By Maddy Tyers
Like many 8 years olds, I loved dancing, playing dress-ups with my friends and spending my school holidays down at the beach with my family. I was outgoing, creative and adventurous but I also had an incredibly sensitive side. The age of eight was also when I first began to develop an unhealthy relationship with food and toxic behaviours around eating.
After a series of big changes in my life, including shifting to a new school, I found that obsessing over my food intake and weight gave me the sense of control I craved. Soon came the positive comments from friends and family applauding my “healthy” food choices and “disciplined” attitude toward exercise. These casual asides fuelled the voice in my head that would incessantly tell me I was not good enough and that ‘eating less and exercising more’ was that right thing to do.
Living with an eating disorder or anorexia (‘Anna’ – as I like to call her) is like having a second voice living inside your head. The voice of ‘Anna’ is incredibly overbearing, aggressive and loves nothing more than to belittle you every waking moment. As time passes ‘Anna’ grows stronger but so does your dependency on her. Before too long you and ‘Anna’ have morphed into one entity and separating yourself from her is almost impossible. This is why eating disorders are so complex. Many people with an eating disorder do not realise they have a problem, or if they do, they may go to extraordinary lengths to hide them.
It took my family and I many years of heartache, countless hospital visits and endless therapy sessions to find the appropriate road to recovery. What direction would my life have taken had we nipped ‘Anna’ in the bud before she took control?
How When Anna Came to Stay came about
The number of people in Australia with an eating disorder at any given time is estimated to be around 1 million, or approximately 4% of the population (Deloitte Access Economics, 2015). They are manipulative, debilitating and harmful mental illnesses that are becoming more and more prevalent in younger children. Statistics show that eating disorders can affect people of all ages but are increasingly being diagnosed in those aged 5 years and younger (NEDC, 2017). These figures were one of the main drivers behind penning When Anna Came To Stay.
In 2017 I was very fortunate to be invited to participate in a ‘Lived Experience – Story Telling’ workshop run by the Butterfly Foundation. Butterfly were an integral part of my road to recovery so getting the opportunity to work with them to develop my story and share it with other families was very important to me.
When Anna Came To Stay explores the nature and emergence of eating disorders for a younger audience. My protagonist, May, is a carefree girl before she begins heeding the advice of her imaginary friend Anna (anorexia) which turns her world upside down.
Reflecting back on life with Anna
When Anna Came To Stay will give young readers an insight into the complex thoughts and feelings associated with negative body image and poor self-esteem. The Seussian style of language and beautiful imagery (by Brisbane illustrator Siobhan Skipworth) will hopefully open up an honest dialogue between children and their guardians about the importance of talking about their feelings and asking for help when they don’t feel they can cope.
I really hope reading my book, When Anna Came To Stay will give readers a glimpse into the family dynamics involved when a young person experiences an eating disorder and highlight the need for family members to be sensitive and prepared to provide support during the healing process. If nothing else, I hope When Anna Came To Stay will help children and their families understand the importance of valuing themselves as a whole person with unique qualities, talents and strengths and help them celebrate their bodies for what they can do rather than how they look.
Tips for parents supporting a child with negative body image
- Encourage an open dialogue about body image (and its associated thoughts and feelings) with your child and try to be honest about your own feelings – this will encourage them to do the same
- Limit discussion of diets, appearance ideals and speaking negatively about weight (your own or others included)
- Avoid talking about your child’s appearance, even if it’s meant as a compliment
- Explain the role the media plays in our lives and that what we see on TV, magazines and social media isn’t always ‘real’
- Encourage positive language around food (ie no foods should be labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’)
- Promote healthy eating habits by encouraging your child to listen to their body cues and eat when they are hungry
- Be a good role model by eating a balanced diet and doing a healthy amount of exercise
- Encourage them to focus on their passions and foster their talents
- Emphasise that you love them and will always be there for them, no matter what
- Promote self-esteem and build up their confidence – for example, praise them for being thoughtful, a good friend or congratulate them on an achievement at school