A YOUNG Armagh woman is challenging perceptions and attitudes to eating disorders through a series of bold photographs, despite battling bureaucracy and serious complications as a result of the illness.
Felicity McKee, working with photographer Debbie Deboo for the Chronically Fabulous campaign, appears in photographs in which she is held by silk ropes and gold chains showing her frustration and anguish.
The 25-year-old is still struggling with an illness that has seen her in hospital eight times since the start of the year including at least one life-threatening admission.
It is believed that there can be as many as 45,000 people in Northern Ireland suffering from an eating disorder, of those 40,000 are female and 5,000 are male.
For Felicity she says taking part in the photo shoot was a cathartic experience.
“I think in part it was an act of defiance,” she said. “But it was really an expression of frustration at stereotypes but is also about services in Northern Ireland.”
Felicity first realised she was sick aged 16 but it wasn’t until she approached 18 that people began drawing their attention to her weight and eating habits.
“Despite being obviously ill I didn’t get a great reception initially with comments from health professionals usually revolving around my weight not being apparently low enough, or me not looking ill enough or ‘skeletal’ enough to qualify for treatment” she explained.
“This approach from health professionals meant that I didn’t realise how sick I really was when I was finally admitted for weight restoration, because I had been led to believe that you had to ‘look’ a certain way to be ill. It was very wrong.
“Even when weight restored I was still ill with an eating disorder because the thoughts and feelings remained but I left hospital with people assuming I was well again because I didn’t look how they believed those with an eating disorder would look.
“One nurse once told me I was fine and how others would kill to have my health, this was after I had been so ill in A&E that my life had been at risk. I wouldn’t wish this health on anyone, so while it hadn’t killed me that time, with each admission I’m told that it is a miracle it hasn’t yet.”
Felicity has felt so desperate at times that she has contemplated not letting doctors treat her.
“There are times when I’ve debated signing a do not resuscitate because waking up to having an eating disorder is hellish and I don’t think the risk of death from it has ever truly scared me,” she said
For photographer Debbie taking the photographs was important for her as well as Felicity.
“The shoot was supposed to reflect the frustration both of us feel at the lack of public understanding and medical help with the illnesses we both have,” she said
“I have M.E. and had to give up my teaching career, which is why I do photography now. I’ve more or less been left to manage my own illness.
“Felicity and I work together on shoots such as this because we are both in tune with each others frustrations and feelings since they are similar.”
Being bounced around the health system and at one point classified as homeless has led Felicity to consider how things can be improved, including training
“Front line staff are sometimes the first person those with an eating disorder will encounter and this needs to be a positive experience so that they can access the specialist treatment.
“If they are dismissed out of hand or ignored there is a risk for things to get worse and escalate and as anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any eating disorder.
“If there was proper training it would filter down and the impact would be positive across the board for both patient and health care staff, improve outcomes and could potentially help save money in the long run if people were able to get early intervention.”
See more from the Chronically Fabulous team at www.facebook.com/chronicallyfabulousNI.
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CREDITS – The Chronically Fabulous Team
Debbie Deboo (photographer, admin and co founder)
Felicity McKee (admin and co founder)
Steve Cullen (photographer)
Geri Nolan (make up)
Jackie McKeown (make up)
Shauna Clarke (hair)
Denise Quinn (stylist)
Val Scantlebury (hospitality)
Donna Stewart (make up)
Emma Gilles (hair)