From body dysmorphia to activism


Photo: Supplied

Ella Arendelle created and performs in “Wellness: A social justice play”

When I sat down to talk to Ella Arendelle about a play she had written, I had no idea of the glimpse I would get into the life of a fat person. I knew her show was semi-autobiographical before I saw it the first time and I was moved to tears when I saw it the second time. When I walked out of the theatre, I couldn’t leave the characters behind and was intrigued about what Ella’s real-life story was and what prompted her to write the show.

Ella is an artist, a performer and the writer of Wellness: A Social Justice Play which closed a national tour earlier this year. Ella is also, loudly and proudly, a fat activist. Her play is the story of Alana and the discrimination she faces as a fat person. Described as brave and confronting, the show shines a light on fatism and acts as a conduit for conversations about fat phobia.

The decision to use the word ‘Wellness’ in the title of her play was a very well-considered one.

“We called our fat issue play Wellness because one of my favourite micro aggressions that I get against me and people like me is that thin people say that they’re just worried about my health. Health is such a hilarious euphemism for ‘not fat’ and wellness is such a buzzword and a euphemism for ‘health’ that we liked taking that extra satirical step away from fat and called it Wellness which…encompasses health at every size and mental health and…societal cultural health as well.”

Ella as a child. Being told to constantly suck in her tummy, she believed she was enormous. (Photo: Supplied)

“The thing with fat people is that most fat people haven’t been fat all of their life.” 

One of the societal cultural health issues Ella is referring to is the body positivity movement which centres around the idea that there is no ‘normal’ body and that no matter what shape or size you are, you should feel positive about it. But Ella does not subscribe to being body positive as she doesn’t believe the movement to be as inclusive as it claims.

“If your body positivity doesn’t include supersize fat people…then I don’t care about your body positivity,” she said. Instead, she is interested having a broader conversation

“I’m really keen to talk about people who need size 32 because I’ve never seen one in a single shop. So let’s talk about that.”

Rather than body positive, Ella prefers to refer to herself as a fat liberationist – a role she takes on passionately. “I only care about liberating fat people from oppression and if it turns out that in my lifetime fat people are treated with respect…then yeah, let’s talk about body positivity. But until that day, the marginalised people need your help more than greater society needs your body positivity crap”.

Ella hasn’t always been fat and believes this is true of most fat people. It was only seven years ago that her body finally caught up to the size she had always thought she had been. She describes that period in her life as returning home.

“It was like coming home at the end of a really long day and you kick your shoes off and this is just home now. It wasn’t even relief; it was just home. And it was after that point where I started to feel at home in my skin, that was when I could start to…fix some of the damage I had done to myself…over the years.”

When Ella was a small child, she clearly remembers a time she was told that her tummy stuck out although she says it didn’t upset her and said, “It was just true as far as I could tell.” She says throughout her life she has constantly been told to suck in her tummy or to stand differently and make her body take up less space leading her to suppose she was much bigger than she actually was.

Ella now believes that as a child she had Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) – albeit undiagnosed.

According to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, BDD is a mental health disorder wherein a person believes their physical appearance is defective or flawed and changes their behaviour in relation to the perceived defect. BDD is not always associated with weight although this is a common misconception.

Clinical psychologist Ben Buchanan is leading the world’s largest neuro-imaging study into BDD. In a recent paper he states that BDD affects approximately 2.3% of Australians. He says it is “more common than schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa combined.” Unfortunately BDD is under-diagnosed due to its invisible nature – many individuals with BDD present as having other mental disorders including social phobia and depression.

Indeed, BDD sufferer Kurtis Chrisafulli believes that a major reason it is invisible is because he and other sufferers simply know that the so called defective perceptions of themselves are accurate.

“I don’t know which of my beliefs are dysfunctional. I can’t know that.”

Tabitha Blair has also struggled with BDD for most of her life and although she has an awareness that her perception of herself is probably inaccurate, she says there’s nothing she can do about it.

“I’m not unintelligent. I study medicine. I understand these disorders. I don’t know why it’s happening to me. I’m smart enough to know it’s not normal but I just can’t fix it.”

Tabitha agrees that BDD is under-diagnosed but understands that sufferers might be reluctant to seek out a diagnosis.

“When you put a label on it, it’s a lot worse than when…you’ve just kind of cottoned on in your own brain. That’s the same with a lot of mental disorders. It’s a…harsher reality, I think, when you’ve got an official medical opinion on it.”

Unlike Ella and Kurtis, Tabitha does have an official medical opinion on her disorder – albeit one she didn’t seek out.

“I was a bag of bones and I ended up in hospital. It almost killed me,” she said.

Western Australia’s Centre for Clinical Interventions trains medical professionals to deliver effective treatment and notes there are strategies including avoidance and substance abuse that people experiencing BDD implement in order to protect themselves.

One strategy Kurtis implemented was relying on alcohol. “I used to drink a lot. I was a functional alcoholic for 15 years and that certainly made [the BDD] more manageable,” he said.

The Centre for Clinical Interventions points out that these avoidance strategies can lead to the worsening of symptoms. This was certainly the case for Kurtis – after five years of heavy drinking he said he began to realise just how unappealing he was so he began withdrawing from society about ten years ago and still actively avoids most social interactions. “I stopped going to parties years ago because parties are for beautiful people and I do not belong there. It’s just not something I do anymore. I don’t go to social gatherings because I can’t,” he said.

This type of social withdrawal is, according to Dr Ben Buchanan, one of many reasons why BDD is difficult to diagnose. An underlying problem leading to social phobia may well be BDD however many health professionals may not be aware that BDD exists.

Ella was receiving negative comments about her body from about the age of five and says that, with the benefit of hindsight, she is not surprised that she interpreted being told her tummy was sticking out and that she was too tall meant that she was enormous.

Ella’s body dysmorphia still catches her unawares from time to time but she appreciates that her path to activism has been an easier one than the roads others have had to travel. It is for these people and for every fat person in our society, that she will continue fighting for liberation and social justice.