Christie BegnellChristie Begnell

The truth about eating disorders

Lucinda Everett

Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2018 has sparked fresh debate about how sufferers should celebrate their recovery. Illustrator Christie Begnell is urging her followers to avoid posting before and after photos, for instance.

Instead, she suggests making a daily list of things they like about themselves that don't involve their bodies or physical appearance.

"We can raise ED awareness without using our bodies as a canvas. We can use our words, our affirmations and our personalities to show people that while recovery might be hard, it’s pretty damn possible," she wrote in an Instagram post that has had almost 900 likes.

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It’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and so comes the influx of before/after photos.. . But you know what? I understand why. Weight restoration is HARD work, it deserves to be recognised. And Eating Disorders are a mental illness, they’re really hard to represent visually. Sometimes all we have is our bodies and our photos to remind us of how far we’ve come. . Of course, the issue with this is that the more we use our bodies as a means of communicating this illness, the more we are confirming the stereotype that Eating Disorders are a physical illness and weight restoration = recovered. . So I came up with an alternative. . Part of our recovery is learning that no matter what our body does, how much it weighs, or what it looks like, we are good people. It’s getting in touch with our strengths and positive traits to build up our confidence and trust in ourselves. It’s letting go of our bodies, and taking control of our lives. . I’ve used #morethanmybody since day 1. I’ve used it as a way of reminding myself that ‘yes, I have a body, but I am not my body’. Every time I say this to myself, I’m reminded of my favourite qualities; things that I’m proud of. Things that I choose to define me. . So this EDAW, I invite you guys to do the same. Wake up every morning, look in the mirror and tell yourself that you are more than your body. Then make a list of things you like about yourself (cannot be related to your body or appearance). In the beginning, that might be hard. Know that if you can only come up with one thing, that’s pretty amazing too. Try every day to add one or two more things to your list, and keep repeating it to yourself over and over. . We can raise ED awareness without using our bodies as a canvas. We can use our words, our affirmations and our personalities to show people that while recovery might be hard, it’s pretty damn possible.

A post shared by Christie (@meandmyed.art) on

BBC Three spoke to Christie about how illustrating her own eating disorder has helped her recovery.

In fact, five years ago, when Christie was 20 and began to develop an eating disorder (ED), it was drawing that saved her. What she didn’t realise at the time, was that her drawings would end up helping hundreds of other ED sufferers too.

“I had a visualisation of my eating disorder – the Ana monster,” says Christie, referring to the bony, demon-eyed woman that haunts her pictures. “Throughout my illness, I’d draw her in different ways. When I was feeling confident, I’d draw a picture of me making fun of her and she’d be dressed up like a clown. When I had really bad days, she’d be sitting on a throne.”

In May 2016, during a month-long stay in a psychiatric ward, her drawings took on more significance. “It was a way of showing my mum what was going on – but also a way of dealing with every emotion that came up,” Christie says. “From then on it was my recovery. I started drawing constantly.”

A few months later, a therapist saw Christie’s drawings and suggested she write a book. The result was Me and My ED, which she followed up with, How to Love Yourself in 10 Easy Steps).

She uses her Instagram account (where she currently has over 31,000 followers) to campaign for body positivity and to promote better understanding of eating disorders.

She’s also working with the mental health charity PHAMS, and training as a psychologist specialising in eating disorders.

Oh, and last April she also published a third book, S**t I Wish They Taught Me in School, about the lessons she’s learned from her struggles. She shared a few of the illustrations featured in this book with us.

Woman on treadmillChristie Begnell

"The diet industry wants you to give them money in return for a false promise of happiness. That’s what the treadmill represents – constantly running towards their promises but never quite catching them.

"My eating disorder was triggered because I was depressed and unwell so I gained a bit of weight. I started counting calories and then it became an obsession and it was all influenced by that diet culture.

"Just going to the supermarket, you're faced with magazine headlines like 'So-and-so lost 20kg and looks amazing! Read how she did it!'. That prompts conversations with friends and family, and eventually you start hearing yourself saying, 'I wish I could lose 20kg and look great like her'.

"Now I’m in recovery it’s really hard to accept that everybody talks about losing weight and dieting as if it’s normal. It’s constantly in your face. Every day. Especially with technology. The ‘Explore’ section on Instagram often suggests fitspo pictures to members of the body positivity community. And you’ve also got calorie-counting apps sending you reminders after every meal: ‘log your intake’. That’s not normal."

Christie Begnell

"I often hear women saying, 'I feel fat'. When I said things like that, my psychiatrist would jump on me and say, 'Christie, that’s not a feeling, that’s just a thought. You have to label your feelings.' So I drew this as a way of helping me to stop and think, 'what am I feeling?'. I hope it shows people that when they say they 'feel fat', there’s an emotion underneath and it’s important to find out what that emotion is.

"This picture’s been reposted a lot and people have told me it’s helped them think in a different way. I've had people tell me they're using the wheel with their therapists and psychiatrists. And I've had a therapist tell me she's already seeing an improvement with the clients she shares it with. I sometimes think I should print it out and stick it on my forehead, the amount of times I talk about it with people."

Men get eating disorders tooChristie Begnell

"I’ve been in treatment with quite a few guys, but they’re so underrepresented when it comes to talking about eating disorders.

"There’s this idea that they’re female illnesses, so not as many men speak up about their experiences. Plus, some of the behaviour that men with EDs can display is accepted as normal by society. For example, orthorexia is an obsession with exercise and clean eating, which I’d bet is fairly common among personal trainers, weightlifters and gym junkies."

Places on a podiumChristie Begnell

"This picture was what it felt like for me to restore weight.

"Being emaciated and tubed is the ideal body in an anorexic mindset. You almost feel like a winner. The second position represents someone who’s fit and ‘healthy’ and the third position was what my body was doing as I regained weight – it was softer, not toned and it made me feel like a failure.

"There’s competitiveness with eating disorders, which nobody wants to say out loud because it makes you sound like an awful person. 'I want to be sicker than you' just sounds strange. But it’s more like, 'if I’m thinner than you then I deserve to be here.' Part of you wants to go into hospital because it validates your illness. When I was an in-patient I wasn’t the thinnest person there and my ED thoughts were going 'you don’t deserve to be here, you’re not even sick.'"

Finding yourself – more than my bodyChristie Begnell

"During my recovery, and especially this last year, I’ve very much lived by the ‘I am more than my body’ mantra.

"Women are often degraded in the media, and reduced to what they look like. You see it all the time with famous actresses – all the media talk about is what they’re wearing or what their body shape is. What about the skill, talent and voice that these people have? This picture was about me realising that our bodies are just one aspect of us. And that I was more than that.

"All those adjectives are ways I can describe myself. Remembering them helped me become comfortable with my changing body, because I knew that it was only one part of me."

Who gets to decide what’s beautifulChristie Begnell

"A woman’s body is a magnificent thing. There’s so much power in it – we can even carry life within us! But we’re constantly told by society that we have to be skinny. I just think, 'No! What about what a body can actually do?'

"I know it’s clichéd, but I want this picture to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that it’s not fair to ask us all to fit into one body shape. The body positivity community on Instagram has become a space where people whose bodies aren’t necessarily represented in mainstream media are becoming role models and being seen as beautiful. That’s how it should be."

If you have been affected by issues raised in this feature help and support is available.

This article was first published 29 September 2017