We caught up with Abbie Jackson, a 22-year-old actress and writer from the UK, who is striving for change in the way eating disorders are portrayed in the media. She is a member of the National Youth Theatre, and will be going to study acting at Institute for Contemporary Theatre in Brighton in September. Recovery is a short film about the realities of eating disorder recovery in young adults, and is Abbie’s first project as a producer, writer, director and actress.
Content: Please note that this article contains references to eating disorders.
Afternoon Delight: Can you tell us about your journey into acting and what led you to pursue it at university?
Abbie: I started performing when I was about 12 – I just turned to my parents and told them I wanted to be an actress! I have no idea where it came from, I just knew I wanted to perform and create things. I trained in musical theatre for a number of years, but my heart was always with acting. When I did my acting intake course with National Youth Theatre in 2018, I knew that it was what I wanted to pursue as a career. It’s taken me a few years to get to this place and I’m so excited to go to a great drama school and get my degree!
Afternoon Delight: Your film, Recovery, is about a therapy group for young adults in recovery from an eating disorder. Due to the virtual nature of communication during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is set on an online video call. Could you introduce the film for those who haven’t yet seen it, and tell us why you chose to write it?
Abbie: The short film focuses on 4 young adults in an eating disorder therapy group, and is based on my own experiences of therapy and inpatient treatment for anorexia. I wanted it to focus on the recovery aspect of an eating disorder, as opposed to the relapse and struggle we often see portrayed in the media. I wrote this script because I wanted to turn my own experiences into something that might help others, and to give anyone struggling from an eating disorder a more positive, hopeful film to watch (as opposed to the films that are already out there that can be quite triggering and upsetting.)
Afternoon Delight: Recovery is a passion project for yourself, as well as the cast and crew, operating on an almost zero budget. It’s amazing that you’ve been able to produce the film in this way, which really speaks to your commitment to the subject. Could you tell us why it is so important for stories like Recovery to be made? What messages do you hope audiences will take away from watching the film?
Abbie: It felt really important to me to make Recovery to go against the grain of the typical portrayals of eating disorders, particularly anorexia, in film and television. People who are struggling should be able to see truthful, honest messages of hope, not just triggering stories centred around calories and low body weight.
“I hope anyone who watches the film takes away that with the right support, recovery from an eating disorder is possible. Healing isn’t linear, there will absolutely be ups and downs, but it is possible to get better and thrive. I also hope that it gives people who have no experience of eating disorders some knowledge on the subject, and an understanding of what people with eating disorders go through.”– Abbie Jackson
Afternoon Delight: The film came about from your own experience of being in inpatient wards for anorexia, which must have been incredibly difficult. It’s really empowering and inspiring that you’ve taken your personal journey and turned it into a means to spread awareness. If you feel comfortable to, could you tell us about your experience and why it stimulated you to strive to show the realities of recovery?
Abbie: Of course! I’m very open about my own history with anorexia, and I always have been. It was a big part of my life and although being unwell was awful, I wouldn’t change it, as it’s made me who I am today. And this film wouldn’t exist without it!
The experience that inspired this project was when I was struggling with anorexia in my late teens. I spiralled out of control very quickly, and was admitted to an eating disorder unit when I was 17 for 3 months. Whilst I was there, I met lots of other people who were also having treatment for anorexia. The friendships I made during that time were really special, and I’m still in touch with people now. The script was very inspired by conversations that we had whilst in hospital, and in the years beyond that.
Afternoon Delight: Was it difficult to act with a script that was so personal to you?
Abbie: Not really! I think because I purposely didn’t want the script to be too dark or upsetting, I haven’t found it too hard to act in it, apart from maybe one specific moment which is more serious. I think it also helps that my character, Hannah, is the bubbly and fun one! She’s very fun to play.
Afternoon Delight: Your personal goal with filmmaking is to tackle the industry’s representation of eating disorders and recovery, through film. Did you ever find, whilst growing up, that consuming media and popular culture had a negative effect on your body image?
Abbie: I think that although my anorexia was not caused by the media and pop culture, it does definitely have an effect on body image in general. I know that I found websites such as Tumblr had a negative effect on my body image at a young age! I also think that the things that we are told are the beauty standard and are “desirable”, such as being thin, has a huge effect on how we perceive our bodies. Fatphobia is so rife in the media – we are told being fat is unhealthy, bad, disgusting – all of which is not true, and this means a lot of us have internalised fatphobia. I wish things would change and we could celebrate all body types equally.
Afternoon Delight: The landscape of knowledge consumption has become culturally-influenced in the digital age; discourse written into the scripts of fictional film and television is a relatable and affecting way to acquire information. Netflix’s Insatiable received criticism for its portrayal of binge eating disorder (BED) that played to harmful stigma, with calls for it to be cancelled before it even went on air. (The show went on to have two seasons). BED is one of the most common types of eating disorder, yet society’s stigma towards overeating, perpetuated through shows like Insatiable, has conditioned the public’s lack of understanding of its seriousness as a mental illness. When these forms of culture fail to use their platforms sensitively, it can be damaging to the (often younger) audience, many of whom will be struggling with the themes portrayed on screen. Do you think the industry should be held to account for generating projects that reiterate misunderstanding instead of spreading awareness?
Abbie: Absolutely. More often than not, projects that are about eating disorders often end up being more triggering and increasing the stigma, instead of being helpful and raising awareness. I think one of the ways to help fix this is to have people with lived experience of eating disorders being involved in the project every step of the way. From the very first script all the way to the release of the project! And the same for having an eating disorder specialist involved if possible. I also think holding focus groups with people who are affected by eating disorders, including families, partners, doctors, would really help.
Afternoon Delight: Insatiable sits in contrast to Netflix’s To The Bone, a film that presented a more positively-received portrayal of treatment. The lead actresses of both dramas, Debby Ryan (Insatiable) and Lily Collins (To The Bone), have both talked openly of their personal experience of eating disorders. Lily shared that she was complimented for the thinness of her appearance in preparation for the film. Such comments, she says, are why the problem exists. As an actress, do you feel more self-conscious in the spotlight?
Abbie: I definitely do, and I’m not even really in the spotlight! Especially with my experience of musical theatre training, I found it so hard to not compare myself to everyone else when we were all standing in tiny leotards in front of full-length mirrors day after day. I have found that acting training, in comparison to musical theatre training, feels like a much safer space. But appearance is still very much focused on in acting, and it’s easy to feel self-conscious. Watching myself back on film is something I often find difficult!
Afternoon Delight: In a society that glorifies thinness and smaller bodies, negative and often dangerous standards for body image are created. As model Tess Holliday recently shared about her own struggle on Twitter, eating disorders can affect individuals of all body types and sizes, and are fuelled by society’s insistence of equating appearance with self-worth and the (over) representation of ‘thin’ body types in the media. How do you go about managing the expectations of society regarding body image when you have an eating disorder?
Abbie: It’s very hard to do when the stereotypical view of a person with an eating disorder is someone being deathly underweight. In the start of my recovery, I hated anyone seeing my body, and worried that people would think I was suddenly “fixed” because I was no longer underweight. An eating disorder can very easily become something you feel defined by, and to me, that felt like needing to “prove” that I was skinny and still unwell. The truth is, anyone can have an eating disorder at any weight.
For me now, I try to avoid looking at my body for too long so that I don’t start to over-analyse how I look. I also follow people on social media with a range of different body types, and really admire people who are strongly against the societal obsession with weight loss (amongst other things such as the policing of women’s body hair and periods), like @em_clarkson on Instagram. (She also has cute dogs!)
Afternoon Delight: This week (at the time of writing) is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, which seeks to encourage conversations about mental health. The deep emotional and psychiatric effects of eating disorders are important to recognise in order to understand the full extent of the mental toll effected. Do you have anything you’d like to share about your own experiences with your mental health to someone reading this who may be struggling with an eating disorder or body confidence?
Abbie: I’d love to be able to share some magic cure, or something I did that completely eradicated my eating disorder, but that thing does not exist! What I can say is – you deserve to get help. You are “sick enough”. Your body is the only body you get, and you deserve to take care of it. Getting help is very difficult and I wish it wasn’t, but there are some brilliant charities that you can reach out to, like Beat and SEED.
Afternoon Delight: Let’s talk about the pandemic. The charity Beat reported that some areas of the UK have seen a quadrupling in the number of individuals needing access to eating disorder treatment during the pandemic, which is a shocking statistic and side-effect to ongoing lockdowns. Has the Covid-19 situation affected your own recovery and mental health?
Abbie: The pandemic definitely had an impact on my mental health, as I also suffer from anxiety and low mood. I felt hopeless and lonely at times, and turning to my eating disorder often seemed like a “solution” for the lack of control I felt. Luckily, I have brilliant friends and family around me, and have been doing well in my recovery still! There are always highs and lows, but I am in a good enough place that I am able to get back on track if I’m struggling.
Afternoon Delight: Looking ahead to the future and your time to university, do you have any projects in the works or things you’re most looking forward to as lockdown restrictions in the UK continue to ease?
Abbie: I’d love to do another project with the same cast and characters of Recovery, but in person! I was telling another cast member (Nichole Cook, who plays Gemma) that it would be a dream to have the four main characters go on some sort of therapy field trip – we had a few of those when I was inpatient, and they were always entertaining! In general, I’m just excited to be moving to Brighton and being able to have some more normality back. I also hope I get the vaccine soon! Most of my family are vaccinated and I’m not, so I feel left out!
Interview by Afternoon Delight Zine
If you, or anyone you know, are struggling with an eating disorder, help is available now.
Beat is the UK’s eating disorder charity. Click here to visit their helpline page, with numbers to call and link to a one-to-one web chat.
SEED is a voluntary organisation in the UK that provides sufferers and carers alike with advice and support to facilitate recovery. Click here to access their support services.