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Danae Mercer: 'Recovering From Anorexia Taught me The Power of Self-Love'

As told to Mini Smith
·7-min read

*Trigger warning: anorexia and eating disorders*

Her empowering message – normalising everything from cellulite to stretch marks – has earned Danae Mercer over two million followers on Instagram. But it’s been quite a journey to get to where she is today.

Here, the journalist and former Women's Health and Men's Health Editor-In-Chief, 34, shares her story of eating disorder recovery and her mission to help other women feel better in their own skin.

I was 13 when I went on my first diet. Having just moved across the US to Nebraska from Nevada, my life felt unfamiliar – a feeling compounded by puberty. I’d always been very aware of my body, but now I was embarrassed by the hips, bum and boobs that were new to me.

If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s relationship with food, contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, on 0808 801 0677 or go to beateatingdisorders.org.uk

I tried everything to feel smaller – the Atkins diet, South Beach, SlimFast – as I dieted on and off throughout high school. The discomfort ballooned into a full-blown eating disorder in summer 2006, before my second year at university, following the death of my mum from aspergillosis [a condition affecting the lungs caused by inhaling a type of mould].

She’d raised me and my siblings on her own (with a few different stepdads over the years) and, without her, it felt as though my world had fallen apart. The grief was compounded by my university workload intensifying and the fact that I hadn’t told my professors what had happened. In struggling to manage everything, I sought control in food – or lack of it – and developed symptoms of anorexia.

More and more foods began to disgust me until there were only a few I deemed ‘safe’. I lost a lot of weight very quickly, to the point where my hair was falling out in clumps, my whole body hurt and I was perpetually cold – at one point, I was wearing three jumpers and a jacket and still shivering.

It’s hard to express how isolating it was: the huge taboo around eating disorders made me feel secretive and ashamed, so I started to withdraw from my friends, and then the loneliness would lead to me restricting once more.

With no family to go home to for Christmas, I spent the break on campus working on the front desk of a halls of residence. I would sit there for hours by myself, scrolling through ‘pro-ana’ [pro-anorexia] blogs on Tumblr. The anorexia distracted me from my grief, leaving me numb; merely existing.

It all changed as the new term began in January, when I had a meeting with some professors about a scholarship for funds and mentoring that I’d been awarded the previous year. Their faces showed me just how ill I’d become; it dawned on me that if I didn’t get better, I might have to give up that life-changing scholarship because of my disorder.

The thought horrified me and when, after that meeting, two professors pulled me aside to ask if I was struggling with food, I opened up. The university paid for me to see a doctor, a nutritionist and a psychologist at least once a week for a year. It’s a level of pastoral care I know is all too rare in universities now and I remain extremely grateful for having been in receipt of it.

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I fought the help at first, though. The nutritionist would help me plan my meals, but I struggled to eat as much as she’d prescribed. With the help of a counsellor, I was able to detach the illness from my identity, by understanding how I’d used it as a crutch while grieving.

I began to gain weight a few months into the process. Seeing my body get bigger was painful, causing the old, disordered thoughts to grow louder. But, by this stage, I’d accepted this was what had to happen.

After graduating in 2009, I moved to the UK for a two-year scholarship at the University of Cambridge – something the initial scholarship had helped me achieve. Despite worries that a new set of challenges could trigger a relapse, the experience solidified my recovery. I joined the pentathlon team and it really helped to be around people who viewed their bodies as tools of great power, which they needed to honour by fuelling well.

This was the mindset I brought years later to my job as Editor-In-Chief of Women’s Health and Men’s Health Middle East, a post I held for a year. I’d learned that health is the ultimate form of self-compassion, and that loving myself means fuelling my body in a way that makes me feel good.

Ever since I started speaking out on social media about body image in April 2019, my goal has been to pull back the curtain on all the filters and flattering poses in the hope that it might help women – especially teenage girls – feel a little more comfortable in their own skin.

I know that social media posts can’t stop someone developing an eating disorder, but they can help shape their understanding of what’s beautiful, celebrated – and normal. And if I can play even a small part in helping someone avoid going through what I did, then I’ll be satisfied.

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As for me? I’m now incredibly comfortable both in my own skin and with food. But I still think of myself as someone in recovery, who has to make conscious choices to maintain the positive body image I’ve fought hard to develop – so I make time for meditation, journalling and long walks. If you’re struggling right now, know that – even from the darkest depths – you can, and will, get better.

Anorexia: The expert Q&A

Dr Natasha Bijlani is a consultant psychiatrist working in the treatment of eating disorders at the Priory Hospital Roehampton in London

What is anorexia and how can you spot the signs?

Anorexia nervosa is a severe psychiatric disorder that leads to considerable ill health and has the highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders. It’s an eating disorder characterised by deliberate weight loss that’s initiated and/or sustained by the patient.

Emotional and behavioural symptoms include attempts to lose weight and often an unnatural preoccupation with food. Patients frequently skip meals or refuse to eat. They may deny their hunger, make excuses for not eating or eat only a few certain ‘safe’ (usually low-calorie) foods. Those affected may become irritable, socially withdrawn and seem lacking in emotion, or develop depressed mood and lose interest in sex.

What causes anorexia?

There’s not thought to be any specific or definite ‘cause’ and, like most conditions, anorexia is often the result of multiple influences such as environment and genetics. High-risk factors for developing eating disorders include sociocultural influences (particularly peer pressure and Western cultural pressures for thinness), as well as some personality factors, like neuroticism and perfectionism.

In some cases, emotional stress from circumstances such as bereavement or pressures at school or work can also increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.

How can those vulnerable to disordered eating use social media safely?

Social media is rarely the sole cause of an eating disorder, but it can play a significant role for those susceptible to disordered eating. Frequent exposure to images that portray unrealistic ideals of beauty (as they are often altered) is known to harm your sense of self. If you feel vulnerable, delete your apps and try taking a break for a while. Wherever you’re at, be mindful of who you engage with and don’t be afraid to unfollow accounts that you feel are having a negative influence on you.

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