Written by Angela Barnett
Editor’s Note: Content describes various eating disorder behaviors and mental illness labels.
Getting my teeth cleaned a few months ago, I had a strong urge to ask the hygienist if she could see any evidence of my dirty little secret. Never having confessed to a dentist before I told myself it was ridiculous. She’s not interested in my stinking past…
Unable to shake it, I had to ask. “Can you tell I used to be bulimic?”
The hygienist said no, she couldn’t tell, my teeth looked good.
I felt relieved she only had some pork stuck between my molars to focus on.
Then she asked how long I had “it” for. When did it start? Was it bad? Was I over it? Did I ever use laxatives? I looked up into her eyes, grey yet warm, and they were very curious those eyes. Too curious. Peering down at me over her sterile mask she sucked in a long breath.
“Me too,” she said.
It was the longest teeth cleaning session I’ve ever had and we ended up doing far more talking than polishing. Her bulimia had been hanging around for over a decade. She hated it and tried to hide it from her husband, who didn’t understand why she couldn’t just stop.
“Thank you for telling me,” she said. “I never talk about it.”
Bulimia has to be one of the uncoolest disorders around because it involves two of the ickiest bodily functions: barfing and pooping. As one woman said to me recently, “Anorexics are seen to have a tragic real disease and bulimics are thought of as attention-seeking nut jobs.”
Here’s the thing, I was an “attention-seeking nut job” during my entire twenties: from university right through to a fancy-pants marketing career. I was petrified of anybody finding out. They’ll think I’m weak. Stupid. I won’t get hired to work on chocolate accounts.
The hardest part was feeling utterly alone. Fearing that if I told anyone then that thinly veiled thing called MY LIFE—the one I had been hanging onto so tightly—would sink with shame. I worked very hard to hide it. We all do. Bulimics are cagier than Her Majesty’s Secret Service Agents and can go incognito for years because we don’t usually get skinny. If anything, a bit puffy, which, you can imagine, adds to the problem.
During my thirties I began discreetly confessing to people and discovered—in equal doses of relief and horror—that I was not alone. Fellow “attention-seeking nut jobs” have popped up from my old advertising agency, high school friends, new friends, and work circles. I’ve found out my dance teacher was bulimic, and blogger, Glennon Melton-Doyle, favourite Spice Girl (Ginger) and second favourite comedian, Russell Brand. Lady Gaga. Katie Couric. Sharon Obsourne.Yeardley Smith (voice of Lisa Simpson). Elton John. Sally Field.Princess Di. Jane Fonda. We’ve all had it.
I’ve had me too moments on dive trips in Zanzibar to picnics in Central Park. Every time it happens I hear the same thing. I never talk about this. It’s so embarrassing.
However, we always get to the same fantastic ending. HOLY SMOKE: I AM NOT A FREAK!
And then we have a laugh about the dangers of buffet tables.
One in five women engage in some kind of disordered eating and there’s more characters on stage than ever before: orthorexia—a fixation for pure, righteous food or obsessive cleansing; pregorexia—dieting and exercise while pregnant; anorexia athletica—addicted to working out; binge eating—without the purging or laxatives, and drunkorexia (something I’ve dabbled in my whole life)—reducing food intake to get drunk faster.
And it’s not just women, girls as young as six are dieting and it makes me feel sick. Ex-bulimics hate to feel nauseous.
It makes me want to shout: Please don’t fight food. You’ll never win. It’s not the food’s fault; it’s just sitting there minding its own Peas and Qs. Diets say You Are Not OK and they only lead to trouble. I know, I started my first one at nine and graduated to the worst kind. If you’re worried about your bottom then please put on your favourite tune and dance around the room. As for that gap between your thighs—use it to mount a horse and ride like the wind. And if anyone dares to call you fat, then you say, ‘A big, plump, warm heart is way better than a skinny mean one,’ and it’s OK—if you have to—to call them a poophead. Our bodies are designed to give us joy and you’ll never find it in a plate of grated carrot and sardines. When you are full of joy you will be your most beautiful.
That’s what I will be telling my daughter.
The only way to not mess up another generation is to talk about our complicated, addictive, chaotic relationship with food.
That’s why I have created Fucking Awesome Bulimics I Know.
It’s a place full of interviews with inspiring women around the world who share my messy secret. They are not awesome because they had an eating disorder but many awesome women have had them. And they are fucking awesome for talking about it because sharing stories is the best way to bust open this secretive business and kick that pimp, Shame, in the shins.
Angela writes for New Zealand publications and online. In 2013, her short story about addiction ‘Over 500’ was runner up in the highly-regarded Sunday Star Times Short Story Awards. She is the founder of FABIK (warning: contains the f word) which aims to kick shame in the shins. She also keeps a blog which contains more f words.