When Great British Bake Off 2019 finalist Steph Blackwell ‘came out’ about her eating disorder at the end of 2019, some may have been surprised. During her time in the Bake Off tent, Steph proved herself to be exceptional, balancing delicate flavours and creating beautifully crafted showstoppers.
As well as possessing a great culinary talent, 28-year-old Steph also happens to have struggled with an eating disorder for over 10 years.
Her story does not just acknowledge the impact mental illness can have on all areas of life, it also sheds light on several important aspects of eating disorders which often go unrecognised, dismissed and even stigmatised.
OSFED: A serious illness
In the past few years, many celebrities have talked publicly about their mental health. Several have been open about their struggles with anorexia and bulimia nervosa, including Demi Lovato, Jamila Jamil and controversial ‘To The Bone’ actress Lily Collins.
— Beat (@beatED) March 8, 2020
However, Steph Blackwell may be the first celebrity to talk specifically about life with Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, commonly known as OSFED. Despite being the most common eating disorder in the UK, OSFED often goes unacknowledged and unrecognised in the media, as well as among friends and family, doctors, and even sufferers themselves.
Similar to the previously used ‘eating disorder not otherwise specified’ (EDNOS), which was taken out of the diagnostic criteria in 2013, a diagnosis of OSFED may be given to an individual whose eating disorder does not fit the fairly specific criteria of anorexia and bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder. These criteria are both physical and mental; Steph’s OSFED diagnosis was not just based on her outward behaviour, but also the fact that she was not preoccupied by a desire to be thin.
Perhaps one of the most important implications of Steph’s story is that it shows how serious the consequences of OSFED can be. As well as having a huge effect on her daily life, mental well-being and university experience, Steph’s eating disorder led to her being diagnosed with osteoporosis – a bone thinning disorder – at the age of 21. This shows that OSFED is by no means a ‘less serious’ version of anorexia or bulimia, as is sometimes presumed.
A less ‘glamourous’ symptom
Another very refreshing aspect of Steph’s story is her honesty about a feature of life with an eating disorder which society – and many sufferers – often struggle to admit to: binge eating.
Eating disorders are often equated with food avoidance, with anorexia nervosa being by far the most represented type in film and media, despite comprising only around 8% of UK eating disorder sufferers*. In March 2019, actress Jeanette McCurdy (remember iCarly?) wrote an insightful and frankly heart-wrenching article about her experience of bulimia and the ‘hierarchy of disordered eating’ she noticed in young Hollywood. In this hierarchy, anorexia sat at that top.
That is not to say that people with anorexia do not face stigma and misunderstanding. In fact, the portrayal of anorexia in films and TV shows such as Skins and To The Bone has arguably created more misleading myths around this disorder than most other mental illnesses. However, as harmful diet fads and ‘pro-anorexia’ attitudes have shown, many of these stereotypes glorify the illness, presenting sufferers as models of self-discipline and control.
Not only are these attitudes highly damaging for individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa, they also undermine the severity of other eating disorders. Throughout society, binge eating is viewed as a lack of self-control and is often looked down upon. This can cause sufferers to hide this aspect of their eating disorder out of embarrassment and a sense of being a ‘fake’, while the media tends to gloss over this complex, less ‘glamorous’ disordered behaviour.
The realities of eating disorders
In reality, binge eating is one of the most common symptoms of eating disorders. Steph Blackwell bravely brought this to light, discussing her periods of binge eating and the compulsive exercise she did in an attempt to compensate. This binge – compensate cycle is very common in OSFED and can be both mentally and physically crippling.
Meanwhile, around 22% of eating disorder sufferers in the UK have binge eating disorder, while 19% have bulimia nervosa, both of which are charactertised by binge eating behaviour. In fact, binge eating episodes are also a common feature of anorexia and of recovery from a restrictive eating disorder. As recovery coach Tabitha Farrar so succinctly puts it: “Binges happen in recovery. It is no big deal.”
Steph Blackwell’s refusal to censure this aspect of her disorder is therefore extremely important in raising awareness, not just of OSFED, but of eating disorder behaviour in general.
Not that her story’s presentation does not fall into any traps. Media coverage of eating disorders can rarely resist a weight loss reference, citing low weights for the shock factor in a way that is usually unnecessary and could easily be triggering to readers with eating disorders. Unfortunately, coverage of Steph’s story has not been exceptional in this respect.
However, Steph’s words are brilliantly challenging to other stereotypes surrounding eating disorders. “Just because I’ve had eating problems doesn’t mean I don’t love, and eat, cake!” she told journalist Eve Simmons. In fact, simply by being a baker Steph shows that the myth that people with eating disorders hate eating or being around food is simply not true. Eating disorders can massively complicate an individual’s relationship with food, but they do not prevent them having taste buds.
Steph Blackwell’s eating disorder story not only raises awareness of OSFED, it also refuses to simply gloss over the (common) eating disorder behaviours that our food restriction-obsessed society is less comfortable with. This is not just important in an abstract sense. There are many whose eating disorders go unrecognised and untreated because public perceptions are so distorted and, in the case of OSFED, awareness is simply not there.
Hopefully, as more stories like Steph’s come out, these individuals will realise that their struggles are real and that they need to seek help.
*All statistics in this article are taken from UK charity Beat’s website. To find out more, access support or donate, visit https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk