Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 13-19 May 2019. The theme this year is Body Image, exploring how we think and feel about our bodies. In our latest Talking Heads feature, reporter Mimi Dickson spoke to Jennifer Leonforte, the director of SMHAF 2018 Official Selection But Honey, You Look Fine, and its subject Gabby, a young woman living with bulimia. The short documentary also examines the social conditioning that caused it to develop in the first place.

In May last year, as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, I had the opportunity to interview Jenn, a young director from Australia who had travelled to Glasgow to showcase her impressive and highly affective documentary But Honey, You Look Fine, and its subject Gabby. The short documentary incorporates themes of youth and womanhood but predominantly focuses on the manifestation and decline of Gabby’s mental health while experiencing an eating disorder. Chronicling their friendship from the impressionable age of twelve, when comparison and self-criticism were innocent games they played while bouncing on the trampoline, to their teenage years when they struggled with their body image and feelings of self-loathing.

The title alone is suggestive of our society’s fundamental lack of understanding surrounding eating disorders, which can result in apathy and judgement from those who cannot relate. It nods to the disconcerting flaw in current treatment plans in which a patient’s admittance to hospital is often judged by their BMI; they can be deemed “not thin enough” to qualify for medical intervention. We live in a world where social media transports us far further than our geographical boundaries so that we are overwhelmingly faced with ideals of what we could be and what we’re not, with little validation of who we are. We still know very little about the human brain, or what ultimately contributes to who we become. It was a great honour to ask Gabby and Jen about their opinions and experiences and I’m incredibly grateful for the openness and passion with which they answered my questions.

At the beginning of your documentary, there is a clip of you both as children, playfully discussing appearance and using the word ‘hot’. Do you feel now that you were exposed to this ideal of women being attractive for others at a very young age?

Gabby: We were absolutely exposed to adult concepts at a young age. When we were that young it just rolled off of our tongues because it’s what we (everyone) had grown up listening to; be it our parents, friends or social media. In saying that, I’ve never believed that mental illnesses could be caused by anything in the media, but it definitely has an influence and can very well be the trigger for impressionable young people.

Jenn: It’s hard to pin point when any ideal, stereotype or representation was introduced to us. It all comes down to exposure and language which is heavily dependent on your socio-economic class and the education you receive but I do think beauty ideals impact everyone, regardless of who you are and where you come from. When you’re born you’re essentially a sponge, and everything that happens around us helps us form an understanding of the society we live in. From day dot, particularly in the media (films, television and advertising) women are rated primarily on their sexual appeal to men. I found that even growing up queer, I still based my value on how much I could attract a man. It was a social dynamic so deeply entrenched in our understanding of the world that we actually believed it to be the natural order.

Gabby, how much of a psychological impact do you think, in hindsight, this had in the manifestation of your illness?

Gabby: It was essentially the root of my illness and has even helped shape my personality. I can’t go half a day without comparing myself to every girl in the room and thinking where I am on the scale of 1-10. I can be told by anyone that looks aren’t everything and as much as I’d like to believe that, deep down, it’s something I deal with on a daily basis.

Gabby, your illness took root at a very tender age. You mention triggers around the age of 7 and that by 11 you were looking up ways to diet. The documentary shows you both being critical of one another and judgemental from early on. Do you think, on reflection, this will affect how you speak around your children, nephews and nieces etc in the future and in what way?

Gabby: I love this question; I constantly ask myself whether even having children is something I can do because of how badly I don’t want them to experience what I went through. I’m absolutely terrified of what might happen if they inherit this gene. I think back to my mum and how she never ever wanted any of this for me but a lot of it actually came from her despite her giving me all the love in the world. I’m so scared that some days it’s enough for me to decide on not having or wanting children at all. However, I love kids and always make an effort to give encouragement at all times because you just never know what might be going on in their mind.

Do you think much about the debate of nature vs. nurture, and if so what are your overriding feelings on this?

Gabby: I believe that genetics and genetics only can cause an eating disorder but that your surroundings definitely have a part to play when it comes to triggering it.

Jenn: I’m in two minds; I’m a big believer in destiny and fate. Gabby and I both believe that as awful as the experience was, it was essential for her in order to better understand herself. Fighting her particular demons now gives Gabby her strength. She always described it as inevitable, remembering her first thought of dieting from the age of five. Interestingly, her Grandmother, whom she never met, suffered with very similar issues and passed away when Karen was only 18. A lot of research is coming out pointing to the inheritance of mental health illnesses and eating disorders.

I believe that the relationship Gabby and her family had with food, and the language around body image and eating had a massive impact in the way Gabby’s mental illnesses manifested. The predisposition to mental illness may have been in Gabby’s DNA but whether or not it was specifically an eating disorder is hard to determine. The world we live in contributed without a doubt, you only need to read the statistics on eating disorders and scroll through Instagram to figure that one out.

What advice would you have to give to other people like Jenn and Jamus (Gabby’s boyfriend) and your Mum, trying to support someone they love that is suffering from an eating disorder?

Gabby: The only advice that I can give here is to just be patient and give them your absolute unconditional love.

Jenn, what was the best and worst part of making the documentary? What did you most want to achieve, and did you have a specific audience?

Jenn: There were a lot of worst parts. Primarily the research and media gathering process prior to production; I read through the past 10 years of Facebook conversations and watched hours of camera footage from when we were younger. I was gutted and battled a lot of guilt from what I was reminded of, which Gabby refused to tolerate explaining that we were as bad as each other. But I should have seen the signs, I should have gone to a professional or her parents but my loyalty to her and her secrets kept me from protecting her. She spoke about suicide from such an early age. It’s important to remind yourself that it isn’t your responsibility to make those choices for your friends, like I say in the documentary, all you can do is be there for them and show them love.

The interviewing process took a large toll on all the crew as we’ve all been touched by mental illness in one way or another. We weren’t prepared to protect ourselves from the way the content could trigger us and if I could go back, I’d make sure we had appropriate safety measures for the crew.

The initial goal of the documentary was to use a very familiar method of filmmaking as a mediator for the difficult conversation about what really happened. We started developing the idea whilst she was still in in-patient care; we’re both so emotionally closed off that it was hard to talk about. The documentary was a way to bring Gabby and I closer, as well as to encourage understanding by her Mother and family. For Gabby, I knew processing everything and reflecting on her illness would be therapeutic and I hoped it would lead her back to Therapy. Instead, I discovered that everyone heals differently, and therapy isn’t the answer for everyone.

The audience, at first, was Gabby. Now, I realise how familiar her story is to a lot of young people, of all genders. We all remember being that problematic age, instigating a conversation about where our mental health problems come from and how can we save our youth from suffering the same consequences. I’d like it to be used as a tool in schools and for mental health organisations in the future.

I got a strong sense of the cruel irony of recovery from an illness like bulimia. You talk about feeling guilty and ‘not helping yourself’ but bulimia is an illness that you did not choose and should not feel responsible for (although inevitably you do). Would you say though that you must ‘choose’ to recover, is it a case of having to make a choice every day of self care and love?

Jenn: I liken the choice to recovering as similar to looking at a blank piece of paper and figuring out how to start an essay. It’s one of the most painful experiences as everything inside you yearns to keep giving up and not trying, but there’s almost this dying flame inside your soul that’s fighting to stay alive. It’s a constant tug of war with yourself. It’s an every day struggle for self care and self love, for both Gabby and I.

Do you agree that recovery from an eating disorder can contribute to a fear of ‘being well’? What would you say to other people who are trapped in a horrible cycle of the illness that you wish someone had said to you?

Jenn: This is a fantastic question. You’ve nailed it. For a lot of mental illnesses that result in a lack of self care, a very real fear of ‘being well’ is usually the last hurdle that you tackle before starting the journey of recovery. I feel like I’ve walked a thousand mile journey to come face to face with this brick wall and all it is, is fear. A fear of being well.

I have no idea what anyone could have said to have stopped what Gabby and I went through. The sicker your physical body is, the more susceptible and starved your brain is. You need your physical health so that your brain can function as it needs to, to fight a mental illness. It’s easier said than done, especially for someone who doesn’t want to fight. It’s the eternal paradox with mental illnesses. Don’t try and change it all at once. Find a small loop in the cycle and change something small, then let the dominoes fall.

Jenn, what has been the hardest thing about seeing someone you love go through such a terrible and unforgiving illness? What have you learnt most about yourself?

Jenn: Guilt and Frustration. You wish you could have stopped it, that they could just get better and be happy; you feel like tearing your hair out. The hardest part was knowing that my own mental illness in high school stopped me from being the supportive friend Gabby needed. My depression made me selfish and we were no longer there for each other like we should have been. One of the biggest things I’ve learnt, is that the process of recovery can only come from yourself. You can’t make anyone do something they don’t want to do-their heart won’t be in it. They don’t want your Aunt’s life advice, they don’t want your friend’s well-being tips, they don’t want you to tell them that their self harm makes you sad. They just need a shoulder, love and support, and a pillow to fall back on when eventually they have the strength to start climbing.

Finally, what inspired the title, But Honey, You Look Fine?

Jenn: A relative had arrived at the hospital uninvited and didn’t have the fundamental understanding of Gabby’s mental illness and eating disorder. She couldn’t understand why Gabby was in hospital, and please use Gabby’s recollection of what she actually said, but it was essentially “you don’t look anorexic, you’re not too skinny, you look fine. You don’t need to be here.” She said to her, “but Honey, you look fine.” It was so distressing for Gabby to be so misunderstood, especially by a relative. To be told that there was nothing wrong with her, when she knew in herself there was. From the moment the documentary was conceived, But Honey, You Look Fine has been its name. In the first pitch, they thought it was weak but when told of its significance, no one said another word.

Click here to find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week. Click here to read the Mental Health Foundation report on Body Image

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.