Jane Sullivan… “The punishments I would give myself were super extreme, I would feel ashamed with myself and things would spiral downwards.” Photo: Belinda Strahorn

Hear the word “anorexia” and most think bone-thin women, scarily skinny models with emaciated frames. But an overlooked group of people are also struggling with anorexia; those who are overweight. BELINDA STRAHORN reports…

JANE Sullivan had it all together in school; a straight-A student with a love for the outdoors and reading books. 

But underneath it all she struggled with a “torturous” negative body image.

“Dad would call me horrible things like fat and piggy,” said Jane, who now lives in Canberra, but grew up in Ballarat. 

“I was a sensitive nine-year-old and that really affected me.”

The 25-year-old human resources worker describes the eating disorder that plagued over a decade of her life as a “sad” and “lonely” time.

“I felt so horrible about myself, I believed that I was ugly and that I didn’t deserve to be happy,” Jane said.

Having always had a larger body, Jane began to restrict the amount of food she ate, from an early age.

“I started refusing meals… I just didn’t eat,” she said.

By the time she started high school Jane developed what’s now known as atypical anorexia, a condition where she met all of the criteria for anorexia nervosa, except for being underweight.

“In the technical definition of anorexia you have to be below a certain body mass index (BMI), I’m not below that threshold, I’m quite a bit above, that’s called atypical anorexia.

Jane Sullivan, aged 9, around the time her eating disorder developed… “Dad would call me horrible things like fat and piggy.”

“I call myself a fat person because that’s an accurate description of what I am.”

Leaving home to study communications at university in Melbourne, Jane’s restrictive eating got worse.

Each day was met with non-negotiable “punishing” exercise and meal avoidance.

“I would work out how much I needed to exercise that day based on how bad I’d been with food,” Jane said.

“It’s not a logical condition so the punishments I would give myself were super extreme. I would feel ashamed with myself and things would spiral downwards.”

What those on the outside couldn’t see was that Jane was in the grips of a serious eating disorder wreaking havoc with her mental health and putting her life at risk.

“My hair fell out, I was sick all the time, wounds wouldn’t heal, it made my depression worse… being hungry for years at a time was not good for me.” 

Beyond the physical risks, the eating disorder was affecting all aspects of her life — relationships with friends, study and social outings.

But Jane said the most torturous part was the incessant internal monologue telling her she wasn’t good enough.

“I felt like I deserved to be unhappy and that I was doing the right thing by becoming a thin person,” Jane said.

“It was a terribly isolating time because I stopped being able to connect with people. Other girls were having boy dramas and I was having this internal battle about how I looked.”

According to the Butterfly Foundation, a charity for Australians impacted by eating disorders and body image issues, one million Australians live with an eating disorder at any given time.

The foundation’s Danni Rowlands, who’s suffered from atypical anorexia herself, said people with atypical anorexia don’t have to be dangerously underweight to have life-threatening symptoms.

“If you were to do a Google search on anorexia you would get a stereotypical image of what that looks like,” Danni said.

“The work we do at Butterfly is educating people that eating disorders can affect any gender, in all body shapes and sizes. It doesn’t just affect adolescent girls, and it can be very life threatening.

“The sad reality is that the majority of people will struggle with an eating disorder their whole life because perhaps they don’t look like they have one.

“Sometimes people who live in a larger body or an average size are the ones that might not engage in treatment because they might feel they aren’t worthy of treatment or a health professional might not consider that that person has an eating disorder.”

Thankfully for Jane, a conversation with her doctor who picked up on the symptoms would help set her on the path to recovery.

Moving back home to live with her mum, Jane’s treatment involved working with her GP, a dietitian and psychologists.  

But it hasn’t been easy. 

“Recovery saved my life but I’m still making up for over a decade of malnutrition,” Jane said.

“I have to inject vitamins into my blood and I have to make an active choice every day to look after myself; but I’m happy. I’m engaged, we own an apartment and I have a job.”

For other people who are experiencing similar challenges, Jane says no one should define their worth by their looks or other people’s opinions of their appearance. 

“Even if I’m really hideous, even if I’m a bridge troll, I don’t deserve the suffering, no one does.”

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