“I really think of us as survivors”, Hadley Freeman’s new memoir Good Girls: A Story and Study of Anorexia states. And she isn’t wrong there. The 2023 autobiographical memoir explores Freeman’s struggles with anorexia nervosa from age 14 to 17, and subsequently with obsessive–compulsive disorder and addiction to cocaine.
In the book, published by Fourth Estate for HarperCollins, the former Guardian journalist writes candidly about her experiences, discussing the physical and emotional toll of the illness, as well as the discrimination that people with eating disorders face. She also writes about her recovery, which was a long and difficult process. What we discover is that her warped sense of self due to the eating disorder is like being sucked in a black hole – distorted and dangerous.
It’s important to note that these books contain personal experiences and may not be suitable for everyone. It’s always a good idea to check with a mental health professional before reading material that could be triggering.
Who is Hadley Freeman?
Hadley Freeman is an American-British journalist and author. She is a staff writer for The Sunday Times in the UK, and has previously written for The Guardian, Vogue, and New York magazine. She is the author of the books "Life Moves Pretty Fast" (2014) and "House of Glass" (2020). Freeman was born in New York City in 1978. She studied English at Cambridge University and then worked as a fashion journalist in Paris before moving to London to work for The Guardian. She had been a columnist for The Guardian since 2000, writing about a wide range of topics, including fashion, feminism, and pop culture. Freeman's writing has been praised for its wit, intelligence, and insight. She has won several awards for her work, including the British Society of Magazine Editors' Columnist of the Year award in 2014. In addition to her journalism, Freeman is also a novelist. Her first novel, "Life Moves Pretty Fast: The lessons we learned from eighties movies (and why we don't learn them from movies any more)," was published in 2014. The novel tells the story of a young woman who moves to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. The novel was a critical and commercial success, and was praised for its sharp wit and insightful portrayal of modern life. Freeman's second novel, "House of Glass," was published in 2020. The novel tells the story of a group of friends who are drawn into the world of fashion modelling. The novel was praised for its sharp wit and insightful portrayal of the fashion industry.
What is Hadley Freeman’s Good Girls about?
Freeman begins the book by describing her childhood in New York City. She was a bright and popular student, but she always felt like she didn’t quite fit in. When she was 14, her family moved to London, and she found it even harder to make friends. She began to feel like she was being judged for her appearance, and she started to restrict her food intake. It was here that her eating disorder quickly spiralled out of control. She became obsessed with her weight and appearance, and she began to exercise compulsively. She was hospitalised four times, but she was never able to fully recover.
This exploration into the dark, dim world of eating disorders showcases the real torment of living with an illness that is still often stigmatised. She talks about the lack of understanding, and how it is often equated with spoilt, rich girls and ‘heroin chic’ models. It is an uneasy and queasy read when you realise how much of her life is ironically consumed by thoughts of food – even though she spends much of it running away from eating. Where it falls short, however, is the lack of intersectional perspective, as Freeman naively writes about the rate of sufferers being mainly Caucasian.
Race and eating disorders
In the book, Freeman quotes Sarah McGovern, manager of an eating disorders ward, who says that people of colour who come to the clinic are a minority, “yet they do exist”. McGovern is quoted as saying: “‘The BAME girls and women who come in as in-patients battle with the stigma that this is a white and middle-class illness and it’s difficult for them'”.
Freeman then goes on to add that perhaps because of the stigma, studies have found that Caucasians with eating disorders are much more likely to seek out treatment than those from different backgrounds, so “a confirmation bias is established with doctors expecting eating disorders only in white patients.”
I can definitely confirm this. Growing up in a South Asian community meant that on the one hand for example, elder women would encourage feeding and eating as a form of reciprocal love, while at the same time criticising your figure and how “heavy” you may have looked. It is a no-win situation. According to a 2011 study by SIT Graduate Institute, the form of globalisation currently being experienced by India “does cause harm through the imposition of foreign beauty standards on Indian women.”
A YouGov poll commissioned by UK’s biggest eating disorder charity Beat found that nearly 4 in 10 (39%) of people believed eating disorders were more common amongst white people than other ethnicities. Yet clinical research has found that the illnesses are just as common or even more common among POC than white people.
Childhood eating disorders
And there is more to the book of course than this particular stance. Freeman talks about the different triggers that every survivor has to begin with, that pushes them down this road. For the writer, it was staying as a child – the real fear that she would no longer be that same person as before.
She writes: “I wanted to be suspended in time, a permanent child, skinny and scrappy, because that was how I felt safe, and so that’s how I stayed in my mind.” She describes this as ‘age dysphoria’, resisting womanhood, “by clinging to childhood”. It is here she straddles on the viewpoint of associating gender dysphoria in the same vein as age – which has been a contentious issue, with many disagreeing with the parallel.
Society has after all, always idealised young girls’ bodies, so it’s easy to forget how ugly and filled with shame so many young girls feel, and how desperate they are to escape themselves. The author explains that sometimes “you need to pretend to be someone else for a bit in order to accept yourself”.
What Hadley Freeman’s Good Girls says about anorexia and autism
Freeman says that as far back as the 1980s there was a theory that anorexia might be a female twist on autism. “Initially there was a lot of scepticism around this but recent studies are showing that among patients who have chronic anorexia, who don’t respond to treatment, as many as 30–35% have, not full-blown autism, but autism spectrum disorder,” says Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the Faculty of Eating Disorders at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
For the journalist, there is a clear connection between autism and anorexia: “the rigidity, the obsessiveness, the lack of realistic self-perspective, the retreat from the world.”
Professor Kate Tchanturia, Professor of Psychology in Eating Disorders at King’s College London and author of Supporting Autistic People with Eating Disorders said: “It’s mainly males who are diagnosed with autism, and it’s mainly females who are diagnosed with eating disorders. But females are very good at masking their autistic symptoms. They mimic, they repeat social rules, they can hide autistic features behind a façade. But then adolescence comes along and this can get trickier as social interactions become more complicated, which may then lead to anorexia.”
Other doctors say that symptoms of starvation can be mistaken for symptoms of autism: “There may be personality traits that get amplified with anorexia, including autistic ones. But if someone is operating at limited capacity because they starved themselves, interpreting their symptoms has to be done with caution,” says Professor Gerome Breen.
“Historically, as has been the case with pretty much all medical and psychiatric diagnoses, women have been inaccurately diagnosed, and the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder [ASD] is very much geared towards males. So there’s a popular theory that girls have been getting undiagnosed.” In Breen’s view, anorexia is a lot closer to obsessive–compulsive disorder than it is to autism.
Breen studies genetic factors in anorexia and says: “It seems obvious that anorexia has been seen through a sexist lens quite a lot, so there’s been a dismissal of observations about metabolic defects in patients.” In other words, doctors have been so fixed on the idea of silly girls and their silly body obsessions that they’ve overlooked a possible physiological factor.
Key takeaways from Hadley Freeman’s Good Girls:
Here are some of the themes that Freeman explores in the book:
- The pressure that society puts on girls and women to be thin
- The role that family and friends can play in supporting someone with an eating disorder
- The importance of seeking professional help for eating disorders
- The challenges of recovery from an eating disorder
In the end, Good Girls is still a powerful and moving book that provides a rare glimpse into the world of anorexia, and the complexities of mental health surrounding it. What the memoir shows is the horrific complexities of this under-researched condition, and the biases that continue to surround it, including the author’s own distorted perceptions.