This week's interview is with the fantastic Cathi Rae. Cathi Rae is a poet, spoken word artist and accidental academic. She is a campaigner, challenging ageism and the invisibility of ordinary ageing bodies in fashion. Today, she's talking to us about her lived experiences with disordered eating, the toxicity of social media, and ageism in fashion.
Please note: trigger warning of disordered eating. Be mindful of what you do and do not need to read today.
1) Hey Cathi, how are you?
Tired/bit achy/sleep deprived (same old really).
2) How are you really?
Actually beyond the physical stuff – good – lots of creative projects bubbling under.
3) We’re going to be discussing disordered eating in this interview, including your own experiences, how do you feel about talking publicly about something so personal today?
A few years ago I would have said anxious – but as I often talk about this to a couple of thousand people on Instagram – it’s got easier.
4) You’ve experienced decades of disordered eating; can you outline these experiences and how disordered eating has affected your life?
I started dieting at age 13, this was the 1970's, there was no easily available plus sizes, no body positivity, the mainstream fashion shops (the ones teenagers want to shop in) went up to a 1970's size 14. Everyone at my school – girls’ public school – dieted, absolutely the norm. I have probably been aware of food ever since, even not restricting is a conscious decision for me. I’ve had about 4 episodes of serious weight loss in my adult life, but also periods when I was significantly overweight, up to around 15 stone, due to binge eating. I’ve used prescription drugs (basically legal speed) and illegal drugs to control my weight with all the issues that causes. For years I could tell you exactly what I’d eaten in any one week. I have avoided eating in public or with people I’m not extremely close to. At any time when I feel as if life is in any way out of control, it’s my default setting to restrict food and over exercise.
5) Are you able to pinpoint when your disordered eating started and why?
Absolutely. We went to get my new school uniform skirt for school and I couldn’t fit into any in the shop. I was 12 going on 13.
6) How consuming is it to have an eating disorder?
At its worst it’s completely time consuming- the daily weighing, the logging of everything you eat, the obsessive food and meal planning, daily gym visits or running, usually both.
7) During your hardest times over the years of disordered eating, were you aware that you were unwell and needed help?
My last really bad time, when my weight dipped to just under 7 stone (I’m 5’7), I collapsed a couple of times at work and was signed off work for, in the end, a few months. My GP did refer me to an eating disorder service. When I went to see them they said that because I knew I was thin I wasn’t actually ill. I only recovered to an extent as I needed to return to work (I had a child and no partner – so my income was vital).
8) Have people ever said things to you with regards to eating where they think they are being supportive but really what they’ve said is counter-productive?
I’ve belonged to 3 worlds that actively encourage extremely low weight and where being very lean with low body fat ratio is seen as very desirable.
My low-level work in modelling meant that my thinness was very encouraged.
As a distance runner (eating disorders are very common in runners) carrying less weight makes you a faster runner, so having a super lean body is what people aspire to.
I also owned and competed horses at dressage, another world where thinness is seen as part of the package. White jodhpurs are not forgiving garments.
9) Is there anything anyone else can do to really be supportive of someone when they’re struggling with an eating disorder?
I think it depends what your own experiences have been. If it’s outside your own lived experience it can be baffling and frustrating. All the obvious stuff – not commenting on weight loss or gain in anyone, not talking about your own weight, supporting small steps, if a friend can’t eat joining them for coffee, suggesting activities not linked to exercise. I think there is a point where calling it out/using terms like disordered eating may feel horrible but may save someone’s life. The being there even if we find behaviour really difficult; not giving up on people.
More widely, we need to call out diet culture when and where we see it, challenging sizeism assumptions in other people and ourselves.
10) Do you think there are any misconceptions around eating disorders?
Many. You genuinely can’t tell if someone has disordered eating. It’s not all about extreme thinness or overweight. It’s not just an issue that effects young women. It’s rarely really about food, food is the strategy to manage other things. Generally our culture so rewards thinness in women that I know hardly any women who have a totally healthy attitude to food and bodies.
11) Do you have any coping mechanisms you’ve learnt over the years to help you to avoid disordered eating habits?
I never weigh myself and haven’t done so for over 5 years now.
I have friends who hold me accountable if they see me falling into bad practises.
Owning clothes in a range of sizes.
Reminding myself often that I’m more than numbers.
Actually, doing the Instagram thing means that I can’t lose significant weight as that would make a mockery of what I do there.
12) You’re an advocate for body positivity and a campaigner against ageism in fashion, and you use your social media to raise awareness around these subjects. How do you feel towards social media and the effect it has on people with regards to issues around the body and disordered eating?
Social media is toxic – when I was young (that’s a long time ago) the worst we had to deal with was the one “perfect” girl in our school year and because we actually knew her, it was possible to see her as a real person with other flaws. Today, every body we see is filtered and photoshopped into a notion of the ideal – an impossible ideal – we are forced to compare ourselves against something that doesn’t actually exist. The reason I share photos of my (almost) naked body on social media is to give an honest representation of a real ageing unfiltered body… but I also see women posting amazing images of themselves and powerful content that challenges the status quo. But, I curate my corner of social media carefully. I don’t follow celebrities, I don’t engage in the modelling world except for very specific companies and products and I’m old enough and confident enough to challenge unhelpful content. I can’t help but think that younger women may be more liable to be damaged by it all.
13) What are your opinions on ageism in the world of fashion? And how do you think ageism in fashion impacts people?
Mainstream fashion simply chooses not to show older bodies (a few years ago Zara did a shoot using models aged over 40 – it made headlines in industry – over 40 – FFS) in any realistic way, even when older models are used they are either botoxed beyond belief or super-celebrities. As older women we are expected to look at clothes being worn by 17 year olds and imagine ourselves in them. When the fashion industry does talk about older women it is often in the guise of styling advise – don’t wear bright colours/don’t wear animal print – chose timeless classics (safe and dull) – cover up or disguise the absolutely normal signs of ageing… it makes me very cross indeed.
14) You also promote slow fashion on your social media as opposed to fast fashion, can you explain what these terms mean and why slow fashion and pre-loved fashion are important to you?
Slow fashion in its simplest form means making mindful choices (and yes, I know there are social and class inequalities that can make that difficult). Keeping your clothes for a long time/mending rather than replacing/buying from companies that produce truly sustainable stuff/buying second hand rather than new. Really trying to avoid that want/click/get mentality. Fast fashion is one of the largest contributors to landfill/carbon footprint and terrible working conditions for the people who actually make it.
15) Is there anything in particular you think the media and social media could do to prevent contributing towards body image issues and eating disorders?
Well, for a start, let's not begin to weigh kids at school. Articles on celebrities about weight gain/loss really don’t help. The whole 'is your body bikini ready' just fuels body/weight anxiety…I could go on.
16) If someone is reading this today and is struggling with disordered eating, what would you like to say to them?
You are not a bad person, you are not weak, it is not failure to eat and to nurture your body, it is not failure to ask for help – although the level of actual help available for disordered eating is so bloody useless that there’s a good chance that you won’t get any help.
17) What is your biggest goal for yourself with regards to your mental health?
Don’t go mental. Re-enter a bit of modelling without going mental, that’s it really.
18) Do you believe people’s views and judgements around mental health issues, including eating disorders, can be changed through more awareness and speaking out?
Absolutely, and in my lifetime I’ve seen huge changes. I am hopeful – honest.
19) Where can people find you on social media to see your advocacy work and body positivity campaigning?
On Instagram @cathirae.
20) How do you feel after answering so many personal questions today?
I am the worlds slowest typist, but fuelled with espresso and Spotify I’m done and have realised how angry I am about so much of this.
Thank you so much Cathi Rae for doing this interview today and sharing so openly and honestly, both your own experiences and also your opinions on the subjects we set out to cover. You're amazing and an inspiration, making social media a safer place one honest word at a time. I can't wait to see you again at a gig, hopefully in the very near future.
If you are reading this today and you are struggling with your mental health in anyway, please reach out. See a doctor, speak to someone you trust, or you can go to the 'support' page on this website for a list of crisis resources, including Beat Eating Disorders : 0808 801 0677 or DM @beatedsupport on Instagram. If you use social media and you follow any accounts which impact your mental health negatively, please unfollow those accounts. We have to normalise looking out for our own best interests. Look after you, you are important.