Diving into the Puddle of Mental Health, Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

Mental health is undoubtedly a serious topic, but as a person ever afraid of serious topics, I constantly have to resist the urge to pull back, pause, and walk around the puddle instead of getting my feet wet.

This was evidently not a problem for Emma Woolf today, whose frank exploration of what she termed ‘The Ministry of Thin’ drew on her own experience of more than ten years of anorexia. Woolf, a columnist for The Times, writer for The Independent and presenter on Channel 4’s Supersize vs Superskinny, took an unusual angle on what for many of us listening was a familiar topic by suggesting the confusion aliens would feel being confronted with the human race’s unwritten rules of attractiveness. At this point I would like suggest the confusion the human race would feel being confronted with aliens that weren’t one-eyed, oozing, green creatures but that’s getting into a whole other stereotype.

Woolf dove so far into the metaphorical puddle with her confessional talk that she encouraged others to jump in after her. It was genuinely touching to hear other people’s stories of their own experience with eating disorders and disordered eating, and all credit goes to Woolf for creating an atmosphere in which they felt brave enough to share such personal things. And apart from all the facts and figures about the general mentality of the British public towards thinness that, let’s face it, we’re all in some part aware of, Woolf interestingly argued that self-deprecation is something women bond over. No, that doesn’t mean that if I and the woman next to me on the bus agreed that we both looked ridiculous on a particular day that we would become besties – although I’m not knocking the bus as a place to find common ground, especially if the Transport Appreciation Society jump on for an impromptu game of I-Spy. It actually means bonding over the fact that you ‘probably shouldn’t’ have had that piece of cake last night while you agree to spend an extra ten minutes at the gym together making up for it.

It’s safe to say that this did, and does, resonate with most people (yes, that does include men) even if you haven’t suffered from a full-blown eating disorder. So I applaud Woolf for continuing the conversation on such a difficult topic and raising more awareness of the problems of eating disorders and disordered eating. I also applaud her, quite amazingly, for managing to make me restrain my natural impulses of mockery to a gentle teasing and a bizarre metaphor about puddles. 

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Writing: Suppress Your Raging Cynicism and Climb Every Mountain High

This may appear to be a clichéd piece of writing about writing: it is. For that I apologise, those pieces are often extremely annoying, but bear with me, I have a point.

Scrolling through my inbox this afternoon, I happened upon an email that I had been sent inviting me to a talk given by the novelist, short story writer, and investigative journalist, Rob Magnuson Smith. Admittedly, I ummed and ahhed about attending; I had had a long day, I had a lot of work to be getting on with and the weather wasn’t looking too pretty either. On the other hand, as a person ever on the quest for self-improvement, I also felt I should heed my father’s advice to never let any opportunity slide. Eventually I made up my mind to go – the balance was tipped by the promise of free wine – and I’m glad I did.

Rob looked every inch the writer, dressed in an oversized, grey suit and casually holding a glass of red wine; he looked clever and arty and interesting. After sampling rather a lot of the nibbles on offer, I settled down to listen to his reading of one of his short stories and some excerpts from his new novel Scorper, which were reassuringly good, judging by the fact that he actually managed to make me laugh.

So, in contrast to the last time I entered into the unknown for a spot-o-self-improvement/enlightenment, I actually felt Rob’s talk was worthwhile enough for me to pluck up the courage to ask him a question about writing. And in order to make him think about his answer, I asked him the most open-ended question I could think of: what, out of everything you have discovered, would be your top tip for a young writer?

His response? Well, as I failed to bring my high-tech recording equipment with me to the talk or dig out my notebook in front of his face and make him really uncomfortable, I will summarise his response as follows:

Don’t let the naysayers crush your passion for writing. You don’t need life experience to write, because writing is a life-long career. So do it, write. And read.

I cannot be sure if it was the talk or the wine, but I came away with a more positive attitude than when I arrived, which is an achievement in itself. Please don’t embarrass me, I’m not going to tell you to reach for the stars and climb every mountain high. I’m also not going to say something ridiculous like Rob’s talk changed my life, because it didn’t. However, it did give me another author’s work to dip into, about five cheese straws and a welcome break from staring at the computer screen. So go for it, surprise yourself by suppressing your raging cynicism and see what happens.

Disappointment in the Search for Inspiration

Having always considered myself a supporter of women’s rights and professed to my colleagues that that was, in fact, all I ever wrote about, I decided this evening to get up off my opinionated, yet lazy, backside and actively do something about it.

I went to a local Feminist Society for inspiration. Tell me what, oh feminist idols, can I do to support the cause? To make my opinions known and make a difference in the world? How does one respond to the humiliating grab of one’s arse by a chauvinistic, drunken male on a night out and make him see the light? I might sound derisive, but I genuinely looked to this group of people as the proverbial shining beacon of hope in a world of darkness. They, I told myself, are sure to have the solutions, the ideas and the guts to put them forward and make a change!

But, as when one goes to afternoon tea on the promise of giant scones with ladlefuls of jam and cream and receives what could almost fit inside a thimble, I was disappointed with the Feminist Society. Hardly any members proffered any insights on the matter in hand (EcoFeminism- not exactly my specialism but I thought I’d give it a chance) and those that did, timidly commented on the issue with that oh-so-irritating raised intonation at the end of their points. How are we supposed to take you seriously if you doubt your own ideas make any sense? Next the discussion turned into an apathetic and incoherent babble of points, some randomly and some fundamentally, related to the cause (uh hello! We know about binary opposition, go back to year 10), but none were genuinely, or even remotely, inspiring.

Not even the committee members seemed to know what they were talking about, with the ‘exciting’ plans coming up soon yet to be decided. What kind of a plan is that? Why bother to run such an organisation if you are not motivated enough to make something happen that promotes its interests?

Needless to say, unless anything mindboggling reaches me through the airwaves I will not be returning to the society. Instead, I will probably revert to passive-aggressiveness in the form of a cutting review (such as this, ha!) and cower silently in the shame of having done exactly the opposite of what I looked to the Feminist Society to achieve.