But, as anyone who knows about eating disorders will attest, the illness has a way of setting up camp in your brain. It pretty much dictates your every thought and every movement. It would have been nearly impossible not to give Nicola an eating disorder, when my own eating disorder was, essentially, my co-writer.
When I completed the Nutritiously Nicola pilot, I was pretty nervous about showing people what I had written.
Because until very recently, I was a closeted eating disorder sufferer. I never told a single person about my problem, not even my closest friends.
I like to imagine the eating disorder closet as a sort of metaphorical prison. It’s inhabitants want to escape and get help, but it’s just too tempting to stay tucked away inside in a small world consisting solely of food. I stayed inside for years and years.
Until, much to my own surprise, I started writing about my experience. Because by the time I started on the web series, it was probably stupidly obvious to all involved that I had more than a little in common with the character I had created (Natalie/Nicola… I know, I know). It became less and less easy to keep up my well-constructed pretenses. I decided to come clean.
And I’m really glad that I did. Because here’s the thing: I’ve written a comedy about an eating disorder.
The problem with the stereotype
Now, eating disorders aren’t generally known for their high LOL-factor. Most on-screen depictions of the subject are sad portrayals of thin, white, teenage girls with anorexia. They typically wearing baggy clothes and staring tearfully into mirrors.
There’s something so tragic and oddly beautiful about that universal image. It inspires hushed tones, delicacy, tiptoeing, and reverence.
The problem is that this is exactly the behavior that eating disorders feed on. We desperately need to abandon this image. Because not only is it a seductive draw to young people with a penchant for the dramatic, it’s also just one version of the story.
Eating disorders come in many manifestations, which can change and combine over the years. They affect people of all shapes, sizes, personalities, ethnicities, genders and ages. My own eating disorder has rarely been tragic or beautiful. What is has been is ugly, messy, manipulative, secretive, rude and, sometimes, funny.
The shape-shifting of an eating disorder
Eating disorders are shape-shifters. Mine has tricked me many times, leading me down paths that look safe, and then prove to be a trap.
The most recent of these paths was clean eating.
I first became aware of clean eating a few years ago. It was when the ‘big names’ of the movement, such as Deliciously Ella, Madeleine Shaw and Hemsley+Hemsley, were spiralizing their way into the public consciousness.
Initially, I was totally sold. Their emphasis on natural, wholesome foods seemed a world away from the old anorexic tricks of diet coke and lots of coffee. It all seemed very sensible.
Until I realized something that may sound incredibly obvious: zoodles is literally just a plate of zucchini. If you ate a plate of only chopped zucchini for your dinner, people would be worried.
I found it funny because there have been multiple times in my life where a plate of chopped zucchini really was all I would eat for dinner. And I was very ill. Yet this same entirely-vegetable constituted meal was widely accepted. Simply because it happened to be in the shape of a popular carbohydrate.
The clean eating bloggers were promoting a deeply unhealthy, age-old anorexic behavior, simply by re-branding it. I kind of wish I’d thought of it myself, because they were making a lot of money out of it (just kidding!).
When you can hide in plain sight, it’s NOT a good thing
The “clean eating” phenomenon was a godsend for people with eating disorders. It’s a way of hiding in plain sight. The veneer of “healthiness” can disguise and enable a way of eating that is restrictive, moralistic and obsessive.
I wasn’t the only one to notice this, of course. Much was written by commentators and medical professionals about the dangers of clean eating; how these diets are based on shoddy science, cut out essential food groups and lead at best to obsessiveness, at worst to orthorexia. In particular, dissent was thrown at the bloggers themselves, with some of the media turning them into avocado-eating villainesses.
And I kind of agreed. Their recipes called for expensive ingredients, vast quantities of time and revealed their privilege and lack of awareness. The diets they peddled had sparked my interest, and in turn, re-sparked my eating disorder.
I had every reason to dislike them. And yet I found some of the criticism fired towards them uncomfortable. It was too broad, too “counter” and maybe a bit unfair. I couldn’t help but think that some of these women (and they pretty much are all women) might be sick themselves. Certainly they were exhibiting signs of a complicated relationship with food.
And I admired their entrepreneurship. These women are making a lot of money from businesses and brands they have built themselves. Struggling to pay my rising rent in London and working various freelance and zero hours jobs, I could see the appeal of preaching quack science for a healthy paycheck.
Enter – Nicola
It was at this point that the idea for Nicola started to emerge. A health food blogger with an eating disorder. It was contradictory, and yet completely made sense. Someone who badly wanted some success, but having spent her life consumed by an eating disorder, had very little work experience to leverage that ambition. So she turns to the one thing she knows all about: food.
In the original stage performance of “Nutritiously Nicola”, Nicola is having a meeting at the BBC, trying to get a job on a new cooking show. At the time, my awareness of clean eating/health bloggers had been concentrated on the very visible stars of the scene. The ones who had TV deals, delis, books and recipe columns. It was around the time that their credentials were starting to be questioned.
Inspired by this, I culminated Nicola’s meeting with the producers inviting her back for a second interview, despite having zero cooking talent and no nutritional sense. Their interest in her was based purely on the fact she has 1.2 million Instagram followers.
Is it all a lie?
As the original clean eating bloggers have gone mainstream, this has spawned a legion of copycats. They are jostling for space on the feeds of Instagram, hoping that their breakfast picture will look more appetizing than everyone else’s.
This is where I decided to place Nicola, at the bottom of the blogging ladder, hoping that her number of Instagram followers might eventually propel her to success.
Instagram itself bears astonishingly similar traits to that of an eating disorder; lies, deception, restriction, food obsession, body checking, comparison. There is little regulation, and so anyone can call himself or herself a food blogger, or nutritionist.
The idea that you might eat something because you’re hungry or because you simply want to is too quaint for Instagram-world. I was used to having a pretty distorted and confused idea about when, why and what I should eat. Now, it seemed, so did everyone else.
Perhaps this is why there is such silence over eating disorders, despite the fact they are affecting rising numbers to people. Maybe we fear them in ourselves. Or in the people on Instagram that we aspire to look like. They disrupt the lie we’ve all allowed ourselves to buy into.
If the thin woman whose body is “goals” actually turns out to be suffering from anorexia… maybe it takes some of the magic away.
Is social media an addiction?
Why would we want to confront the difficult, dirty reality of an eating disorder, when we can live in the trouble-free land of Instagram? An eating disorder isn’t a problem in Instagram, because we can make up our own truths.
I posted a picture on the Nutritiously Nicola Instagram account, of me, as Nicola, in work out gear. Before snapping the pic, sucked in my stomach, leaned against a wall and found some flattering light. I got a couple of positive comments from fitness fanatics, despite being incredibly unhealthy and unfit at the time. It’s as easy as that.
No wonder we are becoming increasingly addicted to Instagram and social media. Yet, like any addiction, the temporary escape from reality it provides is followed afterwards by a thumping dissatisfaction with real life.
It’s not just that our meals are probably vastly less aesthetically pleasing than the average Instagram food pic. It’s the fashionable young business collectives who promote themselves on the platform make your own normal job feel like a monstrous failure. It’s the should-be-easier-to-emulate drinks/brunch/friendship pictures at trendy establishments, which don’t feel so great when you pay the bill.
The truth? Life is mostly normal
In eating disorder therapy, I was once told that to get better, one has to accept that life is mostly really normal. The highs and lows that eating vast quantities and extreme restriction can create makes for a more exciting, if less healthy life.
But it also means that you’re likely to miss the real highs and lows in life, because of the distraction that food creates. I think that exactly the same goes for social media. The number of likes and followers we receive might generate bursts of emotion, but these are a distraction, an avoidance of feeling a real feeling, in real time, in the real world.
It therefore occurred to me that the more perfect an individual’s Instagram posts, the more time and attention put into creating this digital persona, the more chaotic the life behind the pictures was likely to be.
The world is confusing and contradictory, and I think most are living in some sort of chaos. I strongly believe that social media, in particular Instagram, exacerbates the problem, which is why I personally choose to steer clear. But social media is going nowhere.
And so the other choice is to dive right in and try and make it work for you. Which is what Nicola does.
Who is Nicola?
I adore Nicola, I am deeply in love with her, because she is everywoman, yet fully herself. She may slavishly follow trends, yet her own personality shines through so brightly. She may be a hipster, a bit stupid, very unaware, but who would blame her? Everything around her makes no sense. Nicola may have a mental health problem, but it doesn’t define her.
With positivity and perseverance she is just trying to do what the rest of us are trying to do – find some sort of health, happiness and success in this crazy, confusing world that we live in.
It never really occurred to me that I was writing a female led comedy. I just find women incredibly funny. I think it’s a time of great hope for women, but also a time of great expectation. We’re expected to have great careers, bodies, style, clothes, and on and on. And it’s just not possible to do all of it at the same time. Believe me, I’ve tried.
I imagine you might have tried too. Nicola is trying. We’re all desperately avoiding the normality of life, gunning for the consistent highs that Instagram would have us believe are possible. And you might get some, but with that will come the lows. Some parts (or several parts) of the puzzle will go wrong.
I hope she can help you
I hope that the honest place that Nutritiously Nicola comes from can help anyone currently suffering with an eating disorder. Particularly if you don’t feel able to talk about.
I also hope that Nutritiously Nicola makes you laugh and, more importantly, gives you a bit of well-deserved joy.