

    I think it's great that the PM has acknowledged this important mental health issue.

    Unfortunately - but predictably - he devalues his response with a sexist and discriminatory comment:

    'I think the more the Health Service can do to help particularly teenage girls the better.'

    I would hope that the NHS, as a public body, will be meeting it's statutory obligations to provide a service without discrimination to any person who needs that service.

    No wonder young men with this serious condition feel second class citizens when even the PM is supporting NHS discrimination.

  • Comment number 5.

    I have no idea where the idea that emaciated looks attractive on a woman has come from; most people are far more sexually attracted to a healthy looking person than to a skeleton with skin.

  • Comment number 6.

    kiki_dread is probably closest to the truth, confident, happy people are the most attractive whatever there personal appearance.

    So we can asume that people with eating disorders are unhappy, desperately so.
    It is likely that the only way to cure such disorders is to use a holistic approach healing body,mind and dare i say it "soul".

    I dont mean in a religious sense, but the idea that people have worth whatever they are or do, this seems fundamentally lacking in modern Britain.

  • Comment number 7.

    How can we stop this online suicide in three days? [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]Blogs and message boards are mentioning it all over the place. Maybe someone here knows who he or his family is?

  • Comment number 8.

    In the name of Allah,
    Dear sister ,

    Let me tell this ,
    when Allah created Adam ,he ordered all angels to bow to him which they did but Satan refused saying i*i am better then him*.Since that time he swore that he will lead astray most of Adams race.The answer is you .the answer lie in you asking am i only happy of happier than others.think of how many things Allah gave you and do not refuse what he gave you because you can never be like the best of creature.
    so my advice is be happy with what Allah gave you and do not follow the step of Satan in changing your self be normal eat normal be what a woman is ,a perfect beauty.

  • Comment number 9.

    Anorexia and other common eating disorders have been around for at least thirty years, first becoming media prominent in the late eighties. I visited a twelve step hostel in the early nineties where the holistic approach suggested by kiki_dread and jonssmartnipple was prominent. The emphasis was on loving yourself as you are, not as you want to be or as you observe crookedly in a mirror. The success rate was well over eighty percent but then the cost of the course was excessive for anyone other than a millionaire.

    I remember meeting a beautiful girl with bulimia on my travels. Recently married and with a young baby no one in her family (extended included) knew of her problem. Her GP, a woman, was non-plussed. She left a widower and her daughter two years later.

    There was a twelve year old, precociously talented and driven who wanted to walk the walk and talk the talk. A mere half the weight she should have been, and who could not understand her parents' concern. And there were the men ashamed to be in such company but clearly cornered by the same bug.

    What causes eating disorders? Nobody really knows and that is the heartache and headache for those who suffer and their loved ones. Perhaps it is a side shoot of other serious mental issues that have increased in the last thirty years. The least the medical profession can do is to try to understand the mechanics of this problem so that, in time, anyone can be treated successfully.

  • Comment number 10.

    Dear Rob McKenzie.

    It concerns me that, so many have to cope with all sort of dis – ease. It is interesting that science and medicine do not have a fast and effective method, through which, one can eradicate self of what ails the Human Being.

    Our reliance on external mediums, to facilitate, wellness, wholeness and in about us does not seem to work. Could it be that the answers to this dilemma, lies in some other medium that is not yet discovered?

    There is a new book in the marketplace, that addresses Humanity in the context to who we truly are, it takes the reader back to the basics, and brilliantly facilitates, a new awareness of the creative abilities and powers available to them, to effect the changes that one desires on any level, in-spite of.

    The book is titled: Absolute Prosperity My Divine Heritage: ISBN:
    142513664-8, ISBN: 978-44251-3664-2.

    I am sure that it can purchase online at, Barnes and Nobel Bookstore.

    Please read it yourself, I am sure that you will agree, that, it is imperative for everyone to read this book. It is time that we put into effect the real and permanent changes, that we desire for ourselves, and stop the bellyaching.

  • Comment number 11.

    What I noticed about coverage of this story is that not one single outlet (BBC included) mentioned the possible link to the increasingly alarmist coverage of the issue of obesity. Even though BEAT has a link from its website to a No.10 petition calling for a more responsible approach to the tenor of 'campaigns in schools focusing on obesity' and in fact the issue was raised about three years ago by the leader of the NASUWT not a single journalist has seen fit to connect the dots. All the while we have the likes of Tam Fry and talking heads from every party arguing that children as young as TWO should be labelled obese, taught 'portion control' and forced to exercise even though no accurate measure of obesity has even been developed for such a young age group.

    There are kids throwing up in toilets, skipping lunch or depositing their sandwiches in the bin all because they've been constantly told that the worst thing that they can possibly be is fat - reinforced by the negative attitudes toward 'fat' people in the media and at home - and that the only way to avoid being fat, especially if they fall into the group that's genetically programmed to store weight, is to be obsessive about what passes their lips. It's then only a short step from calorie counting and an hour of exercise to starvation dieting and extreme workouts.

    In many areas ED services have actually been cut to concentrate on ridiculous schemes such as sending letters home to parents of kids in the 85th %ile and having 'fat police' bang on their doors. However the fact remains that even if you buy into the idea that being fat now causes virtually every disease and condition known to man (and there are many now challenging 'weight-centred medicine'), no child or teenager has ever died from being a few pounds 'overweight'. On the other hand it is not uncommon to read about very young people succumbing to the ongoing effects of anorexia nervosa, bulimia and similar conditions which are neglected by the media and brushed aside by a Government more concerned with the benefits to be reaped from scaremongering over non-existent epidemics of obesity.

  • Comment number 12.

    "The problem is down to the media. Girls being airbrushed and promoting size zero is becoming more and more acceptable. We need to stop promoting this image of a perfect body which is unachievable."

    -So what's going to happen? Sanctions on the media? It may be effective but it just won't happen.



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