It was such an honour to be asked to speak at the Mental Illness Awareness Society at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire last night. I read from and discussed my debut YA novel, Wishbones. The story explores eating disorders from both ends of the spectrum (obesity and anorexia) and how it can affect men and women, young and old. I always say that my stories come through an alchemy of my experience, my research and my imagination. Wishbones is a fictional story with fictional characters and yet it is, as with all my fiction, rooted in the contemporary world, in real life issues.
I thought I’d share the essay that I wrote at the back of the novel to give you an insight into the experience and research components of my novel.
My greatest hope, in writing, is that we build compassion for our fellow human beings: the business of being alive is as hard and complicated as it is beautiful. I believe that stories deepen our understanding of each other, our lives, our struggles and that they show us how, in the end, we are not so different from one another.
A Word From The Author
When I was 17-years-old I developed an eating disorder. Within a few months, I’d all but given-up food. My periods stopped, my hair thinned, my podgy teenage body became sharp and angular and my days were dictated by working out how few calories I could consume and still stay alive.
There are lots of reasons that lead to my anorexia. Some of them were to do with weight: I’d grown up with comments from well meaning family members about how much better I’d look if I could only shed a few pounds; I was in a girls’ school where comparing every aspect of your physical appearance to the most beautiful (or the most fashionably beautiful) girl in the class was part of everyday existence; and like every teenager I was bombarded by unrealistic presentations of the female body in magazines and on TV. But weight loss and body image was only part of it, there were other factors at play, ones that I’ve only recognised with hindsight.
I had very little control over my life. Few teenagers do. That’s why, in adolescence, we work so hard to grab at things that might give us an anchor, even if those things damage us and the people we love. My parents went through a sad and difficult divorce and, like Feather in my novel, I found myself looking after my mum who was heartbroken. I also had those typical traits associated with people who develop anorexia: I was a perfectionist and a high-achiever, aiming for straight As and a place at Oxford. Making sure my mum was okay and guaranteeing good grades and a place at my dream university felt hopelessly out of my grasp. Counting calories, deciding exactly which bits of food passed my lips, calibrating my eating to ensure a specific outcome on the scales (which I stepped on several times a day), brought enormous comfort. Managing my eating became a hobby and an obsession – even a friend, which, as a lonely teenager, I needed. And of course, as I lost weight, I felt like I was achieving something: every day, I was meeting my goals. I felt successful, a feeling which is hugely addictive, as addictive as eating too much food.
Although I still have a difficult relationship to food, I am back to a healthy weight. I have a lovely husband, a gorgeously bonkers little girl called Tennessee Skye and I get to do the best job in the world: as Tennessee says, Mummy writes stories.
I’m one of the lucky ones. Some battle with anorexia their whole lives. Some get so ill that their bodies give up altogether.
When I started my first teaching job in a boarding school and taught, cared for and lived with teenagers, I came to understand the forces that are at play in making young people undertake harmful behaviour. For my teenage self and many of the girls and boys I taught, it was an eating disorder; for others it was smoking, drinking, taking drugs or having damaging sexual relationships. All these behaviours were driven by the same needs: to find a sense of self, to get some kind of grip on our lives.
It was also in my first teaching post that I came across male anorexia. I observed a boy I taught growing thinner and thinner. I remember him mentioning to me, proudly, how he’d spent a whole week surviving on nothing but a box of cereal: he could recite exactly how many calories there were in that 500g box of cornflakes.
We have a long way to go in understanding and supporting boys and men who suffer from anorexia: many people still associate eating disorders with girls and women and men often find it hard to talk about their eating problems and to ask for help. That is what inspired me to write the character of Clay. In my research I found a wonderful charity, which offers information and support, called Boys Get Eating Disorders too: http://www.boyanorexia.com. There is a great book by the same name, written by Jenny Langley.
In 2008 I took a group of girls from my boarding house to work in primary schools along the Lamu Coast in Kenya. I’ll always remember the chat I had with the Headmaster of one of these schools. He asked me to tell him about the problems that young people face in English schools and I told him about anorexia. He threw his arms up and shook his head: ‘In Kenya, if you are thin, it means you are either sick or poor.’ He could not see the appeal of being thin: being curvy and carrying some weight was a sign of attractiveness, wealth and success. It taught me about how differently cultures perceive beauty. We could learn a great deal from how Kenyans seen and appreciate the female form.
For the last 12 years I have continued to observe and be fascinated by the psychology of eating: of how we starve ourselves and also overeat to get some kind of comfort and control. At the same time, through the news and simply by watching the world around me, I’ve noticed that obesity has become a huge health concern for children, teenagers and adults. Both extremes can have devastating consequences.
In the UK, Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder in adolescence. At the other end of the spectrum, around one in every 11 deaths in the UK is now linked to carrying excess fat. Around half of British adults are overweight, and 17 per cent of men and 21 per cent of women are obese. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines on eating disorders showed that 1.6million people in the UK were affected by eating disorders in 2004 and 180,000 (11 per cent) of them were men. In 2007 the NHS Information Centre carried out a snapshot survey of people in England over the age of 16. It found that an alarming 6.4 per cent of adults had a problem with food, a figure much higher than previously thought. A quarter of this figure was men, suggesting a possible increase in the number of males affected. Recent reports from the Royal College of Practitioners has indicated a 66 per cent rise of male hospital admissions. It’s clear that weight issues are a serious concern for the health of the men and women in our country and in the West as a whole.
It’s my belief that only when we work to understand the psychological factors behind eating disorders, will we be able to help people to lead healthier, happier lives and to develop a positive relationship to food.
In my presentation of both Clay and Jo, I hope to give readers a rich and complex picture of individuals who struggle with their weight, their sense of themselves and their relationship to food – and that although one character refuses to eat and the other can’t stop eating, they are not so very different: they have suffered loss and rejection and feel that they have very little grip on their lives.
I also wanted to show how challenging life can be for those who love and care for people with eating disorders, as is the case for Feather.
But more than all this, I want my readers to see beyond Clay and Jo’s weight issues to the interesting, wonderful people they are. Through them, I hope to widen our understanding and appreciation of true beauty.
I believe that novels have a special role to play in building compassion: for others and for ourselves. I hope that Wishbones will allow us to develop a deeper and richer appreciation for all the glorious differences there are between us as human beings.