Dying to get thin

By Harry van Versendaal

Jessica Villerius knows a thing or two about control. Having struggled with anorexia nervosa for about 10 years, the 29-year-old filmmaker from the Netherlands will tell you that the concept is central to understanding the demonic workings of this eating disorder. Starving yourself to death, she says, can give you a sense of control when other parts of your life are going wrong or simply seem too hard to deal with.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Only about 40 percent fully recover. Jessica is one of those – and she has taken her victory a step further, by making a documentary that aims to inform people about this lethal disease, while exposing the “war in the head” of the patients.

Her powerful 60-minute film “Facing Anorexia” (Vel over Probleem), which went as far as to prompt a change in Dutch state clinics’ treatment of the condition, is showing at the 2nd Ippokratis International Health Film Festival on Kos, at the Orpheas Municipal Theater, on Friday September 3, at 9 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.healthfilmfestival.gr.

What made you shoot this documentary?

I wanted to show the world the truth about this “sniper”-disease. It infiltrates your body at first (the urge to be thin) but becomes part of your mind in the end. It is so dangerous, because at that point it’s really difficult to get yourself together and recover. Your state of mind — after a long period of not eating and torturing your body — is so unhealthy, that you really need help from outside to recover. I wanted to show that this is indeed a deadly disease, and also very importantly, that it’s not a matter of choice. You simply don’t choose to have anorexia. It’s awful and torturing — something you would not wish for your worst enemy.

I have read that you are a former anorexia patient. Did making this documentary involve facing up to past demons or did the experience actually help you in making the movie?

Yes, I did a lot of catching up with old demons, something that I wasn’t really prepared for. I thought I had buried my grief. But watching the girls — I always call them “my” girls — suffer and struggle really opened up some old wounds. But in the end it was all worth it.

What are the main myths and misconceptions surrounding this disease?

Three things: that it is a choice, that it is about eating and that it is impossible to fully recover. All not true.

Are you in favor of legal measures such as banning too-skinny models from the catwalks, censoring photoshopped ads and closing down pro-anorexia websites?

No. I’m not one of those people who think that you can get ill by looking at pictures. Of course, young girls should be taught that they are beautiful just as they are, but let’s stay real: We also have to watch our kids not getting overweight. There is a middle ground. Closing down pro-ana sites is not the answer: Those kids will find each other anyway. An answer to that could be more information about the danger. Sounds corny but by shutting down those sites we do not solve the problem. You cannot get anorexia by just looking at the sites, you can get more in trouble by watching them. We should monitor these girls and offer them the right professional help.

Can media stereotypes actually incite anorexia or do they simply reflect and encourage an existing cause or trend?

I think they only reflect and encourage. Anorexia nervosa is a disease that is – partly — determined by genes.

A number of experts and former anorexia patients say that underneath the well-recorded psychological, biological and environmental reasons behind the disease, most of the causes can be traced to issues of control: Adolescent girls with poor self-esteem relish the sense of control that dieting gives them and refuse to stop. What is your opinion?

Totally true. It’s not about eating, calories or being thin. It is all about control. The only thing we have control over and is visible for the outside world, so that they can see your statement, is your weight and appearance. That’s it. It’s a way to show yourself and others that you are extremely unpleased with yourself or a situation.

Is there a turning point when anorexia sufferers actually realize that their psychological condition has become a physical one?

It’s the other way around. The first notable change is physical. The second is psychological. And that one is much more difficult to solve. But you have to worry about the first one first. Because if your body is not cooperating, your mind will eventually also let you down. And then… you loose. You need to get your mind straight in order to recover. When someone with anorexia decides not to die from this disease, she will recover. Most anorexics are extremely wilful and strong.

How easy was it for you to communicate with the patients interviewed in your film, given that they refuse to accept they have a problem?

Very easy. We speak the same language and it was simply impossible for them to lie to me – which is what they did to their parents and doctors.

Did the girls featuring in the documentary actually watch the film? How did they respond to it?

Yes, of course. I went up to them personally to watch it. It was very difficult for them, as they cannot look at their own bodies, let alone on screen. That’s why I have tremendous respect for these girls. They put their own sorrow aside to help others and that’s why I truly love them.

What has the overall response to your film been so far? Are you working on a new project?

It was amazing. It was in all newspapers, magazines and television shows in the Netherlands. It has been sold to eight countries now because it shows a pure look on anorexia. Our health system has been adjusted after the film.

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