Installment two of P.O.H.’s new ‘in conversation with’ series (previous guest: Clementine Morrigan on social justice), and I’m joined by the amazing Hope Virgo, her name ‘Hope’ perfectly encompassing everything she stands for:
hope for the future,
hope for a society in which we are both more educated in and more compassionate towards the complexity of eating disorders.
Hope is an author and multi-award-winning mental health campaigner / public speaker advocating for people with eating disorders.
Virgo’s work first rose to prominence in 2018 when she started an eating disorders campaign called ‘Dump the Scales‘, calling on the government to review the eating disorder guidance being delivered by clinicians. The campaign’s goal was to ensure that everyone who needed treatment for eating disorders (/needs because, unfortunately, it is still a problem, which is why Hope continues to campaign today) could (/can) access treatment, no matter what the number on the scale reads.
Believing that full recovery from an eating disorder is possible but that the current system isn’t set up to help people get to that point, Hope emphasises the importance of early intervention.
Hope, now 33 and an ‘expert by experience’, (Hope talks, writes, and campaigns about eating disorders from a place of personal struggle- the quote ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ personified!) says her descent into anorexia began when she was just 13 years old.
After several years of hiding the extent of her illness, at the age of 16, Hope was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, and a year later, aged 17, she was admitted to Riverside Adolescent Unit, a mental health inpatient hospital in her hometown of Bristol.
Here is our conversation. ❤️
When you were first admitted to hospital at the age of 17, what was going through your mind? Did you want to recover?
This is very similar to my experience. It wasn’t until I was 3 months into my admission that I finally came to realise that I had an illness and that I did need to recover. Prior to that, I had so much shame surrounding my diagnosis, so much so that I couldn’t even bring myself to say the word ‘Anorexia.’ When I reflect back and ask myself why I was adamant for so long that I didn’t have an eating disorder, I realise that it’s all rooted in the stereotypes that I was seeing at the time, and that I’d grown up seeing in the media- that of a middle-class, teenage white girl, with all her ‘issues’ rooted in vanity. Obviously, I now realise that this is completely inaccurate and incredibly harmful. Eating disorders are not about vanity. They are about clinging on to a sense of control in a world that otherwise feels very much out of control. But I felt shame at the thought of being associated with that incredibly narrow-minded stereotype.
The assumption that everyone with an eating disorder is visibly emaciated is a very harmful one and one that is, unfortunately, still upheld by lots of people, perhaps most scarily, by medical professionals. I personally know of people who have been turned away from treatment for not meeting the criteria needed to access treatment, i.e., for not being ‘thin enough.’ In basing eligibility for treatment on one’s weight, though, we overlook a key point- the whole point- that eating disorders are mental illnesses. The physical emaciation we see in some cases (but not all) is merely a symptom of an eating disorder; it is not the illness itself.
What stereotypes surrounding anorexia had an impact on your recovery journey?
I have to say that I see a lot of parallels between your story and mine. I read in this Telegraph article that you did your A-levels in hospital and were discharged just in time to go to university. I was in the exact same position, doing my A-levels in the ‘school room’ in hospital, applying for university, and going to university the same year I was discharged from hospital. And so, having struggled for much of my adolescence, now, as a 22-year-old, in many ways I feel ‘behind’/I feel very disconnected and ‘other’ from people my own age. Is this something that you experienced? Did it impact your education, for example? Your ability to make friends?
When I came out of hospital, I felt like my whole identity had been stripped away. My whole life was focused on ‘healthy’ eating and running for what felt like forever so to come out and not be doing that anymore was a massive change. It took a long time for me to ‘find myself’ again, and I’d say it’s only been in the past year that I’ve felt like I finally have some grasp on who I am.
Did you experience something similar in terms of needing to rediscover who you were outside of anorexia? How did you come to ‘find yourself’ again during this process?
What prompted you to leave your day job to become a full-time campaigner?
How do you keep yourself mentally well in a job that, I presume, can be, at times, quite draining?
Having had your first child fairly recently, how did you find the process of seeing your body change in pregnancy?
I find the concept of believing in something bigger than oneself, particularly in the context of recovery from mental illness, extremely interesting. For me, I had no faith prior to my recovery. In a way, anorexia was my belief system. Instead of submitting to a god or a spirit as a higher power, I submitted to the rules anorexia imposed on me. Calories, step counts, and macros became my higher-power.
But now, spirituality- my belief that our bodies are just a vessel for our soul- is, I’d have to say, probably the biggest protective factor in my staying well. While I still have lots of hang-ups around body image, I still feel uncomfortable with the way my body looks and feels- my belief that we are so much more than our earthly bodies is massively cathartic, and it helps me to rationalise what can only be described as wholly irrational, ego-driven thoughts. It helps me to recognise that our bodies are the least interesting thing about us. What really matters is who we are- what we believe in, our ethics and values, the people we love- and the ways we contribute to a better world, none of which have anything to do with our appearance.
Having followed you for a while, I understand that you have quite a strong faith in Christianity.
When you were in the depths of anorexia, was your faith in a ‘higher power’ still strong, or did you feel that it wavered at all?
For me, alongside my belief in the existence of a higher power, the biggest factor that keeps me well is having a sense of purpose. When I feel like my life is at a crossroads or that I’m unsure of my purpose, I notice that my mental health very quickly goes into decline, and I very quickly find myself feeling more insecure about my body image.
Do you think that finding a sense of purpose in advocating for a greater understanding of eating disorders has helped you to stay well? How did you find that purpose, and do you have any recommendations for people who might be struggling with their own, maybe feeling like they don’t have a purpose?
Looking ahead, what can we expect to see from you? More advocating? More books?
A final question: If you could go back and say one thing to your younger self, aged 12, just before she was diagnosed with anorexia, what would it be?
Thank you, Hope!
To keep up to date with Hope’s work, you can follow her on social media.
To show your support for Hope’s mission and for people living with eating disorders, sign the #dumpthescales petition here: https://www.change.org/p/eating-disorders-are-not-just-about-weight-dumpthescales.
Check out her books! https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hope-Virgo/e/B01NBIRW4V%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share
(Her latest book is available for preorder now: https://spckpublishing.co.uk/is-real-freedom-possible)!