Why I wrote a comedy about my eating disorder

A look at how Nutritiously Nicola, Natalie Bray's semi-autobiographical webseries, helped her cope with an eating disorder

, 1 August 2017

CN: Discussion of eating disorders, restrictive diets and food.

Nutritiously Nicola is the story of a young woman with an eating disorder. I first created the character when my own eating disorder was returning with a vengeance, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Nicola ended up with one too (sorry, Nicola). But as anyone who knows about eating disorders will attest, the illness has a way of setting up camp in your brain and pretty much dictating your every thought and movement. It would have been almost 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. 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 larder, or fridge. Its 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. By the time I started on the web series, it was probably glaringly 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). As a result, it became harder and harder to keep up my well-constructed pretences. I decided to come clean.

I’m really glad that I did, because here’s the thing: I’ve written a comedy about an eating disorder.

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, wearing baggy clothes and staring tearfully into mirrors. The problem is that this romanticised depiction is exactly the imagery eating disorders feed on. We desperately need to abandon this image, because not only can it be a seductive draw to young people with a penchant for the dramatic (hi), 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.

Courgetti is literally just a plate of courgette. If you ate a plate of just courgette for your dinner, normally people would be worried

Eating disorders are shape-shifters. Were they aliens in Doctor Who, every time you thought they’d been obliterated, you know for sure that they would come back, living inside the chest of some unsuspecting human. 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, as the ‘big names’ of the movement, such as Deliciously Ella, Madeleine Shaw and Hemsley + Hemsley, were spiralising 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 realised something that seems incredibly obvious: courgetti is literally just a plate of courgette. If you ate a plate of just chopped courgette 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 courgette really was all I would eat for dinner and I was very ill. Yet this same meal was being 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 behaviour, simply by re-branding it. They were making so much money out of it, I kind of wish I’d thought of it myself.

The ‘clean eating’ phenomenon was a godsend for people with eating disorders. It’s a way of hiding in plain sight – the veneer of ‘health’ disguising and enabling 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 painting them as avocadoeating villainesses.

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. I couldn’t help but think that some of these women (and they pretty much are all women) might be quite sick. Certainly they were exhibiting signs of a complicated relationship with food.

I also 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-hour jobs, I could see the appeal of preaching quack science for a healthy paycheque.

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 cookery programme. 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 on a national scale. Inspired by this, I concluded Nicola’s meeting with the producers inviting her back for a second interview, despite having zero cookery talent and no nutritional sense, based purely on the fact she has 1.2 million Instagram followers.

I felt that the clean eating trend would surely die a death now that people were starting to see it for what it was, and that Nicola would probably die along with it. Yet despite the backlash, criticism seemed to do little to abate the movement. If anything, it became more and more popular. Maybe the criticism came too late, because by the time it came, the bloggers’ book deals had afforded them some media training. Most simply distanced themselves from the term ‘clean eating’ (except for poor Clean Eating Alice. She kind of couldn’t) and carried on more or less as they had before.

Instagram itself bears astonishingly similar traits to that of an eating disorder: lies, deception, restriction, food obsession…

New clean eating cookbooks are published at an astonishing rate and continue to sell well. The BBC Good Food website now has a section on clean eating. High street coffee and restaurant chains offer ‘raw’, ‘superfood’ and ‘free-from’ options. ‘Clean eating’ has become the dangerous new definition of ‘healthy’. It has become entirely normalised. Despite the voices of dissent and a lurking awareness in the back of our heads that it is all a sham, there is a louder voice which bellows: “but you should probably eat like this anyway”. So more and more of us do, so more and more food bloggers appear.

Which brings me to the present: my web series. As the original clean eating bloggers have gone mainstream, this has spawned a legion of copycats, jostling for space on the feeds of Instagram, hoping that their breakfast picture will look more appetising 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 and comparison. There is little regulation, and so anyone can call themselves a food blogger or nutritionist. Heavily styled pictures of food are rife, but I can’t help wondering if half of the bloggers actually eat the food they are posting pictures of. Slender bodies I suspect might be the work of starvation are claimed to be the work of exercise or veganism or some combination of the two. Scantily-clad bikini and gym pictures are seemingly compulsory, as are ‘transformation’ photos, charting an individual’s journey, or ‘progress’ to a ‘better’ body and, they would have you believe, a better life. It’s all pretty weird, and felt to me a bit like an eating disorder incubator. But it’s mightily addictive.

It’s also pretty confusing. Scrolling through an Instagram feed, super-healthy, colourful smoothie bowls feature heavily, as do workout ‘motivation’ videos and yoga pictures. Yet alongside these sit pictures of ‘food porn’, ‘dirty’ burgers, ‘freak’ shakes, ‘bottomless’ brunches, visits to cereal cafes and non-gym honed individuals preaching ‘body positivity’. Many bloggers seem to swing between the two extremes, citing ‘cheat days’ or ‘balance’ as justification (and having to caption a photo only encourages this need to justify) for their diet discrepancies.

I was also noticing this need to justify eating in real life. In London, food gimmicks such as mono food restaurants used novelty as a reason to encourage indulgence. Simultaneously, healthy food outlets refer to their food as ‘fuel’ – creating the impression that food is permitted for the sole purpose of getting you through a workout. The idea that you might eat something because you’re hungry or because you simply want to is too quaint for the 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 an increasing number of people. Maybe we fear them in ourselves, or 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 who is ‘body goals’ actually turns out to be anorexic, maybe that takes some of the magic away. 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 there because we can make up our own truths. I posted a picture on the Nutritiously Nicola Instagram account, of me, as Nicola, in workout gear. I 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.

The number of likes and followers we receive might generate bursts of emotion, but these are a distraction

No wonder we are becoming increasingly addicted to social media. Yet, like any addiction, the temporary escape from reality it provides is followed afterwards by a crushing dissatisfaction with real life. It’s not just that our meals are vastly less aesthetically pleasing than the average Instagram food pic. It’s the fashionable young business collectives who promote themselves on the platform, making 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.

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 believe that many people are living in some sort of chaos. I strongly believe that social media, in particular Insatgram, exacerbates the problem, which is why I personally choose to steer clear. But social media is going nowhere. So the alternative is to dive right in and try and make it work for you. Which is what Nicola does.

I adore Nicola. I am deeply in love with her because she is everywoman, yet fully herself. She may slavishly follow trends, yet she cocks them up because her own personality shines through so brightly. She may be a hipster, she may be a bit foolish, she may be very unaware, but everything around her makes no sense. She 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 confusing world that we live in.

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, great exercise regimes, great bodies, great style, great clothes, great flats, great things, great friendships, great relationships, lifestyles and great food. 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. You might get some highs, but with that will come the lows. Some parts (or several parts) of the puzzle will go wrong.

I hope that the honest place that Nutritiously Nicola comes from can help those currently feeling like some part of their life is going wrong. Particularly if that part of their life, like Nicola’s eating disorder, is a thing that they don’t feel able to talk about yet. I also hope that Nutritiously Nicola makes you laugh and, more importantly, gives you a bit of well-deserved time off from trying to perfect your latest Instagram post.

You can support the Nutritiously Nicola Kickstarter now.

Image credit: Taken from the Nutritiously Nicola Facebook page.
Image description: A white woman with long, wavy brown hair is holding an avocado in each hand and smiling excitedly. She is wearing a grey jumper that says ‘Vegetables’ on it. It is Nutritiously Nicola and the image is a parody of popular wellness bloggers.

Natalie is a comedy writer, actress and producer who is currently recovering from an eating disorder. She lives in east London.

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