Early on Friday morning I received a distressing message on Twitter from a former member of staff at one of my previous schools, alerting me to the news that was splashed all over the UK press, and on the front page of the Daily Mail: the inquest into the death of Georgia Willson-Pemberton. The coroner established that Georgia, aged just 26, had died of multiple organ failure in December after a battle with anorexia that had culminated in her taking an overdose of laxatives. This had caused “irreparable damage” to her digestive organs; her body could take no more, and she collapsed and died.
Our time at Heathfield School in Ascot â€“ she as pupil, I as Headmistress – coincided. At school, Georgia was a perfectly normal girl – mostly happy (in the way that teenagers only ever are ‘mostly’ happy – a necessary part of this period of transition) and very accomplished on the sports field and ski slopes. I knew her during her early to mid teens, and I developed a soft spot for her – largely because, as most entrepreneurial thinkers are, she was always in one scrape or another, and so ended up spending plenty of time explaining herself to me and promising never to do it again. She earned the praise and friendship of her peers, and was made Head Girl (after my time). By all accounts, she ended her school years on a high.
Georgia possessed a strong strain of self-doubt, however, as achievers in this society – especially girls and women – often do, and this, combined with her innate determination to succeed, will not have helped her as in later years she developed the mental illness that is anorexia. The coroner noted that this had happened in 2008, while she was studying for a degree in international marketing at the European Business School in London, and from this point onwards, her life – and that of her family – became consumed by the disease. People underestimate anorexia – they dismiss it as faddishness about food, but as the National Eating Disorders Collaboration in Australia explains, “Anorexia Nervosa is a serious and potentially life threatening mental illness. A person with Anorexia Nervosa has not made a ‘lifestyle choice’; they are actually very unwell and need help.”
There are many reasons why people develop anorexia – and in fact, it is usually a complex and very personal mix of genetic pre-disposition, trauma, social factors, and the psychological need to control. There is no doubt, however, that our culture of thinness, and pressure on women to look, act and be in certain ways, can be a contributing factor. This pressure can have devastating consequences. In a case in the West of England last year, the coroner reporting on the suicide of a 14 year old girl, who developed an eating disorder, the coroner was blunt and to the point: “I do ask for magazines that trade in the fashion industry to stop publishing photographs of wafer thin girls. For their vanity families like this suffer.”
And yet, this culture surrounds our young people. These messages are reinforced at every street corner, in every magazine, a hundred times over in adverts on TV, or pop-ups online. It is part of the air that they breathe; they are conditioned to think not only that that thin is good, but that without thin there can be no good. These expectations are so pervasive that they are often unchallenged – they are our ‘normal’, and this is intensely dangerous and deeply, deeply wrong. Studies have shown that the body shape typically modelled to young people can only be physically achieved by 5% of our population; the rest will struggle in vain, in an unnecessary battle that if not challenged can only ever lead them to feelings of inadequacy and failure that will debilitate them. Throughout history, people have led happy and successful lives regardless of their shape and size; why – other than for commercial reasons – have we created a body-obsessed society that suggests otherwise?
It is our collective responsibility to dismantle this facade, or at least to place it in the perspective that it warrants. Life is not all about appearance; it is about who we are, and what we contribute. Schools, parents, leading figures in society … we must all take up this cause and seek to make a difference. We cannot all cure mental illness, although thankfully we have professionals in our society who can do this in many cases, even if tragically not in Georgia’s. We can though, all of us, most certainly work towards highlighting and taking apart the pernicious toxic expectations of young people that are currently rarely challenged in our society. Our young people deserve the opportunity to be able to breathe freely, to be able to be themselves, and to be released from the immense pressure that forces them to conform physically, and doubt themselves hugely. We owe it to them to take up this cause.
Georgia Willson-Pemberton. Died but not forgotten.