In the winter break of my final year of university, I told my friends I planned to write an essay that would “say the unsayable.” I titled the piece “Fragments of a Bulimic Headcase,” and published it a few months later under a pseudonym in my campus’s annual women’s publication, sent from a fake email address created specifically for the purposes of the submission.
If my friends ever read the essay, they didn’t know that I wrote it. At that point, bulimia was the most shameful secret I had: the corporeal evidence that the person I purported to be — fun, feminist, and effortlessly thin — was a lie. Among the smart, culturally savvy women and men I hung out with, bulimia was a subject of derision; an affliction of, as one girl I knew described it, vain cheerleaders, attention-seekers, and seriously disturbed individuals.
I wanted to write about bulimia to challenge those stereotypes, or at least to go beyond casual jokes to consider them more seriously. But it certainly wasn’t something I was prepared to put my name to. Even now, ten years later, when I speak glibly about my former eating disorder, I rarely mention which one it was. And for good reason: Even when pitted against other eating disorders, bulimia is the girl with the bad reputation — less sympathetic than anorexia, more wasteful than garden-variety binge-eating. Nobody gets bulimia entirely by accident. At some point down the line, it requires a deliberate choice to transgress; to stick your fingers down your throat and throw up what you’ve eaten.
Slowly but surely, though, a handful of writers and feminists have begun a conversation that challenges the usual stereotypes and shame of bulimia. The 22-year-old British writer Harriet Williamson, who has an eight-year history with both bulimia and anorexia, called for an end to the stigma around the disorder last year, arguing in an article for the U.K. Telegraph that “it is through honest discussion that social understanding and more meaningful support … is generated.” She tells me that the differences in the way people responded to each of her disorders was marked. “When I was restricting, so many people told me how great I looked and praised me for my self-control. But when the bulimic behaviors began to surface, I lost a lot of friends. There is so much disgust associated with bulimia. People don’t want to be near it.”
This dichotomy also carries over to the way that sufferers of eating disorders think about their own conditions. Where anorexics can often take pride in their restraint, bulimics tend to be deeply ashamed of their condition. “Anorexia is about denying the need of the body, whereas bulimia embraces the need and then tries to mitigate it afterwards,” opines Williamson. “And nobody likes a greedy woman, do they?” Similarly, Laura, a 28-year-old food blogger who had bulimia for two years, describes bulimia as “unpleasant and undignified. There’s the acidic taste in your throat, the bloodshot eyeballs staring into the bowl of the nearest toilet, the constant teeth-cleaning.” And although this shame means that bulimia is mercifully difficult to glamorize, it also means that bulimics are unlikely to seek treatment for their condition, Williamson wrote.
For the past year, Angela Barnett, a 40-something New Zealand–born advertising creative who has lived in New York and San Francisco, has been working on the website Fucking Awesome Bulimics I Know, a provocatively titled collection of interviews with people who have experienced and (mostly) recovered from the disorder.
A former bulimic herself, Barnett had come off the back of a succession of encounters with others who had shared her secret. There was the woman she had met in Tanzania who had talked about her struggle with the disorder over margaritas and seafood, and retreated to her Wi-Fi-free hotel room after dinner to urgently “check some emails.” The advertising colleague who made the admission at a party in New York. The dental hygienist who, when Barnett asked if she could tell she’d had bulimia from the state of her teeth, stopped what she was doing to declare, “Me too.” Says Barnett: “I’d had enough of those moments to make me think that rather than feeling ashamed of my past, I wanted to lift the lid on it.”
When I stumbled upon Fucking Awesome Bulimics (FABIK) late last year, I loved its frank, no-holds-barred take on bulimia; that it didn’t sanctify the disorder the way that a pro-ED website would, but also didn’t try to twist its interviews into neat and uncomplicated “happy endings.” The “Fucking Awesome” in its title felt less like an endorsement than a revelation; a shattering of stigma and stereotype.
Beauty blogger Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, who has struggled with both anorexia and bulimia and whose interview with Barnett is featured on FABIK, also experienced a moment of shock when she saw its name. “Part of me thought it was really cool, but part of me was like, Oh, gosh. That’s really challenging language.” She says that what she likes about the site “is that it shows a more holistic view of what is going on in a person’s life when they were struggling with it. You don’t just see the disease; you see them as three-dimensional human beings.” When Whitefield-Madrano was a teenager, she used to pore over clinical accounts of eating disorders, searching for something that reflected her symptoms. “I think if I had known more about how diverse the experiences of women with eating disorders actually are, I would have sought help earlier,” she observes.
Attempts to start a dialogue about eating disorders have backfired before. In her 2013 memoir How to Disappear Completely, New York writer Kelsey Osgood argues that the explosion of discourse about anorexia over the past three decades has led to the emergence of a new type of anorexic: one who doesn’t fall into the disease unwittingly, but who actively seeks it out. It is not just the thinness associated with anorexia that is romanticized, she argues, but its psychology; the way that sadness and starvation are entwined with being “exceptional.”
I never took pride in having bulimia. But like the women in Osgood’s book, I did have a tendency to romanticize my own sadness, viewing myself as a martyr of a culture that demanded women be thin, but proclaimed disgust at the lengths some of us went to in order to meet that ideal.
Funnily enough, speaking to Barnett for the first time last year caused me to think about that period of my life differently. After our interview, I sat on the transcript for nearly four months before I allowed her to upload it to FABIK. This time, it wasn’t the bulimia I was ashamed of, but the person I had been when I’d had it. Reading about that period of my life on my laptop screen, I saw someone who had been insecure, whiny, and peculiarly self-righteous. I was still angry at the culture that had taught me that thinness was next to godliness, but I was also angry at myself: not for internalizing to those messages, but for portraying myself as a victim when I was partly responsible for my own suffering.
But this narrative, too, seems too neat. Eating disorders aren’t usually one thing or the other: sympathetic or self-indulgent, socially mediated or singular. They are all of those things at the same time. And in some ways, the stigmatizing and romanticizing of eating disorders are two sides of the same coin. Both stop the people who suffer from them from seeking treatment, and set them up as misunderstood mavericks who are fighting against an uncompassionate world. Truly destigmatizing bulimia means moving beyond these worn-out stories, and looking the disease straight in the eye — ugliness and all.