Eating Disorders

Angela Scanlon On The Eating Disorder She Kept Hidden: ‘It Chips Away At You’

today9 May 2022

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Like many parents, Angela Scanlon enjoys sharing baths with her two young children. But the family takes things one step further, ditching their clothes and dancing around the bedroom for regular “nudie discos”.

“I love being naked!” the TV presenter and podcast host says with a laugh from the other side of our video call. “And actually, I think it’s really, really important. Florence Welch is on full tilt, Dog Days Are Over, and away we go!”

Scanlon isn’t a naturist, although she did present a documentary about the lifestyle once, and insists it’s “the least sexy thing you’ve ever seen”. But her liberal attitude to nudity stems from a desire to instil body confidence in her two daughters, Ruby, four, and Marnie, three months.

“It’s those little things that I think are joyful in the moment, but also will hopefully allow for Ruby – and Marnie when she gets to that point – to realise her body is something that can be enjoyed. It is not there for consumption, it’s not there to be looked at. It’s actually hers to use and to feel,” she says.

The 38-year-old is particularly passionate about this, because from the age of 17 she struggled with an eating disorder that continued to impact her until her early thirties.

She’s speaking publicly about her experience of anorexia and bulimia for the first time, having decided to write about it in her upcoming book, Joyrider.

In the book, she recalls being “taught” how to make herself sick when she overheard another girl talking about it in the toilets during her final year of school. The idea appealed, she thinks, because her body had suddenly changed from a girl’s to a woman’s and she didn’t know how to process it.

“I had an ankle injury and I stopped dancing and suddenly, I grew breasts and started to feel like my body was not my own anymore,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“The idea of womanhood felt quite terrifying. I think it is so difficult for so many young people – young women, especially – that sense of being out of control, of being thrust into this period in your life that you’re not really prepared for, that you didn’t really ask for.

“I don’t think we’re ever really given the tools or the skills or the language to understand how complex that is, and so we feel very alone.”

Aaron Hurley

For the next 15 years, Scanlon continued to have flare ups of disordered eating, which usually coincided with times of feeling out of control.

But as her career took off – first presenting T In The Park and the Baftas red carpet, and later co-presenting the Robot Wars reboot in 2016 – she replaced her addiction to controlling food with an addiction to work.

“I just literally swapped one for the other,” she says, admitting that it wasn’t necessarily a healthier replacement. Nor did it make her the nicest person; she once sacked an assistant because she said she wouldn’t work on Sundays.

It wasn’t until she paused for maternity leave in 2018 that Scanlon realised her relationship with work was unsustainable. A whole heap of therapy and self-reflection helped her process where her need for control stemmed from. And she now recognises that self-identifying as an “over-achiever” has its problems.

It doesn’t happen overnight, like I kind of imagined it might,” she says of recovery. “It requires a lot more work, which nobody really wants to hear – myself included.”

Thankfully, the physical changes of her pregnancy didn’t cause a relapse in her eating disorder, but Scanlon was “acutely aware” of the possibility.

“I focused on the nutrition side of things rather than anything else and knowing that my responsibility first and foremost was to nourish a baby,” she says. “I was very, very, very careful not to allow myself to slip back into that.”

Despite the movement to destigmitise mental illness in recent years – with a number of celebrities sharing personal stories – Scanlon felt the need to hide this part of her life until now.

“You know, I think I’ve wanted to talk about it for a long time. But then I was so afraid that that would be converting – I’d be defined as that [person] from a career point of view,” she says.

As a “90s girl”, she distinctly remembers the reaction when Geri Horner (nee Halliwell) first spoke about her experience of bulimia. “She wrote about it in her autobiography – about going through a bin in George Michael’s house to get some cake – and it was kind of ridiculed,” Scanlon says.

But today, she feels ready to speak out, in a bid to free herself from the secrecy of her past and, hopefully, to help others. “It was though a part of myself was constantly hidden,” she says. “And I think that kind of chips away at you, actually, without even really being aware of that.”

Despite the seriousness of this topic, Scanlon is jovial during our call. Marnie is asleep, so she’s taken the opportunity to go out for a walk in the sunshine, turning her phone’s camera to show off a tree in full blossom. “Look at that!” she exclaims. “Gorgeous!”

Joyrider is part memoir, part self-help guide, where Scanlon details her journey towards this happier place. She’s quick to admit she’s no expert, but instead describes herself as a “human guinea pig”, who’s tried every self-help hack out there and is willing to lay bare her findings.

It’s not expensive retreats, lotions or potions that transformed her life, but the simple concept of practising gratitude.

She describes the active choice of taking a more grateful path as “joyriding”. For example, you can sit in a traffic jam and stress about being late for work. Or, you can pause to consider that your boss will probably get over it, and this is 15 minutes of stillness to listen to your favourite radio show.

When you take this path, you’re “joyriding”.

Aaron Hurley

Of course, having the emotional capacity to ‘look on the bright side’ takes a huge amount of privilege; it’s simply not possible when you’re facing an acute threat, such as the cost of living crisis or any recent or ongoing trauma.

But there’s enough self-awareness, humour and honesty in the pages of her book to avoid toxic positivity. For Scanlon, entering a new, lighter phase in her life has meant processing the darker times in her past, with the acknowledgement that life will also be a balance of both.

That idea of finding joy, it seemed so out of reach, because I had kind of numbed and tapped out of all of the emotions [of life], because everything felt too much to bear. And I think that’s what an eating disorder – or any sort of addiction – allows you to do. It’s a kind of escape for those big feelings,” she says.

“But you know, my experience has been that in order to really feel the good stuff, or what we call the good stuff, you have to have dug around and allowed yourself to feel those kind of scary, awful feelings. You don’t really get to just experience one without the other.

“There’s something very hopeful about that – to my mind, anyway – that when you’re rooting around and you’re in that area where everything feels a bit hopeless and painful, actually, you can take a bit of comfort in the notion that that’s part of the gig, and that the good shit comes afterwards.”

Joyrider: How gratitude can help you get the life you really want by Angela Scanlon (Vermilion, £16.99) is out May 12.

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