'For years I had a severe eating disorder. But I never, ever looked sick.'

Content warning: This story includes descriptions of disordered eating that may be distressing to some readers.

Close your eyes for a moment and picture someone suffering, in the grips of an eating disorder.

Imagine them struggling to eat a full meal, being tormented by obsessive thoughts surrounding weight and calories, and pushing their fragile body past its limits.

Now take a second to reflect on the image that popped into your head during that description.

It’s likely that the image you conjured was that of a visibly emaciated, young woman. And that’s perfectly natural considering it’s the prevailing archetype we’ve seen depicted on screen and in media for decades. 

But, it’s not an accurate one.

In fact, it serves as an example of how less than six per cent of eating disorder sufferers appear. And it’s a big part of why, for almost 10 years, I didn’t see myself as one of them.

Watch: How to be a woman in 2023. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

In my early twenties, I was doing the usual post-uni thing. I was working multiple jobs, trying to build a career, and burning the candle at both ends, foolishly certain, like many of us are at that age, that I was invincible. 


I didn’t realise it at the time, but the job that was taking up the majority of my precious brain power was the job of staying thin.

Each day, I would focus on “burning off” at least the number of calories that I was restricted to eating. I left the house embarrassed, feeling as if people driving past on the street were seeing my imperfect body and judging me from their cars. I was terrified of certain social settings because I didn’t know if I would have control over what I got to eat, and I’d avoid reflective surfaces so as not to set off an obsessive thought spiral. I was tired, my brain often felt foggy, and I experienced a kind of roaming anxiety that would latch itself onto, well, whatever really, never staying on one thing long enough for me to pin it down. 

And yet it would be another decade before I would be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa

It came as a complete shock when it finally did come. I knew I had ‘issues with food’ and I wanted to work on them, so I had researched the best psychologist for issues around body image and disordered eating, and in our first session, I laid out everything I’d been thinking and doing in a bid to control my weight.

She immediately concluded that I had an eating disorder - anorexia nervosa was the official diagnosis.  

I have a complex medical history, with two autoimmune diseases, so I was no stranger to a doctor’s waiting room by that stage. Which is why, in our next session, I asked my psychologist why, after all the doctors and specialists I’d seen over so many years, had no one ever thought to check if I showed signs of an eating disorder. “I mustn’t be that sick”, I told her. “Look at me, I’m in the ‘healthy weight range’ I can’t be that bad, surely”. 


But it was.  

Because, despite what it has led us to believe, eating disorders don’t have a ‘typical’ body type. They don’t discriminate, and more often than not, they don’t cause the sufferer to appear emaciated or register as ‘underweight’ on the ‘BMI’ scale. To the average observer, I appeared to have a ‘healthy, normal body’ whatever that means, and so I continued to suffer with no one in the medical industry questioning it.

It's significantly worse for those in bigger bodies than mine. And that’s the overwhelming majority of us. Eating disorders are actually most prevalent in high weight individuals, with only six per cent of sufferers being medically diagnosed as ‘underweight’.

The harm caused by the popular belief that people with eating disorder must look a certain way needs to be taken seriously.

Eating disorders remain amongst the deadliest of the mental health disorders in Australia, and they’re still on the rise in Australia.

Like Hannah, tennis professional Jelena Dokic experienced disordered eating too. On this episode of The Quicky, we find out why women aren't taken seriously unless they fit a certain look. Post continues after podcast.

And yet, it’s still common practise in many countries including parts of our own, to dismiss patients suffering from clear and diagnosable eating disorder symptoms because they don’t register as “underweight” on the BMI. This is made all the more complicated by the fact that the BMI is an ill-equipped and incredibly incomplete tool for determining anything useful about a person’s health. In fact, doctors have actually advised some patients to continue with diagnosable eating disorder behaviours in the misguided hope that it will lead to weight loss, and subsequently a lower score on the BMI.


We cannot simply accept that behaviours that would lead to an instant diagnosis of a serious and deadly mental illness in very thin individuals, are being medically endorsed to higher weight individuals as a means to ‘improve their health’.

This deeply ingrained misunderstanding of how eating disorders present, along with the media’s narrow representation of those suffering from them, have helped to shape our collective decisions over who gets help and who doesn’t. 

So the next time you picture someone with an eating disorder, I want you to imagine a line-up of diverse body sizes, ethnicities and genders identities.

I’m lucky enough now to be three years into stable recovery with ample support from the medical profession. But it shouldn’t have taken so long for me to get help.

Because the incomplete image we collectively hold is doing tangible harm to the majority of eating disorder sufferers, and it helped to keep mine a secret from me for nearly a decade.

 This needs to change. 

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation’s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673).

If you think you may experience depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. 

Feature Image: Instagram @han.vee.